War of the Races

THE OVERLOOK

By Tom Clavin

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            “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Walt Kelly (“Pogo”)

            This week marks the 78th anniversary of one of the more unusual battles in Europe in the 1940s. However, it was not the Allies against the Germans. Instead, American soldiers fought each other in the Battle of Bamber Bridge, and it was because of race.

          Bamber Bridge is a village which can be found in the Lancashire section of England. The U.S. Armed Forces were still segregated in 1943 and would remain so for another five years, until President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, which integrated all the military service branches. Ironically, in the United States black soldiers were often dismissed (or worse) as not being real soldiers, yet when black units arrived in England to help with the war against Nazi Germany, they were often met with respect and open arms by the local population.

Bamber Bridge was then home to U.S. Army Air Base 569 and the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment, a logistics unit stationed at the base, consisting primarily of black soldiers. (All but one of the officers were white.) The all-white 234th U.S. Military Police Unit was stationed on the north side of the village and the two units were known to have had several skirmishes over race relations.

The soldiers of the 1511th were welcomed in local establishments, and this did not sit well with white American soldiers who had brought their racist attitudes with them. When white military police officers insisted that a local pub owner segregate his establishment, the owner replied he would. And he did: When the MPs returned the next day, they were met with “Blacks Only” signs at all three village pubs, sending a clear message to the MPs that their racism was not welcome. British barmaids told white soldiers to wait their turn when they assumed they would be served before black soldiers.

On the night of June 24, 1943, two MPs, Corporal Roy A. Windsor and PFC Ralph F. Ridgeway, entered Ye Old Hob Inn and attempted to arrest Private Eugene Nunn of the 1511th, citing him for being improperly dressed and without a pass. The soldiers and MPs began to argue. Local townsfolk and women from the British Auxiliary Territorial Service sided with the men of the 1511th and demanded that the MPs leave the black soldiers alone. Private Lynn Adams of the 1511th advanced on one of the MPs with a bottle, and Corporal Windsor drew his gun. Sergeant William Byrd of the 1511th was able to defuse the situation and finally persuade the MPs to leave. But while they were driving away, Private Adams threw a bottle at the jeep.

The MPs continued to their base -- to pick up reinforcements. The white soldiers then returned to the pub to arrest the black soldiers.

As the soldiers of the 1511th walked back to their base, they were apprehended by the returning MPs. A fight broke out and MP Carson W. Bozman drew his gun and shot Private Adams in the neck. The soldiers of the 1511th returned to their base and at midnight, armed with rifles and a machine-gun truck, arrived at the MP camp looking for retaliation. The soldiers of the 1511th raided the MPs’ gun room and further armed themselves and the two sides began shooting at each other in the darkness.

By four o’clock in the morning, the violence ceased. Private William Crossland of the 1511th had been shot in the back and killed and five other soldiers were wounded along with two MPs.

There were two trials resulting in 27 out of 32 black soldiers being found guilty of various charges. Most of the sentences were reduced or dismissed, however, because of the overwhelming support of the black troops by the British public. Because of this, morale among black troops stationed in England improved, and the rates of courts-martial fell.

General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force, placed most of the blame for the violence on the white officers and MPs because of their poor leadership and the use of racial slurs by MPs. To prevent similar incidents happening again, he combined the black trucking units into a single special command. The ranks of that command were purged of inexperienced and racist officers and the MP patrols were racially integrated.

Although there were several more incidents between black and white American troops in Britain during the war, none was on the scale of that of Bamber Bridge. Yet reports of the battle were heavily censored, with newspapers disclosing only that violence had occurred in a town somewhere in northwest England.

The author Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who lived in the Bamber Bridge area after the war, wrote about the event briefly in The New York Times in 1973 and in his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God. Popular interest in the event increased in the late 1980s after a maintenance worker discovered bullet holes from the battle in the walls of a Bamber Bridge bank.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.