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Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-45 by David Reynolds

28 October 2007

I first picked up this book for a course on Anglo-American relations from World War II to the end of the Cold War. I don’t normally look into military-type history, but I suppose it helped that this book happens to be more about military culture than on campaigns and battles.

Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-45 by David Reynolds

The story of American GIs in Britain has two sides: that of the British military and civilian population, who often dismissed the GIs as ‘over-sexed, over-paid, over-fed, and over here’; and that of the GIs themselves, who returned the cutting remarks by claiming that the British military were ‘under-sexed, under-paid, under-fed, and under Eisenhower’. Some American soldiers got on very well with the British people they met, quite often with young British women whose heads were turned by the smartly-dressed Yanks. But the problems and conflicts between the British and the GIs created some very ugly incidents, especially when black GIs were involved. The official segregation of the American forces forced both the Americans and the British to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the races separate — because the sight of a white British woman and a black American soldier walking out together was all too often the spark for an explosive confrontation.

David Reynolds has done his research well for Rich Relations, and does his best to be balanced in interpreting the often conflicting information that comes out of official memos and personal recollections. He separates the book into sections devoted to the official information from the top brass and the collected experiences of the individuals involved. Some of the stories are funny and many are sad, but some are particularly touching — one black GI recalls how he became fast friends with an older British couple who lived near his base camp, including the birthday party they gave for him which featured a small iced cake they had baked from their meagre rations (no sugar in the cake, only in the icing). There are quite a lot of good stories of this nature, and the book is rich in detail and interesting to explore.

Rich Relations does suffers a little from repetition in certain parts — do we really need to be reminded four times in the space of about two hundred pages that the pre-war black population of Britain numbered around 8,000 people? I must also admit that I skimmed through the parts dealing with battles and troop mobilisations, the parts that a military historian or World War II buff would probably find more interesting. I would not have minded if the sections about the D-Day invasions had been trimmed slightly; after all, the book is supposed to focus on the experience in Britain, rather than on the Continent. Yet the book does its job extremely well, shedding light on a fascinating time in Anglo-American (or should that be ‘Yank and Limey’?) relations.

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