December 7th, 1941 changed everything for the American people.
The Japanese surprise attacks on targets including Pearl Harbor ended the United States’ neutrality.
Isolationist voices stilled. Military enlistment skyrocketed. The people of the United States clamored for action.
The leaders of the US were ready to comply, but with the Second World War raging on many fronts, where should they begin?
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met to discuss the order of the war. They concluded that winning the war against Germany would leave Japan overextended, while defeating Japan would not necessarily weaken Germany.
They also believed that holding off on full-scale war in the Pacific could work to the Allies’ advantage.
Churchill noted “The Japanese have naval superiority…The Allies will not have for some time the power to fight a general fleet engagement.” (Churchill 652)
Given time, the Allied fleets would grow stronger while Japan would “be compelled to nourish all his conquests and kept extended, and kept burning up his resources.” (Churchill 652)
Churchill had high hopes for North African gains under General Auchinleck while masses of Hitler’s armies were occupied, facing the Eastern winter and the stubborn Russian resistance.
The decision was made.
American, British and Free French troops would retake North Africa in 1942. A large-scale Allied invasion of Europe would take place in 1943. (Well, that was the initial plan. Reality intervened…but we’ll get to that another time.)
The first US troops came to Great Britain in January of 1942.
They came, armed for war, but also armed with information.While Britain and the US theoretically share the same language and some of the same roots, the military felt it expedient to produce a handy guidebook for its troops. (After all, there was no way for them to sneakily Google what a Briton meant when he said he was “chuffed” to see them. Not that I’ve ever had to do that. As far as you know.)
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942 is an interesting snapshot of the time. They’ve reprinted it, so you can get your own copy on Amazon. Brian from Hardscrabble Farm was kind enough to let me share a few quotes from the copy he has on his site.
The US troops were reminded, first and foremost, that they were Britain’s guests, and ought to behave as such.
“If somebody looks in your direction and says, “he’s chucking his weight about,” you can be pretty sure you’re off base. That’s the time to pull in your ears.”
(Speaking of communication difficulties, how about that 1940s US slang? Consider my ears pulled in.)
” You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him “we came over and won the last one.” “
“…remember that crossing the ocean doesn’t automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first class barrages in the last war.”
The book also noted some important differences in culture and in attitudes.
“Be careful not to criticize the King… Today’s King and Queen stuck with the people through the blitzes and had their home bombed just like anyone else, and the people are proud of them.”
“If British civilians look dowdy and badly dressed, it is not because they do not like good clothes or know how to wear them. All clothing is rationed and the British know that they help war production by wearing an old suit or dress until it cannot be patched any longer. Old clothes are “good form.” “
And of course, in any travel there is the question of food and drink- will it be like home?
“The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”
If you have about 40 minutes, Burgess Meredith (who I will always remember as “The Penguin” from the old Adam West Batman program- POW! WHACK!) was featured giving similar advice in How to Behave in Britain. (See the link below.)
How to Behave in Britain expands on the themes from the original booklet, using humor and some really good examples of really bad behavior. (If you end up watching it, all I can say is, I hope no one actually behaved like Meredith pretended to over dinner!)
The film also addresses the fact that, while the United States was still deep in the grip of racial segregation, Britain was not. How were troops of different races to regard each other? The film’s brief interview with a US general had some positive things to say, as far as it went. “We’re all here as soldiers. Everything we do, we do as American soldiers. It’s not a bad time to learn to respect each other.” No, it’s never a bad time to learn that lesson, and it’s a lesson still worth remembering today.
The shared closing lines of book and film sum up nicely.
“It is always impolite to criticize your hosts;
It is militarily stupid to criticize your allies”
Many thanks to Mike at “A Bit about Britain” (http://bitaboutbritain.com/) for suggesting this topic! His site is an excellent resource to learn about Great Britain through its landmarks and history, and his humor makes the lessons anything but dull!
Thanks for visiting!
Note: All Winston Churchill quotes and background information on his and FDR’s planning comes from The Grand Alliance, the third volume of Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War, copyright 1950 by Houghton Mifflin Co.