- Contributed by
- Harold Pollins
- People in story:
- Various (un-named) American troops
- Location of story:
- Bamber Bridge, near Preston, Lancashire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 February 2005
There were many stories about black American troops in Britain. I remember hearing allegations of the sexual promiscuity of British girls with black American troops, in particular, at Bristol and Nottingham but I daresay there were similar stories of their supposed activity in other towns and cities. But one also heard of the discrimination within the American army, of the fact of segregated units and of actual conflicts, off-duty, between white and black troops.
There was a brief reference to one such incident in the autobiography of the writer Anthony Burgess. He published a great deal, most notoriously the book which was later filmed, A Clockwork Orange. The autobiography is called Little Wilson and Big God, Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess. Just after the war he got a job as a lecturer at a college near Preston in Lancashire, at Bamber Bridge, one of the post-war teacher training institutions which provided accelerated training for ex-service people. The college was in a place which had housed American troops during the war. I was interested in this and I wondered whether this was the same location where I had attended an army course at the end of the war to enable me to became a Local/Paid Sergeant for the post-war educational scheme in the army. (See my ‘VE-Day in Preston’ A2100637).
I thought I would try and find if the American camp was the same as the place of my course and of Burgess’s college. I tried the Internet inserting “Bamber Bridge” and among the various entries I was surprised to find one website called ‘Bamber Bridge, Lancashire Swingers. The Leading UK Swingers Club’ (no apostrophe in ‘Swingers’). A pity I had no knowledge of that in 1945 and I was disappointed that I was unable to get the answer to my question about the site of my army college..
Burgess wrote this: ‘In 1943 there had been the Battle of Bamber Bridge, well remembered, though it never got into the official chronicles of the war. Black soldiers had barricaded the camp against the whites and trained machine guns on them. The Brigg [the local name for Bamber Bridge] was totally black in sentiment. When the US military authorities had demanded that the pubs impose a colour bar, the landlords had responded with “Black Troops Only”.’
This brief reference is intriguing but does not tell us much. Fortunately there is a full account in a magazine called After the Battle, a journal which is devoted to research into WWII although with the special feature that comparisons are made with the places looked at the time of doing the research, thus explaining the ‘Then and Now‘ characteristics of the magazine. It has been published quarterly since the early 1970s and the article on Bamber Bridge was in Number 22, 1978.
The article’s title, ’The Mutiny at Bamber Bridge’, is prefaced by a heading ’Crime in WWII’. It is by Dr Ken Werrell, then a Professor of History at Radford College, Virginia, but more recently a military defence analyst at the Airpower Research Institute in the USA. As expected of an academic the research is meticulous, involving his looking at contemporary reports and the records of the two subsequent trails about the incident. There were also interviews with survivors including British witnesses and he also went to Bamber Bridge with his son to traverse the relevant streets and to photograph the various locations, thus living up to the magazine’s ‘then and now’ approach, the ‘now’ being the early 1970s. The piece was published originally in 1975 in the Aerospace Historian magazine and had been updated by the editor of After The Battle.
The ’mutiny’ took place on 23 and 24 June 1943 and involved some of the black American troops who were stationed at Adams Hall in Bamber Bridge, essentially a collection of army huts. This was the location of US Eighth Army Air Force Station 569 which consisted of a number of Quartermaster Truck Companies. As might be expected the trouble began in what was otherwise a trivial matter. Two white Military Policemen (henceforth MPs), having been advised that there was trouble at the Old Hob Inn, went to investigate. It was just after 10 pm, closing time, and the barmaid had just refused a drink to the several black soldiers in the pub, who were there along with a number of British soldiers and civilians. The MPs tried to arrest one of the black soldiers who was improperly dressed and had no pass, the soldier refused and a crowd surrounded the two policemen. Some of the Britons in the crowd verbally supported the black troops and the whole thing escalated. As far as the MPs were concerned the black troops looked threatening and aggressive and probably were. One of the MPs drew his gun when a soldier advanced on him with a bottle in his hand. The MPs left and a bottle was thrown hitting the windscreen of their jeep.
The soldiers then began walking to Adams Hall, followed by three ATS girls. The MPs having got reinforcements returned to the walking soldiers, there was a confrontation ending with a fight, bottles and cobble-stones being thrown. A policeman fired a shot to stop one of them throwing a cobble-stone, another shot was fired hitting one of the blacks in the neck. Another policeman also fired. The crowd dispersed. The blacks went to Adams Hall and the MPs went for reinforcements. Rumours then spread at Adams Hall that blacks had been shot in the back and that the MPs were gunning for blacks. Up to 200 men then formed a crowd in the area of Adams Hall and some blacks, carrying rifles, tried to get back into Bamber Bridge but the situation was calmed by the unit’s sole black officer, a 2Lt, who convinced the men that the (white) senior officers would listen to their grievances.
But about midnight about a dozen police arrived in ‘a makeshift armoured vehicle’, complete with a machine gun. This convinced some or possibly many of the black soldiers that the police were going to kill them and they armed themselves with rifles. Werrell describes the scene as two-thirds of the rifles in the stores were seized by the black soldiers; some stayed in the camp; others believed they were defending the camp; another group ‘took more direct action, and, as the MPs moved off, someone fired at them.
British residents testified that there was firing that night in Bamber Bridge and it became known that shots were fired at the MPs who returned fire. Four soldiers were wounded and one black soldier was killed. One British resident said that the firing went on until 3 am. One black soldier had bruises, and two MPS had, respectively, a broken nose and a broken jaw.
There were two trials. The first was at another American Army base at Chorley, south of Bamber Bridge. Four of those involved in the initial brawl were charged with various offences and were found guilty. Three were sentenced to 3-4 years’ hard labour and dishonourable discharges; the fourth to two and a half year’s hard labour. On review the sentence on the fourth was overturned.
The second trial took place at Eighth Army Air Force Headquarters at Bushy Park, Tedidngton. One of the men convicted at the first trial along with the man who was acquitted were among the 35 accused of mutiny, seizing arms, rioting, firing upon officers and MPs, ignoring orders and failing to disperse. Seven were found not guilty, and the remainder received prison sentences from 3 months to fifteen years. Seven men received sentences of twelve years or more. But the President of the court martial made an immediate plea for clemency, arguing that there had been an appalling lack of discipline at the camp and poor leadership with officers failing to perform their duties properly. His views were accepted by higher authority and all sentences were reduced. A year later 15 of the men were restored to duty, and six others had their sentences reduced to one year. The longest period served was 13 months. Opinions on the fairness of the trial varied. Some thought it a kangaroo court with the defence being poorly prepared and performed; others thought that the board bent over backwards to be fair. It could be argued that the sentences were very light considering they had been charged with mutiny in wartime.
There were some positive outcomes of the whole affair. All field officers (majors, Lt-Colonels and colonels) of black units were replaced and many junior officers were weeded out. There were also improvements in such matters as leave arrangements and for the provision of racially mixed MP patrols. But, the author notes, there was still trouble in various parts of England. In September 1943 some blacks wounded two MPs in Cornwall; in October 1943 some black troops faced a court martial for mutines and attempted murder at Paignton, Devon; in February 1944 there was serious fighting between black and white troops at Leicester; and on October 5 1944, the wife of a licensee was killed in the cross-fire between black and white troops near Newbury, Berkshire.
But the article by Werrell does not throw any light on Burgess’s statement that the publicans in Bamber Bridge (there were three pubs) issued a ‘Black troops only’ notice and he was wrong to say that the black troops had armed themselves with machine guns.
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