- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Ringham
- Location of story:
- Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 November 2004
In 1942 the American Army arrived.
We were used to seeing forces from contintental Europe in our streets; Dutch soldiers in British uniform with a flash on their upper arms saying ‘Free Dutch Army’, Polish pilots, Belgian squaddies, Danes and so on. Late in the war when Italy had thrown in its lot with the Allies, I saw an Italian officer from a nearby P.O.W. camp. He was wearing brightly polished boots and riding breeches, a much gold-leafed hat and he was riding an errand boys delivery bike down the Promenade with self-aware style. All these were soon to be greatly outnumbered by GIs.
A clue to what was about to happen came when it was rumoured that a group of American officers had been taken round the town and shown hotels they could have. They chose most of the best ones. In due course thousands of American troops arrived. Cheltenham was now the headquarters of their Services of Supply. They also set up a hospital in the hills just outside the town. Wounded GIs were later sent here and we became very familiar with the Purple Heart Medal ribbon on their jackets. Apparently any American soldier who was wounded in combat received it.
The centre of Cheltenham was always full of U.S. troops. Saturday night dances at the Town Hall became a Mecca for them picking up the excited English girls delighted with gifts of silk stockings and make up and chewing gum from young homesick men with pockets full of money. On Sunday mornings, all around the Town Hall, there were impressive piles of used condoms.
Every Cheltonian came to know an American on a personal level, there were so many of them. In any case many American officers had been billeted in a number of houses around the town. But it wasn’t an easy situation.
Behind the Town Hall and in front of the stately Queen’s Hotel were the Imperial Gardens. It was probably the Parks Department’s pride. Carefully cut, weedless lawn between flower beds full of immaculately designed patterns of colour it was always impressively beautiful in the spring and summer. In the late thirties The Daily Mirror Eight had performed on that grass; healthy, lissom girls gliding through wholesome motions, demonstrating perfect bodies. The whole area was a square of fine Regency houses, with each side of the square some two to three hundred yards long. The U.S. Army took it over as a lorry park. Within a week or two it was a mud bath. The town was already beginning to look forlorn, like a dowager dame in need of more and more make-up. Imperial Gardens now emerged as a large wart on her chin. Sedate Cheltenham tightened its upper lip a notch or two.
The few British forces about in the town at that time were usually older men in their late twenties and early thirties. Most of their younger colleagues were fighting in North Africa or Burma. The young Americans were fresh, able to spend more money and had not been blooded in battle. Of course there were antagonisms. The sardonic phrase of the time was: ‘They’re overpaid, over-sexed and over here.’ It smacks of a bitterness which is probably accurate. And it is unfair. All of them could wish to be back home again. Had they any clear idea of what they were doing in a part of the world they knew little about and about which they cared less? Yet those that found themselves invited into Cheltenham homes often formed lifelong friendships. And they had a carefree generosity both of material things and of spirit. How could they be attracted to a jaded, war weary genteel town like Cheltenham?
The antogonisms remained.
There were always many American troops in the town walking the streets or driving about in Jeeps. Whenever the air raid sirens sounded it was wise to keep an eye on them. They packed into Jeeps and drove exceedingly fast back to their camps in the Cotswolds. The ungenerous among Cheltonians saw it as gutless –get out quick before the bombs fall; others said they probably had anti-aircraft batteries to man and needed to get to them, fast. Whatever the real reason there was certainly more chance of being hit by an American vehicle than being killed by a bomb.
At weekends the pubs were full and hardly surprisingly large numbers of GI drunks. The American Military Police patrolled the town and more than once I saw brutality which shocked me. GIs were literally thrown like a sack of potatoes into vehicles. From my own experience in later years when I was conscripted I’ve seen violent behaviour from our own troops. But I’ve never seen such casual indifference and dehumanisation. And I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive.
The American presence intruded into all our lives, even within our school. Right next door to our entrance was a hotel. This was filled with entirely black troops. Before the war it was a rare sight to see a black man in Cheltenham. The only exoticism we could boast was a Chinese family running a laundry. Seeing black GIs daily as we came and went from school was quite exciting. Some we came to know and we exchanged greetings. Then came the day when the head announced that that afternoon we were to be entertained by the black troops next door.
I don’t want to do the Head an injustice. He was a good decent man. Of course I don’t know for sure what he thought they were going to present to us but at a guess I think he had spirituals in mind and fine deep basses like Paul Robeson’s. It wasn’t quite like that.
The first thing that greeted us was a jazz band of eight or nine players. Bear in mind that jazz was not really a Good Thing at the time. We’d never heard anything like it. It was terrific. The vitality was inspiring and the joie de vivre overwhelming. The band played off and on over the next two hours interspersed with comedians: ‘Joe feeds off applause. Let’s give him a sandwich.’ There were some singers and the whole show was a joy. The poor Head rose slowly to his feet when the master of ceremomies finally said something about giving a great hand to the man who had made all this possible. But it wasn’t the Head he meant and he slowly subsided back into his seat. Poor man. Even so it was a wonderful, exciting afternoon and the goodwill generated amongst the boys and the GIs as we passed each other subsequently was warm and friendly.
There was a highly prejudiced joke going around at the time: ‘I like the Americans except those white ones they brought with them.’ Certainly a lot of good was done that afternoon for both sides. Rather better, in fact, than a subsequent Soviet delegation to the school. It was probably in late 1943 or early 1944 when the U.S.S.R. was very much our ally and suffering terrible losses of all kinds as the Wehrmacht advanced. The senior sixth gave them a very rough time. I was ignorant of politics then and I couldn’t understand why they should be attacked so viciously. I even felt shame that we should treat guests so appallingly. Cheltenham, of course, was a very (C)conservative town. And yet, looking back, the town was capable of surprises. In the ‘thirties and throughout the war, it was represented in Parliament by Daniel Lipson, an Independent, and a well liked, much respected Jew.
One forgets, except at times like this, the incidents which startled and informed us.
Once, playing cricket on our playing field at the edge of the town we stopped and looked, open mouthed as an American light aircraft landed in a corner of the field. The pilot got out and walked casually to a house on a nearby estate and went in. Just as casually he returned ten minutes later and took off.
And planes falling out of the sky were not unknown. One sunny morning I saw a Wellington bomber, engines screaming, plunging straight down into the ground. There was no sign of a parachute. Impossible now to recall my feelings except for the sickening wrench in the gut as I realised that I’d just watched a man die.
In the spring of 1944 I saw strings of gliders being lugged across the sky on an almost daily basis. Sometimes the sky seemed crowded with them. Our Americans had now left us and, we understood, had gone down to the south coast. When D Day eventually came it was no surprise.
VE Day was something of a contrived celebration, as I believe it was over much of the country. The surprising abruptness of the end of the Great War sparked joy. Once D Day had proved successful we all knew it was only a matter of time before it would be over. Groups of us among many others rampaged through Cheltenham’s streets behaving in a way that we fondly thought was outrageous. It wasn’t. It lacked gusto. The country had put up with a lot over the previous six years; we were close to bankruptcy; we were still fighting Japan; thousands of British forces hadn’t seen home for years. The country was tired out, exhausted and it was relief that it was now over, not joy. I was now 17 years old and I can remember very exactly that those were my feelings even though I doubt if I articulated them to anyone else.
Others have written about the rationing, the dried eggs, the Utility furniture, the functional clothes, the pompous little officials who came into their own. ‘Put that light out. Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ For my generation, those of us who hadn’t reached puberty when it all started, life during the war seemed in retrospect surprisingly normal. Those a few years older will have very different perspectives. They will have fought on battlefields, or flown bombers over Germany or tried to sink U Boats. Too many of them will have died in the process, long, long before their time. We knew no different from the reality that was presented to us. We had girl friends, cycled over the Cotswolds, joined amateur drama groups. But compared to far too many in this country we had a comfortable Cheltenham war. We were not only lucky. We were, in my view, priveleged to become educated in ways which subsequent generations are denied. Elsewhere in Britain millions had no reason to feel priveleged. We should be grateful to have benefited from what happened in those years without having to suffer the horrors taking place all over the world.
There is a personal coda to this narrative.
As a small boy during the nineteen thirties I was aware of an ill-defined mistrust of Germany and the Germans. Tales of German soldiers bayoneting babies in Belgium, now known to be false, and other reported atrocities were subconsciously creating a background to an anti German feeling in me.
Propaganda during the war meant that like everyone else I became brain-washed, inevitably resulting in a detestation of Germany and Germans. So much so that when I was old enough to volunteer I went over to Worcester to enrol as a Royal Marine with the hope that I wouldn’t be too late to join in the fight. I was turned down. My eyes weren’t good enough.
Then in 1962 I met my wife. She is German. We have been married now for 37 years and have four children who by definition are half German. Those German in-laws I have come to know really well I have a deep affection for as by extension I have for Germany. Beyond affection is a deep respect for the civilised and intensely cultured country that it is. I have again been lucky. My life has been richer for my affiliation to that country and I have no doubt that meeting my wife in the first place was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
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