Monday, 10 May 2010
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942
I’ve always been interested in history, particularly the Second World War. When I was a child it was all about warplanes, tanks and submarines. Now that I’m older it’s still about warplanes tanks and submarines but I also take more of an interest in the more political and unseen aspects of the war.
Imagine my excitement when I stumbled across this tiny book in my local bookstore. At only 6 inches tall and 30 pages long you can easily digest it in 30 minutes. The introduction explains that the book was originally printed in pamphlet form by the War Department in Washington D.C. to be issued to American troops being sent to Britain in preparation for the invasion of mainland Europe (D-Day) the book gives a fascinating glimpse into how America viewed Great Britain and the British people in 1942.
The book is full of headers such as;
“BRITISH RESERVED, NOT UNFRIENDLY”
“DON’T BE A SHOW OFF”
“THE BRITISH ARE TOUGH”
“THE BRITISH LIKE SPORTS”
When writing a review of this book it is very tempting to quote from it extensively. As a modern British person reading it I can say the content is very funny (although I’m sure it wasn’t designed to be) full of ridiculous stereotypes of the good old fashioned British citizen with a stout stiff upper lip taking German bombs without complaint. However it is often, somewhat disconcertingly, very astute and certainly contains some truths about our characteristics which clearly haven’t changed a great deal in 68 years (which I find comforting)
One of my favourite passages asserts;
“The best way to get on in Britain is very much the same as the best way to get on in America. The same sort of courtesy and decency and friendliness that go over big in America will go over big in Britain. The British have seen a good many Americans and they like Americans. They will like your frankness as long as it is friendly. They will expect you to be generous. They are not given to back slapping and they are shy about showing their affections. But once they get to like you they make the best friends in the world”
The book doesn’t just talk about the people it also talks about the government of Britain, the size and geography, why there are no skyscrapers in London and (of course) the differences between Cricket and Baseball!
It also gives practical information such as what to expect from the weather, how British money works and how to pronounce ‘Thames’ correctly. The book does have the strange habit of referring to British people as 'Britishers' which is an expression I have never heard used before!
One of the most interesting aspects I found was the section about British women. In both Britain and America before the war women were not expected to work or do anything except keep the home clean and raise children. During the war thousands of men went off to fight meaning there was no-one to work any of the jobs previously done by men. Women finally had the opportunity to prove that they could work just as hard and just as capably as men. Not just in factories and offices but also in military roles too. The same thing happened in America but not quite on the same scale. I found this particularly touching since my Great-Grandmother was a WREN during the war. The book makes a point of reminding US troops to respect these women;
"A British woman officer or non-commisioned officer can - and often does - give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and there is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this way. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes...Now you understand why British soliders respect the women in uniform. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich"
The book does a first class job of providing a clear view into the mindset of the war. Although the book is interesting and entertaining to us today it was first published and issued for a very serious reason; to help ease tensions and maintain relations between Britain and America in a time when Hitler was doing his best to strain the alliance. The book puts a lot of emphasis on not upsetting the local people and says “It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies”
All in all a little gem of a book I often re-read. It never fails to cheer me up. Well worth a read even if you aren’t particularly interested in the war