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Jim Crow Segregation Visits Britain

African Americans in Suffolk, 1942-1946

African Americans in Suffolk

U.S. Armed Forces segregated African American troops until President Harry S. Truman ended this policy with Executive Order 9981 July 26, 1948 (although it did not take full effect until the Korean War). His predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, imposed a quota that stipulated 10% of the army in total and 10% of the army in each theatre should be African American (roughly equivalent to their proportion of the total U.S. population).

Most Britons in the 1940s had never seen or spoken to a person of African descent nor had experience or knowledge of segregation. The total black British community at this time was probably only around 8-10,000 living mostly around the port cities. British officials therefore worried about the tension that might be provoked if their American allies brought their social system of segregation with them. With this and, no doubt, some prejudice in mind, they requested that American commanders should not send any African American troops to Britain. The U.S. War Department ignored the request and stuck to Roosevelt’s 10% policy.

The first African American troops arrived in May 1942. According to David Reynolds, numbers remained small at first with Eighth Air Force having just 1,500 by October 1942. Numbers soon increased in proportion to total U.S. troops in the country (7,315 in total by end of 1942, 65,000 by end of 1943 and 130,000 by D-Day).

Suffolk held two distinct groups of African American service personnel. The first group were Engineer (Aviation) Battalions in the area to construct airfields (largely on the Continent by the summer of 1944). The second group of African American service personnel were the logistical battalions stationed at various locations in the county keeping the Eighth Air Force supplied with everything it needed.

 

923rd Engineer (Aviation) Regiment

Several African American General Engineer Regiments were located briefly at Higham Heath and Herringswell while involved in the construction of bases before swiftly moving on. The main Engineer (Aviation) organisation stationed in Suffolk was the 923rd Engineer (Aviation) Regiment numbering approximately 3,200 enlisted men and 170 officers. They were Headquartered at Haughley Park and their constituent battalions (the 827th, 829th, 847th and 859th) fanned out across the county to construct airfields. The main projects they were involved in were the construction of Eye and Debach airfields, but they contributed to the completion of at least 61 heavy bomber stations in Britain. With the invasion of Europe, they moved to the Continent in November 1944 to continue their airfield construction work in support of Allied forces (the 827th Battalion remained in the UK). A further distinct group stationed in Suffolk were the largely Spanish speaking Mexican engineers from the California-Mexico border region stationed at Wattisham for a time (the 844th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion).

 

The 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment Headquarters at Haughley Park.
The 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment Headquarters at Haughley Park.

 

The Unit History of the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment tasked with building ‘airdromes’ in Britain.
The Unit History of the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment tasked with building ‘airdromes’ in Britain.

 

The 923rd lay the first concrete in Potash Lane, Eye.
The 923rd lay the first concrete in Potash Lane, Eye.

 

African American troops march to church in Eye on Thanksgiving Day, 1943.
African American troops march to church in Eye on Thanksgiving Day, 1943.

 

Although they were primarily tasked with constructing Eye and Debach, the 923rd contributed to many more airfields.
Although they were primarily tasked with constructing Eye and Debach, the 923rd contributed to many more airfields.

 

The 827th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion had a particularly close involvement with the 390th Bombardment Group and Framlingham airfield.
The 827th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion had a particularly close involvement with the 390th Bombardment Group and Framlingham airfield.

 

The 827th also ran an asphalt machine at Weybread for airfield construction.
The 827th also ran an asphalt machine at Weybread for airfield construction.

 

Men of the 923rd dance at the American Red Cross Donut Wagon (Hallock Collection).
Men of the 923rd dance at the American Red Cross Donut Wagon (Hallock Collection).

 

Debach Airfield

 

Cover for the presentation programme for Debach Airfield (Hallock Collection).
Cover for the presentation programme for Debach Airfield (Hallock Collection).

 

Contents of the presentation programme (Hallock Collection).
Contents of the presentation programme (Hallock Collection).

 

Debach airfield from above (Hallock Collection).
Debach airfield from above (Hallock Collection).

 

HQ Enlisted men at Debach (Hallock Collection).
HQ Enlisted men at Debach (Hallock Collection).

 

Eye Airfield

 

Left to Right: Pvt William Swollard and Pvt William Washington of the 923rd at the Rendlesham Training Ground.
Left to Right: Pvt William Swollard and Pvt William Washington of the 923rd at the Rendlesham Training Ground.

 

Cpl Hilton Smith and Tec 4 Thomas R. Mitchell of the 923rd from Eye mine detecting at the Rendlesham Training Ground.
Cpl Hilton Smith and Tec 4 Thomas R. Mitchell of the 923rd from Eye mine detecting at the Rendlesham Training Ground.

 

Pfc Houston Calomic, Tec 5 Albert Jackson and Pfc John L. Winkfield from the 923rd at Eye take a brief rest at the Rendlesham Training Ground.
Pfc Houston Calomic, Tec 5 Albert Jackson and Pfc John L. Winkfield from the 923rd at Eye take a brief rest at the Rendlesham Training Ground.

 

Sgt John Black serving Pvt Buck Ellington at the Rendlesham Training Ground.
Sgt John Black serving Pvt Buck Ellington at the Rendlesham Training Ground.

 

Men from the 829th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion build a Nissen Hut at Eye (US Army Corp of Engineers).
Men from the 829th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion build a Nissen Hut at Eye (US Army Corp of Engineers).

 

Eye Airfield from above (Hallock Collection).
Eye Airfield from above (Hallock Collection).

 

Officers of the 859th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion at Eye (Hallock Collection).
Officers of the 859th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion at Eye (Hallock Collection).

 

Open air Church Service for the 859th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion at Eye (Hallock Collection).
Open air Church Service for the 859th Engineer (Aviation) Battalion at Eye (Hallock Collection).

 

The 'Negro Chorus'

The U.S. Army Public Relations Office decided in summer 1943 to set up a ‘Negro Chorus of 200 Voices’ from the 923rd Engineers. Noted African American Tenor Roland Hayes travelled to Britain to sing with them in a number of concerts, including several performances at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1943. While the performances were undoubtedly impressive, some African Americans such as journalist Roi Ottley were critical of the endeavour as perpetuating the harmful ‘musical sambo’ image and suggested portrayals of African Americans doing their war jobs would better combat this stereotype.

 

The promotional choir formed from the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment.
The promotional choir formed from the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment.

 

An article from ‘Yank’ Magazine in 1943 reporting on the ‘Negro Chorus’ and the involvement of famed author, John Steinbeck.
An article from Yank Magazine in 1943 reporting on the ‘Negro Chorus’ and the involvement of famed author, John Steinbeck (Henry Zielinski Collection, 353rd Fighter Group Archive).

 

A Programme for the September 29,1943 performance of the ‘Negro Chorus of 200 Voices’ at the Royal Albert Hall.
A Programme for the September 29,1943 performance of the ‘Negro Chorus of 200 Voices’ at the Royal Albert Hall (Henry Zielinski Collection, 353rd Fighter Group Archive).

 

The Combat Support Wing - Logistical Support

The Eighth Air Force in Suffolk needed a constant stream of weapons and supplies and so Quartermaster, Ordnance and Truck Battalions took up this vital logistical work. Commanders largely excluded African Americans from combat organisations and kept them in support roles. This meant long, tiring hours for African Americans driving trucks to keep the air force supplied. The major African American supply bases in Suffolk were at Bures, Stowmarket, Tostock, Higham Heath, Hitcham and Troston. Approximate numbers of personnel are likely to have been around the 4,000 mark in total in these bases.

The long hours, hard work, segregation and discrimination (‘white’ bases often refused accommodation and so drivers had to sleep in their cabs) led to poor morale. Commander of the Eighth Air Force in 1943, Gen. Ira C. Eaker, felt that ‘90% of the trouble with Negro Troops was the fault of the whites.’ His solution was to set up the Combat Support Wing on August 27, 1943 to instil pride in the units and make them feel they were directly contributing to the efforts of the Eighth’s strategic air campaign.  

 

A photo montage of the Combat Support Wing's work.
A photo montage of the Combat Support Wing's work.

 

The Song of the Combat Support Wing.
The Song of the Combat Support Wing.

 

The Combat Support Wing kept the 8th Air Force supplied day and night.
The Combat Support Wing kept the 8th Air Force supplied day and night.

 

Segregation and Violence

The system of segregating facilities instituted by U.S. forces in Britain was expensive because it duplicated effort and slowed the base construction programme. Social segregation between American troops on British soil was more covert, but no less effective. The Commander of U.S. Forces, Gen. Eisenhower, thought an open colour bar was unacceptable in Britain and that discrimination should be ‘sedulously avoided.’ Despite this, the Americans operated an informal ‘stealth’ system of segregation. Towns near camps had ‘white’ and ‘black’ nights. Organisers issued dance invitations by unit to ensure segregation with a ‘limitation of space’ cited as an excuse to exclude unwelcome guests. Pubs and restaurants sometimes faced the threat of an economic boycott by white Americans if they served African American troops. In the larger towns surrounded by many bases, 'stealth' segregation was impossible and so certain areas were designated for the use of African American troops. In late 1943, Commanders designated 8 out of 150 pubs in Ipswich as 'black only' establishments. Those in the St. Peter's Street area and the American Red Cross Club there formed the centre of recreational facilities for African Americans in the town at this time. Further north in the county, the river Dove formed an unofficial border. The towns of Eye and Diss were ‘black’ towns, but all the villages east of the river Dove were out of bounds for African American troops with frequent arrests by patrolling MPs to enforce the rule.

 

The famous heavyweight boxer, Joe Louis, visited the 923rd at Haughley Park on June 11, 1944.
The famous heavyweight boxer, Joe Louis, visited the 923rd at Haughley Park on June 11, 1944.

 

British Officials largely distanced themselves from the developing system of informal segregation. The Home Office informed Chief Constables that it was not the policy of His Majesty’s Government to support discrimination or segregation and that the Police should not act to aid or enforce it. The initial reception of African American troops by the public in Suffolk was largely positive. The Vicar of Haughley published a letter in a local paper in September 1942 announcing that he would welcome a visit from ‘coloured’ troops. The swing bands and dances reportedly also made them popular with the locals of Debach, Eye and Haughley Park.

 

The song by Elton Box, Sonny Cox and Lewis Ilda ‘Choc’late Soldier From the U.S.A.’ published in 1944 was an indication of the popularity of African American soldiers with the British public. With lyrics like ‘now you’ll hear his mammy proud-ly say. He’s “somewhere –er there for Un-cle Sammy” Choc’late Soldier from the U.S.A.’ the song may well have been performed with good intentions, but was patronising and reliant on cultural stereotypes.
The song by Elton Box, Sonny Cox and Lewis Ilda ‘Choc’late Soldier From the U.S.A.’ published in 1944 was an indication of the popularity of African American soldiers with the British public. With lyrics like ‘now you’ll hear his mammy proud-ly say. He’s “somewhere –er there for Un-cle Sammy” Choc’late Soldier from the U.S.A.’ the song may well have been performed with good intentions, but was patronising and reliant on cultural stereotypes.

 

The 923rd ‘Reveilleers’ in full swing.
The 923rd ‘Reveilleers’ in full swing.

There were tensions and difficulties particularly as numbers of white American troops increased and locals tried to avoid clashes. On September 7, 1942, the Daily Herald reported a ban on black GIs attending dances in Eye. It also appeared that they were no longer able to use the town’s reading room with its recreational facilities. A thorough investigation by Col. Plank of the Eastern Base Section discovered that it had actually been the local council who instigated these moves.

 

Mixed Relations

Graham Smith argues that, although there was clearly not an absence of racism among the British, they broadly welcomed African American service personnel. There was, however, a cooling of the welcome around spring 1943 as numbers of white troops brought increased clashes. One area that many Americans and British seemed to agree upon in the early 1940s was that mixed relationships were felt to be socially unacceptable. Clearly not everyone felt this way and white British women seen dancing or walking with African Americans could provoke violence from white American troops. In January 1943, two Americans beat up Sgt. Arthur Waldron, a West Indian gunner on an RAF Stirling bomber, in Bury St. Edmunds after his white dance partner refused their order not to dance with him. Sadly, Waldron later lost his life on operations and so his official complaint went no further. 


British officials worried over sexual relations between white women and black troops. On October 13, 1942 the British Cabinet met and agreed policy that people should avoid being too friendly with coloured troops (this may well be the origins of the actions of the local council at Eye). The Home Office required regional police headquarters to report on friction between white and black troops, breaches of the peace caused by fraternisation of American troops and British girls and, in particular, the association of African Americans and British women. There are even recorded instances of British police using trespass laws against women found with African Americans on U.S. military property.


More than half of the forty-eight states prohibited mixed marriages by law and, as Graham Smith suggests, perhaps a more open debate on the issue might have saved a good deal of difficulty and heartache. The Eighth Air Force Service Command (responsible for many of the black truck drivers in the county) placed a total ban on mixed marriages and rejected all requests. Nevertheless, a Sylvia McNeil Survey for the League of Coloured Peoples 1945 reported a total of thirty-four ‘brown babies’ in Suffolk in 1945 proving that some local women at least had treated the ‘colour line’ with the contempt it deserved. Sadly, as Lucy Bland has investigated, the children of mixed relationships did not experience an easy path in the years following World War II.

 

 

 

Did your African American relative serve with the Eighth Air Force? Do you remember African American personnel in Suffolk? Why not share your story and images?


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