Over two million American servicemen passed through Britain during the Second World War. In 1944, at the height of activity, up to half a million were based there with the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Their job was to man and maintain the vast fleets of aircraft needed to attack German cities and industry. Working with the Royal Air Force (RAF), their aim was to severely weaken Germany's ability to fight. This was a central part of the Allied strategy for winning the war. American women also served, working for the American Red Cross or as members of the Women's Army Corps.
Over 200 airfields were occupied or newly-built by the USAAF. Each one would house around 2,500 American men – many times the population of the nearest village. Thousands more were based at smaller sites. Halls and country houses became headquarters for commanders and planners. Some were converted to hospitals or rest-homes for combat-weary fliers. Barns and outbuildings would house teams of truck drivers and their vehicles. Even specialist bakery units were dotted around the UK, providing fresh bread for the airmen.
No wonder, then, that the Americans' arrival was known as the 'friendly invasion' – their impact on British life was huge and they profoundly changed the places they inhabited.
The majority of the Americans left Britain in 1945. They left an enduring legacy and are fondly remembered by those they met. Hundreds of volunteers across East Anglia still help preserve these memories. They look after memorials in village squares, on corners of former airfields, or at crash sites. They manage museums in former control towers, or preserve precious collections in pubs or farm buildings. They run websites and contribute to our growing interactive archive, helping present and future generations understand the enormous impact that these servicemen had.
One man did more than most to safeguard this legacy: Roger Freeman, the boy from Essex who was so fascinated by the base near where he grew up that it turned into a lifetime of research, writing and sharing. 'They were to leave a considerable impression on those who knew them, which did not easily fade when they departed', he wrote.
Roger amassed thousands of photographs of this momentous period, which IWM acquired for the nation in 2012. The following is a selection of photographs from his collection.
The vast majority of the 15,000 photographs in the Roger Freeman Collection are also available on IWM's American Air Museum website. If you know something more about the people, aircraft and places depicted, or if you would like to try your hand at a bit of historical detective work, we would love for you to add your stories.
Actor to airman
Captain Clark Gable speaks to Sergeant Phil Hulse and Sergeant Kenneth Huls, both of the 351st Bomb Group, from the waist gun position of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Gable, star of Gone With the Wind, traded Hollywood glamour for military service in 1942. Dispatched to Polebrook, Northamptonshire with a film crew of five in April 1943, Gable produced and directed Combat America, which focused on the experience of aerial gunners. He flew on five missions in order to make the film before returning to the US to edit it. The film was completed in 1944 and both Hulse and Huls were featured in it.
Corporal Joseph Sleeping Bear (left) serves Thanksgiving dinner to school children at Snetterton Heath, Norfolk in November 1944. Sleeping Bear was part of the Sioux tribe and grew up in Running Bird township, a reservation in South Dakota. No section of American society that participated in the Second World War made a greater per capita contribution than the Native Americans. An estimated 44,000 in a population of 350,000 signed up to the military.
A narrow escape
Lieutenant Edwin Wright of the 404th Fighter Group shows off the damage to his P-47 Thunderbolt, October 1944. Wright was part of the Ninth Air Force, which moved its bases from Britain to mainland Europe after D-Day in order to provide closer support to the advancing troops. This picture was taken near St Trond, Belgium. By the time this photograph was taken, the 19-year-old had completed 39 missions and survived being hit by flak six times. Wright's squadron nicknamed him 'Lucky' for his ability to evade death. The hole here measured 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter in an 11-inch propeller. If the damage had been an inch and a half over on either side, the blade would have severed and Wright would have been brought down.
Staff Sergeant Jayson Smart of the 305th Bomb Group immediately after a mission in August 1943. A splinter cut his brow during the mission and blood has streaked his face in the shape of his oxygen mask. The day this photograph was taken, Smart had flown as a waist gunner on the B-17 'Big Bust' on a mission to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. It was the first daylight operation to the Ruhr, which had acquired the grimly humorous moniker 'Happy Valley' due to the scale of German defences which protected its heavy industry. The bombers flew unescorted by fighter aircraft and were badly scattered en route. Enemy fighter opposition and flak damaged 15 of the 20 bombers from the 305th Bomb Group. Ten other men from the group were wounded and a further ten were missing in action. 83 men from the whole formation were killed in action.
Plotter at work
Corporal Geraldine Hill of the Women's Army Corps receives reports on aircraft positions in the plotting room of the 3rd Bomb Division at Elveden Hall, Suffolk in February 1944. Hill lived in Texas all of her life and worked for more than 30 years as a bookkeeper for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The war brought an interruption to her career when she volunteered as part of Dallas's civil defence and then when she enlisted in the Woman's Army Corps. Hill served overseas for 27 months both in England and continental Europe.
Painting nose art
Private First Class Barbara O'Brien applies the finishing touches to a skull on the nose of a B-26 Marauder, 1943. O'Brien enlisted in Dallas, Texas, USA in December 1942. She was later part of a Women's Army Corps unit based at Marks Hall, Essex, which had taken over from the British WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) the duties of plotting, typing and stenography. As a talented artist, she was in demand with the flyboys to add nose art to their aircraft. The aircraft she is painting here, the 'Jolly Roger' (41-34942), belonged to the 323rd Bomb Group, based at nearby Earls Colne in Essex. O'Brien continued to work as a plotter and moved with her unit to France, and then to Bad Kissingen in Germany. Film footage of O'Brien painting the 'Jolly Roger' can be found on British Pathé's website (around the 4-minute mark).
Sergeant Russell Butts (left) and Sergeant Robert Sand, ground crew of the 55th Fighter Group, pretend to light the fuse on a 500-pound bomb in July 1944. Robert Sand was responsible for the maintenance and repair of fighter aircraft. As a specialist in propeller mechanics, Sand performed a crucial role in ensuring that the engine was running correctly and felt personally accountable for the safe return of the aircraft he worked on, saying he 'could not rest easy until every ship was off safely, and had returned safely. And when any ship was lost unaccountably, there remained a little nagging question'. Ground personnel sought distractions while waiting for their aircraft to come back. Armed with his camera, Sand made a photographic record of the sights and antics on base. This photograph was taken on Independence Day, 4 July 1944.
With Cross-Eyes the Cat
Sergeant William 'Bill' Pulliam of the 91st Bomb Group holds his cat, Cross-Eyes. Pulliam enlisted in 1942 and joined the 91st Bomb Group, where he worked as photographer for the 401st Bomb Squadron at Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire. He was responsible for loading strike cameras into B-17 Flying Fortresses, which would photograph bombs falling on their targets. The images would later be analysed by intelligence officers to judge the success of the mission. If an aircraft from Pulliam's unit landed at the wrong base, it was his job to retrieve the film. On Christmas Eve 1944, bad weather prevented several Fortresses from returning to base and Pulliam was sent 70 miles with his colleague Sergeant Joseph Harlick. Driving at midnight with blacked out headlights, Pulliam and Harlick collided with an unexploded bomb that had been dropped from an ammunition truck. Fortunately the bomb failed to detonate and Pulliam returned home to Missouri at the end of the war, where he married his sweetheart Reyina in June 1945.
Pictured from left to right are: Best man Gene Hammerick, the groom and bride Robert and May Kirschner, bridesmaid Alice Fuller and May's parents Harold and Rose Lockwood. They are photographed at St Mary's Church in Coddenham, Suffolk, on Robert and May's wedding day in November 1943. May Rose Lockwood had joined the Women's Land Army in 1940. She met Robert Kirschner, who was working in a service squadron with the nearby 56th Fighter Group, and they married in 1943. Shortly after the war ended, she was one of many thousands of young women who left their families and friends behind to begin a new life in America. With her baby daughter and husband, she settled in Syracuse, New York, and worked as a nanny. The couple were married for 51 years.
Welcome to Britain, 1943
Emily Charles: A Welcome to Britain was created in 1943. It was a joint collaboration between the British Ministry of Information and the US War Office. The film was created because the Allies were planning the invasion of occupied Europe and envisioned a large influx of US troops arriving in the UK. Now to ensure good relations they created this film to accommodate some of the strange cultural differences that British people might experience meeting Americans for the first time, and Americans might experience meeting British people for the first time.
Film: "Next to winning the war perhaps the most important matter on this Earth today is the friendly relationship between allied nations. This picture is a generous gesture toward that end. Will you tell us about it General?
"I'm not speaking for myself I'm speaking to the entire British army. This picture is a gift from us to you and is an attempt to show you a little what England is about. We want to make you feel at home here. This is the fifth year of the war, we have all been in it, the army, the navy, the air force, and every man woman and child in this country...
Burgess Meredith: "Yeah I'm in it. Well you know I'm just the guy to show you around England, sure i know all about it, why shouldn't I? I've been here three weeks. Well first thing I think we ought to take a look at is... an English pub."
EC: The film was presented by the Hollywood film actor Burgess Meredith. He was known to audiences at the time for films like Of Mice and Men in 1939, but we as modern audiences probably know him better for being Rocky's trainer in the Rocky films and the Penguin in the Batman TV series. Burgess Meredith had enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1942 and rose to the rank of captain though he didn't see combat. In 1943 he transferred to the US War Office where he was employed making films like A Welcome to Britain for training purposes and other instructive uses.
The film would have been shown to US forces as they arrived in Britain; it was one of a number of training materials that had been produced to ease cultural relations between the British and the Americans. One of the benefits of the film was it was more engaging than some of the written materials that had already been introduced, and there wasn't a high uptake in this kind of cultural familiarization training that already happened previously.
A number of British newspapers got the chance to see the film as a preview and wrote rave reviews. The Daily Mail was so fond of it it even pushed for a public release to the general public, but it was ultimately only ever used as a training film. For Americans traveling to Britain it would have been the first time that many of them had ever traveled abroad or even out of their home state in a lot of cases. For the British people as well it would have been the first time that they were encountering Americans outside of the cinema, particularly in rural areas of Norfolk and Suffolk where there was a heavy concentration of US army air forces troops, it would have seemed like Hollywood had descended on them, and in fact some of the people serving like Burgess Meredith and Clark Gable were Hollywood stars themselves.
Burgess Meredith: "Come on. Oh wait before we go in let me tell you a little about an English pub. It's not like a saloon it's more like a club, a club for men and women who haven't a great deal of money and who don't drink for the sake of drinking but for the company. Now these pubs are open for a couple of hours in the middle of the day and then again in the early evening. Men and women after their days work, and they work long and hard hours, come in for a bitter a mile oh that's beer to you and me, and incidentally the beer isn't cold in England, no they don't like it cold and they haven't any ice see so if you like beer you better like it warm. These same people have been coming into the same pub for many years; their grandfathers and their great grandfathers came in before. This particular pub for instance was founded about the time that our country was founded. So well come on take a look. There you are you see, that'll give you a general idea."
EC: The arrival of the Americans was often heralded as a friendly invasion of the UK, but the film touches on some of the areas where relations were a little more contentious. Race relations was one of the areas of contention between British people and American forces
and there's an interesting moment in the film where Burgess Meredith and a black GI are invited to dinner by a middle-aged lady getting off the train, then the film rather awkwardly justifies segregation and American racism, which is not so deftly handled.
BM: "Well goodbye"
Lady: "Goodbye it's been very nice meeting you,"
BM: "and you I'm sure"
Lady: ""Funny you should come from Birmingham too isn't it. If you come to my Birmingham, you must come to my home and have a cup of tea with me, both of you. Thank you, goodbye and good luck."
BML "Bye-bye. Well where you going?"
GI: Well i think i'll get some cigarettes."
BM: "I'm short too"
GI: "Well I'll get some"
BM: "Good. Now look men, you heard that conversation. That's not unusual here, it's the sort of thing that happens quite a lot. Now let's be frank about it, there are coloured soldiers as well as white here, and there are less social restrictions in this country. Just what you heard, an English woman asking a coloured boy to tea; she was polite about it and he was polite about it. Now, look that might not happen at home but the the point is we're not at home, and the point is too, if we bring a lot of prejudices here, what are we going to do about it?
EC: Around 10% of the US force serving in Britain was black. The US armed forces during the second world war were segregated along the lines of color. Now in the US racial prejudice was to an extent the norm in southern states in particular Jim Crow law was in place, which saw black people treated very differently along racial lines to their white counterparts. This was not the case in Britain, which was a largely homogenous white nation. Around 11,000 Black Americans arrived in Britain by the autumn of 1942; they effectively doubled the Black population of Britain in a matter of months. After Burgess Meredith explains to the camera that respectful treatment of black GIs was not uncommon in Britain, he then happens upon John C Lee who is commander of the US army's services of supply, a force that was largely Black.
BM: "so do you know who that is? That's General Lee head of the services of supplies. You know that he's got a lot of colored troops under him and they're doing a big job over here, and I happen to know that General Lee comes from Kansas and that his family fought for the Confederacy. Let's go and see what he says about it then.
"and so we were wondering how the general felt about him and me?"
General Lee: "America has promised the Negril citizenship and a fair chance to make the best of himself."
EC: now John C Lee is an interesting figure to include in the film because the role he plays awkwardly justifies, by our standards, why the US forces treat their Black GIs the way they do, but he held those uncommon beliefs that were against segregation and was one of the few people in the US armed forces to do so. The scene with the black gi in A Welcome to Britain is one of the most written about sequences of the whole film. A number of historians, including those interested in Black history and Britain, have written on this specific
scene, but what is interesting is we don't know the name of the black GI at the center of it. This person we haven't been able to identify or hasn't been identified yet. This is interesting because there are a multitude of white faces that appear in the film who we can list, the white names have been recorded, but we don't know who this mysterious black GI from Birmingham, Alabama, allegedly, is.
Another area of contention was to do with venereal disease. There's another scene in the film where Burgess Meredith is in a club and encounters a prostitute in London. Now she's not explicitly referred to as a prostitute but the line that he says, mind your step, is an explicit reference to venereal disease and American propaganda that suggested that British prostitutes were a danger in that way to American servicemen in Britain.
Lady: "hello darling you like my little dog yes?"
BM: "No... And while we're on that subject I'd like to give you one of them lectures."
lady: "hello soldier coming my way?"
BM: "No... Maybe you've heard all kinds of stories about this. I don't know whether they're true or not because I don't know what stories you've heard, but the situation has gotten pretty bad and so it says here 'watch your step'. You know there's been lots of jokes on this subject just make sure the joke isn't on you.
"yes, you'll find other things to do except this."
EC: on the whole relationships between British civilians and American personnel were generally good, and films like A Welcome to Britain helped to overcome German propaganda, which was designed to sow discord between the two nations. My personal favorite moment of the film touches on that quintessentially British stereotype of how we all drink tea all the time, and indeed Burgess Meredith is given a cup of tea at a train station, of all places, and advises the Americans that wherever you go in Britain there's tea on offer, and that the British drink it like the Americans drink Coca-Cola over there.
Station Worker: "have a cup of tea will you?"
BM: "oh thank you very much. Do you have an American cigarette?"
Worker: "oh thank you very much. Thank you."
BM: "i'll bring this right back."
BM: "Wherever you go, tea. Know the English drink tea two, three times a day, they drink it like we drink cokes back in the States."
BM: "hello Sergey."
Sergey: "Get going, you're going."
BM:" What are you talking about? Listen I'm very busy, I'm making a picture, I got orders."
Sergey: "I don't know what you got but it says here that private AJ went on to the table anyway, there's a lot of numbers and stuff, then you'll proceed without delay on or about, and this is about, from here to where you want it. Get going!"
BM: "I haven't told them how long it takes for mail to get here! At first, sometimes it takes six or eight weeks well they are... look fellas don't get the idea that the folks at home aren't writing, the mail'll catch up with you, then they'll all come at once"
"I tell you they can't do this to me.
"Hey wait... uh hey I haven't told them yet..."
Soldier: "on your way Jim! come on!"
BM: "I haven't told you guys yet about..."
Soldier: "Alright, keep moving there!"
BM: "Sorry I can't finish the picture, that's up to you."