June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
A British schoolboy sees the quiet English countryside come alive with excitement toward the end of 1943 when …
As a five-year-old, the British military historian John Keegan writes, he was “whisked from London at the first wail of the sirens to a green and remote corner of the West of England” where his father was an inspector of schools for children evacuated from the cities. There Keegan lived out the war. No bomb ever fell on the peaceful backwater where he had been sent to safety, but the war—its machines and ordnance and participants—totally engaged Keegan’s schoolboy passions. In an introduction to his forthcoming book, Six Armies in Normandy, which will be published by The Viking Press in July, Keegan remembers the Americans who were billeted in his town in those pre-invasion days when our presence saturated England.
And then, suddenly, there were the Americans. There had been portents of their coming, in particular the appearance of an Office of War Information booklet, snapped up by me from a town bookstall, on the 8th U.S. Army Air Force. It was filled with photographs of the construction of the airfields from which the 8th was to begin its bombing campaign over Europe and contained a cutaway drawing of the Flying Fortress, for which, through counting the enormous number of machine guns it mounted, I quickly formed almost as strong a regard as I already had for the Spitfire. There had been outriders, a scattering of officers in the unfamiliar rig of olive jacket and beige trousers—”pinks and greens,” as I subsequently learned veterans nostalgically describe it—whom I used to see walking home on warm sunlit evenings to the lodgings that had been found for them on the outskirts of the town. On one of these, astounding myself by my forwardness and in flagrant violation of family rules, I tried the formula that I knew to be in universal circulation: “Got any gum, chum?” I was rewarded by an embarrassed halt—my embarrassment was altogether greater—a rummaging of pockets and the presentation of a packet of spearmint. As it happened, I did not like chewing gum. But the superiority of the American product over the British one, and particularly the sumptuousness of the wrapper and the lustrous simplicity of its design, instantly and deeply impressed me. Much of that evening, which normally would have been spent reading at a gap illicitly opened in my bedroom curtains, I devoted to a study of the spearmint package, struggling in an increasingly trancelike state to draw from its symbolism the message that I sensed the designer sought to convey. Thus I made my first encounter with the science of semiotics and also with the bottomless riches of the American economy.
The latter was shortly to be made manifest in superabundance. Toward the end of 1943 our backwater, which British soldiers had garrisoned so sparsely for four years, overflowed almost overnight with GI’s. How different they looked from our own jumble-sale champions, for they were beautifully clothed in smooth khaki, as fine in cut and quality as a British officer’s—an American private, we confided to each other at school, was paid as much as a British captain, major, or colonel—and were armed with glistening, modern, automatic weapons, Thompson submachine guns, Winchester carbines, Garand self-loading rifles. More striking still was the number, size, and elegance of the vehicles in which they paraded about the countryside in stately convoy. The British army’s transport was a sad collection of underpowered makeshifts, whose dun paint flaked from their tin-pot bodywork. The Americans traveled in magnificent, gleaming, olive-green, pressed-steel, four-wheel-drive juggernauts, decked with what car salesmen would call optional extras of a sort never seen on their domestic equivalents, deep-treaded spare tires, winches, towing cables, fire extinguishers. There were towering GMC six-by-sixes and compact and powerful Dodge four-by-fours. Pilot-fishing the rest or buzzing nimbly about the lanes on independent errands, there were tiny and entrancing jeeps, caparisoned with whiplash aerials and sketchy canvas hoods. Standing one day at the roadside, dismounted from my bicycle to let one such convoy pass by, I was assaulted from the back of each truck as it passed by a volley of small missiles that fell into the ditch beside me with a soft patter. When I burrowed in the dead leaves to discover the cause, I unearthed a little treasure of Hershey bars, Chelsea candy, and Jack Frost sugar cubes, a week’s, perhaps a month’s, ration of sweet things casually disbursed in a few seconds. There was, I reflected as I crammed the spoil into my pockets, something going on in the West of England about which Hitler should be very worried indeed.
For a time it was only as the distributors of haphazard largess that the Americans impinged, though the town soon began to be surrounded by encampments of neat, weather-tight wooden huts, again altogether superior in quality to the straggling settlements of corrugated iron that housed British units; one formed a large modern hospital that was to survive the war and become the town’s alternative medical center. But gradually personal contacts were made, the first by our pretty, black-ringleted Welsh nursemaid, Annie, who had appeared soon after the evening when a drunken British parachutist had made an assault on the bedroom window of her dottily pious predecessor. Annie came to us from a convent, where she had emphatically not been preparing to enter the sisterhood. My mother’s expression, as Annie swayed toward GI territory in the center of the town on her afternoons off, her pink, plump, and rather wobbly legs covered for the outing in a bottled brown preparation called “liquid stockings” implied a nagging anxiety that Annie was flirting with another sisterhood, from which the convent had presumably been enlisted to rescue her. But though nylons materialized to replace liquid stockings, and supplies of Hershey bars and spearmint gum appeared on a scale that rapidly devalued mine, Annie was apparently asked to give nothing in return or, if asked, was not pressed. My mother’s alarm subsided. Quite soon my parents had collected an American circle of their own. One member, a major of engineers, became a lifelong friend and, in 1945, godfather of a new daughter, the second of two children born into the family in the war years. Others called for tea on Sunday afternoons, most of them seeming to want no more than an occasional glimpse into a domestic interior as a comforting leaven in their austere but enthralling military experience. A few gentler souls became more dependent and appeared more often. One, Sontag—I knew him in no other way—a thin, dark-haired, soft-eyed young man, must have been acutely afflicted by homesickness and perhaps by the fear of what lay ahead. Squirrel-like, he accumulated in a spare corner of the house a store of small, valueless personal possessions, which he called to fuss over at intervals and, on a day after which he was not seen again, asked my parents to keep safe for him. Their overheard murmur of agreement at lunch months later that “Sontag won’t be coming back” awoke in me a guilty, prurient curiosity. That afternoon I picked over his little store, found a GI torch, a webbing belt, and a Pocket Book edition, on gritty gray paper, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It seemed a small enough stake to have put down in the country.
But by then—it must have been in the winter of 1944—there was very little left at all of the Americans’ transient presence. It had during that spring swollen to almost all-pervading proportions, so that there seemed more Americans than natives in the district (as there may well have been). American transport had monopolized the roads, American uniforms had become commonplace, American accents, much enjoyed and much, if badly, imitated, had passed as an alternative local dialect, and some of the ease, nonchalance, and generosity of American manners had permeated and softened local formality. The feudal West would never be quite the same again, and a good thing too, thought many, particularly the young. We relentlessly patriotic little prep school boys, imprinted with our idea of the paramountcy of the British Empire, to which we knew the United States represented a principle in some way antithetical, held out longest against American charm. I particularly resisted admitting that the United States Navy had demoted the Royal Navy to second place among the world’s fleets, even after the facts had told me otherwise. But in time it got to us too. There was something in particular about jeeps, and the way they were driven with one high-booted leg thrust casually outside the cab, that softened even the most chauvinist ten-year-old heart.
And as spring became summer in 1944, yet more exciting manifestations of American military power thrust themselves on our attention. The GI’s whom we had got to know had been, we now grasped, engineers, builders, and truck drivers who were creating settlements for the fighting troops still to come. And now the troops were among us. With them they brought a new wave of equipment, half-track scout cars, amphibious trucks, and gigantic transporters laden with tanks and bulldozers—the last a machine previously unknown in Britain—which held to the main roads and, when in convoy, were usually seen heading southward, toward the ports of Hampshire and Dorset, on the Channel coast opposite France. American aircraft, too, appeared in great numbers: Liberators, Dakotas, and occasionally the dramatically twin-boomed P-38 Lightning, glimpsed rocketing across the sky like a shape of things to come. Dakotas were the commonest and the source of the most arresting experience I underwent that fresh, green spring. Some forgotten journey brought me unexpectedly upon an airfield, over which a cloud of aircraft hung, turning and swooping. But it was unlike any formation I had ever seen, in that the planes were linked together in pairs by spider-thin cables. Suddenly and successively the cables fell slack and the second in each pair of aircraft began to descend toward the runway. Strangest of all, they had neither propellers nor engines, their descent was silent, and when they touched ground, they came to a halt within a few yards. From their interiors men tumbled out and formed ranks, from which brilliant red and green flares were shot in sputtering arcs toward the departing Dakota tugs. I had had my first sight of a method of war of which I had not dreamt: a glider assault.
One evening some weeks later the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the garden, and as the roar grew, I followed and stood between them to gaze awestruck at the constellation of red, green, and yellow lights that rode across the heavens and streamed southward toward the sea. It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed wave without intermission, dimly discernible as dark corpuscles on the black plasma of the clouds, which the moon had not yet risen to illuminate. The noise in which they swam became solid, blocking our ears, entering our lungs, and beating the ground beneath our feet with the relentless surge of an ocean swell. Long after the last had passed from view and the thunder of their passage had died into the silence of the night, we remained transfixed and wordless on the spot where we stood, gripped by a wild surmise at what the power, majesty, and menace of the great migratory flight could portend.
Next day we knew. The Americans had gone. The camps they had built were emptied overnight. The roads were deserted. No doubt, had we been keeping check, we would have noticed a gradual efflux of their numbers. But it had been disguised until the last moment, and the outrush had then been sudden. The BBC news bulletin told us why. “Early this morning, units of the Allied Armies began landing on the coast of France.” The message was transmitted often that morning, June 6,1944, drawing listeners anxiously to their sets before each advertised broadcast in the hope of hearing some heartening change in the anodyne form of words passed by the censor. I had no patience with their incertitude. The doorman at my father’s office, a figure of weight and importance to me because, as a retired policeman, he was allowed to keep a pistol (the better to repel any fifth-columnist bent on capturing the files of the County Education Committee), caused particular irritation by being too busy with the controls of his set—bending his head to the speaker and fussily adjusting the volume—to show me the gun as he usually did. He just, he said, wanted to hear how things were going. Irritation gave way to scorn. What was the point of wondering how things were going? A cross-Channel invasion was not, as it happened, how I had visualized the war would be won. I had formed no picture at all of the means by which the German army was going to be brought to decisive battle. If anything, I had imagined some gigantic, climacteric duel of aircraft, in which Spitfires without number would have overwhelmed the Germans first in the sky and then on the ground. But if a cross-Channel invasion it was to be, that was an end to it. The Allies had determined a means different from that I had visualized. But the outcome was no more in doubt than it had ever been. They were going to win. The Germans were going to lose. News of events would add color and interest while we waited and should be enjoyed in that spirit. But the outcome was not in doubt.