By Lee Ruddin
In June 1940, with a fallen France unable to act as a bulwark against the Nazi juggernaut, Great Britain feared an invasion from across the Channel. Adolf Hitler’s plan, codenamed Operation SEALION, never materialised thankfully and the German jackboot never stepped foot on the British mainland. One country, however, did accomplish a successful invasion: the United States of America. This invasion began in January 1942 at Dufferin Quay in Belfast – just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – and it was not long before (as part of Operation BOLERO) American GIs, or “Government Issues”, were sailing up the River Mersey and walking down the Landing Stage. Liverpool was already becoming a star-spangled city by 1941, though, as part I of my history of the period 1941-1945 – entitled The Good – illustrates. Yet as parts II and III – respectively entitled The Bar and The Ugly – also illuminate, starry-eyed histories of a “Friendly Invasion” deprived of enemies do not tell the whole story. In an attempt to do so, this three-part history turns away from uncritical sources towards letter writers and overshadowed documents in order to provide a disinterested yet interesting critique of those five critical years.
PART 1: THE GOOD
‘Americans tend to forget the names of the men who lost their bid for the presidency,’ Eleanor Roosevelt remarked in her “My Day” column, but concluded that ‘[Wendell] Willkie proved the exception to this rule.’ (12 October 1945) Like many Americans, some Liverpudlians would have remembered the liberal Republican’s name long after his untimely death in 1944, aged fifty-two, given what the Liverpool Echo labelled his ‘human touch.’ (3 February 1941, p.6) Chief among these arguably would have been Mrs. Elizabeth King, a widow who, in February 1941, the Echo reported, ‘was salvaging and sorting out the remnants of her belongings outside the gaping ruins of demolished tenements,’ as Mr. Willkie turned away from his visiting party to talk with her. ‘“You are making the best of it, I hope?” he said to Mrs. King,’ according to the reporter. ‘She smiled and replied: “I’m getting what I can out of this mess.”’
During their brief tête-à-tête Willkie learned that King and her three children, together with her father and sister, had been entombed in a cellar under a heap of debris. Shovels and pickaxes quickly went to work yet it was not enough to save her sister’s life. After being rescued King was given more bad news: her aunt and six nieces who lived across the road had perished during the same raid. With an itinerary to keep, Willkie said his goodbyes and shook hands with King. When she ‘withdrew from the firm grip of the visitor,’ the Echo concluded, ‘she found a £1 Treasury note in her hand.’ To the reporter Mrs. King stated: ‘“I think Mr. Willkie is a most charming gentleman and a £1 note on a Monday morning is the most pleasant surprise a woman could have.”’
This brief tour of the residential area was a detour from his schedule, sandwiched in between his meetings at the Town Hall and Dock Estate. As Willkie exited the building on High Street and about to enter his car he was ‘mobbed by hundreds of people,’ according to the Evening Express, ‘who surrounded him and tried to shake hands and pat him on the back. There were cheers for “Good old Willkie,”’ the report continued, ‘and he was given the cheering “thumbs-up” sign.’ (3 February 1941, p.3) A similar reception awaited him down at the docks, which he toured prior to giving evidence on the Lend-Lease Bill back in the U.S.
John G. Winant, the internationalist who replaced the isolationist Joseph Kennedy as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, likewise visited Liverpool’s docks in November 1941. The former was far more positive in his outlook than the negative latter and so, says author Bryan Perrett, he ‘got out and about among the people [in the interests of establishing closer relations] and soon became an extremely popular figure.’ (Liverpool: A City at War, p.133) Although Winant spent longer at a luncheon given in his honour at the Adelphi Hotel and at the Philharmonic Hall receiving an honorary degree, it was his whistle-stop tour of the docks which had a lasting impact on locals – one in particular.
While watching the handling and unloading of Lend-Lease cargo on 26 November, Winant waved cheerily to workers on the dockside and chatted with John Cruise, of Cookson Road, Seaforth, who was at work in a hatch. ‘“I’d like you to know,” said this docker, “how much we fellows here appreciated all that your country is doing, sir. I know what the Yanks can do”’, he continued according to the Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury reporter, ‘“because I’ve travelled both sides of the coast when I was a rigger.” Mr. Winant readily agreed that they would no doubt be busy on Pier 60 at New York, which he knew. “You’ll soon be seeing the Old Stars and Stripes coming across here,”’ the Ambassador concluded. (27 November 1941, p.3) This was a prophetic remark indeed since 11 days later, on 7 December 1941, America joined fully the Allied fight against the Axis Powers after an attack on its Pacific naval base.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit a year later, in November 1942, was arguably the most high profile by an American VIP. Yet we do not need to retrace the First Lady’s steps (covered in an earlier article featured on this website) around the Second City of Empire. What we do need to do, however, is quote a segment of her radio broadcast – praising the effort of American organisations and the hospitality shown by grateful Britons – since it leads us nicely away from VIPs toward GIs. ‘There is a great gratitude on every hand here’, Roosevelt stated at Ackerley House (what is today Greenbank College),
for the generous gifts received through the Red Cross, the Bundles for Britain, the British War Relief in America, and from cities and individuals. People who might have been cold, have been clothed with garments sent from America. People have been fed from mobile canteens and rescued in ambulances sent from America, and last but not least, the American Army and Navy and Air Force are making friends here. Such men as have been stationed for any length of time in an area have found hospitable people. Hospitality is not a matter of sharing food these days, for the British, high and low, live on a food ration. If they give any of their rations to our men, they have to go without and sometimes they do, but there is so little excess they can not do it often, for everyone – man, woman and child, in this Island is working and must eat his ration.’ (The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 8 November 1942)
Christmas is a time of giving, and in Liverpool, locals and visitors alike were keen to give “something back”. We will deal with the latter a little later, but in the case of the former this was best exemplified by a woman who, in response to an appeal made in December 1942 over the loudspeaker at work, offered to entertain GIs from a recently-docked troopship. Conscious that the GIs were preparing to spend their very first Christmas away from home, the Postal Censor made
‘a quick mental calculation of rations [before offering] to have three … Prompt at one o’clock on Christmas Day there was a knock on the door heralding the arrival of Jim, Claud and Larry, the three youngest-looking GIs I had ever seen … Later … I learned that they had been briefed in no uncertain terms that they must be punctual, well turned out and courteous and respectful to their hosts … and that they were not to accept large portions or second helping’s. At 3pm the King’s Speech was broadcast on the radio and as one they all jumped to their feet and stood to attention until the end … As the day wore on, they did become a little more relaxed, but when they stood up to leave at 10pm (as per the instructions not to outstay their welcome) we felt that the day had not been an overwhelming success.’ (Norman Longmate, The GI’s: The Americans in Britain, 1942-45, p.181)
‘How wrong they were!’ since, Longmate tells readers, the triumvirate received a second invitation when they rang their hosts to thank them for the first. ‘“[T]his time the stilled conversation of yesterday became a non-stop buzz of chatter and when they piled into a taxi in the early hours of the following morning”’, the hostess claimed, ‘“we all felt that we had known each other for years.”’ The trio became frequent visitors and would no doubt have continued to visit their hosts, like other GIs, only the rolling back of the Nazi juggernaut dictated that they be deployed to other theatres. One did visit again, to be sure, although it was some thirty years after Hitler’s Third Reich had been rolled back! It was only then, when an affluent-looking middle-aged American landed on his former hosts’ doorstep, did she realise how much he treasured her invitation. ‘“He said he was just eighteen and had buried his father whilst on embarkation leave, leaving his mother alone,”’ Longmate informs us. ‘“He had never been away from home before and had landed in Liverpool only to be billeted in a stable on the racecourse in the middle of winter”’, where, ‘“so cold, miserable and downright unhappy that first night”’, Longmate concludes, “that he cried.”’
Such a heart-rending, heart-warming story is not a one-off; there were many other ex-GIs who sought to renew old friendships in the new, post-war world, which only serves to testify how “special” relations were between the two peoples. The below extract illustrates – illuminates even – the lengths to which one individual, invited to Christmas lunch in 1943, went in 1971 to be reunited with his inviters:
On arriving home from holiday … we received a message from my mother-in-law to say that Larry had called that day and would expect us for dinner at the Adelphi Hotel that evening. As we walked into the foyer, an older, heavier and more prosperous-looking Larry came forward to meet us. He told us … [that he] went straight from the station to the Adelphi Hotel … because during the war he wanted to go in and was told ‘Sorry, officers only’. He dumped his bags and called a taxi and it was only when he came to tell the driver the address that he realised he had forgotten it. He did, however, remember that the name of the road had ‘green’ in it … The cab driver did a tour of all roads, streets, avenues, etc., that he could think of which were ‘green’ … before arriving at Broadgreen Road, which Larry recognised. On finding the house he was told that the present occupiers had been there for fifteen years and did not know anyone of our name. Larry then knocked on every door in the vicinity until he found someone who remembered us and had a vague idea of the area to which we had moved … Eventually my mother-in-law was contacted and all was well. (Longmate, p.371)
The correspondence column, often underutilised, was utilised by locals in order to thank their transatlantic cousins. ‘Might I be permitted, through your paper,’ letter writer “Child Lover” asked the letters editor at the Liverpool Echo,
‘to thank our American friends for the lovely time they gave the children last Sunday afternoon, December 12[th]. I sincerely hope they were as happy as they made the children. It is a day that will live long in the memory of the children from Nazareth House, Crosby, and as a small subscriber myself to the home, let me say, on behalf of nuns and children, God Bless all the boys, and a safe return to their loved ones.’ (21 December 1943, p.2)
More than 3,000 sick and orphan children across Liverpool received Christmas packets of sweets and biscuits from soldiers of the U.S. Army who were stationed in the area in 1944. This action on the part of GIs was in keeping with the compassion they had extended to young Liverpudlians since 1942 and the kindness which they had shown across Liverpool to children who lost their parents as a result of air raids from Christmas 1941 onwards. These kind Americans, soldiers who voluntarily subscribed to the “Stars and Stripes Fund”, literally became “uncles” to adopted “nephews” and “nieces” and guaranteed them – and not only women – a ‘good time’. (Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury, 21 June 1944, p.3)
It is important to stress, though, it was not only at Christmastime that Americans cared for kids – and nor was it only kids they catered for: adults too were supported through these years – arguably the bleakest period in the city’s then 750-year-old history – with food cooked in and served from U.S. Army mobile kitchens.
To read Parts II and III of Lee Ruddin’s Americans In Liverpool During The Second World War see links at the top of the page.
You can also read Lee Ruddin’s article Eleanor Roosevelt In Liverpool by clicking HERE