An Introduction for American Troops

Starring actor Burgess Meredith, this 1943 film presents a guide to British society, behaviour and wartime conditions, made for American troops arriving in the UK prior to the Normandy Landings. The film features an introduction to British pubs and warm pints, as well as a awkward overview of race relations in America and Britain. IWM Curator Emily Charles introduces us to this film.

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."

Worker: "Righto."

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."
 

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