Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Look out, the Americans are here!

Sky's the limit: an American WW1 airman
The British are famous for their chippy complaint about American servicemen during the Second World War: 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' But from what I've seen in my research, the same was true a generation earlier when Americans arrived in Britain during the First World War.

Many passed through on their way to France in 1917 and 1918 and some were stationed in the UK. Among them were airmen of the 822nd (Repair) Squadron who spent two months at a Royal Flying Corps base at Yate, north of Bristol, receiving instruction in aircraft repair.

One of them, Corporal Ned Steel, later wrote a history of the squadron which reveals just how exasperatingly full of themselves the Americans could be. Greeted by cheering crowds on their arrival, he wrote: 'Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

During their sea crossing to Liverpool, the Americans had already amused themselves by poking fun at the British, especially the way every second word seemed to be 'bloody'...

'The bloody ship had been in hospital service beween the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was the first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship,' was how Steel summed up one sergeant's potted history of the ship they were sailing in. 

The food couldn't be taken seriously either: 'My Gosh! fish for breakfast?'

When the airmen boarded their train to Bristol there were more smirks. 'A squad to each compartment on our funnny looking coaches, we started across 'Merry Old England', the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed.'

But as the carriages trundled through the countryside, Steel was taken aback what he saw: 'What a beautiful green grasses covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...ivyclad farm roofs...everything clean and tidy...for once even the Californians were mum [silent].'

Once settled in at Yate, the visitors had to get used to the famous British Army disipline - polished boots and buttons, rigid respect for superiors, and the purposeful way all men walked whether they were on or off duty. At drill each morning, the NCO's indecipherable barked instructions caused high amusement. 'The Tommies understood, however, and executed every movement with a snap, and unison was nothing short of perfection,' wrote Steel.

Local girls swarmed around the Americans
There was also reluctant admiration for the British way of working. 'Swinging the lead' (taking it easy) was quite universal in the workshops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there.'

Local girls swarmed around the Americans, who loved the attention - especially when it put the Tommies' noses out of joint. Steel still couldn't resist a sly dig though: 'The girls complimented us on our fine teeth, and we could not return the compliment.'

But however patronising the Americans could be, Steet made it clear that he, at least was aware of their shortcomings. How did the Tommies view a typical Yank? 'As tho' he owned the world' he admitted!

  • You can read more about the Americans in Britain during WW1 in both my books: 'Bristol In the Great War' is being published in July 2014, and Letters From The Trenches' is due out at Christmas 2014.

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