During World War II, the United States established air bases in East Anglia to support daylight bombing against the Axis powers in Europe. Throughout the region, small communities made way for the construction of large-scale airdromes. Farm land turned into a landscape of concrete, Nissan huts, and the implements of war as American bomber and fighter groups built significant infrastructure for operations against Nazi-held targets deep inside Europe. The sudden appearance of the Eighth Air Force in rural England, the rapid growth of the number of bases over a short time frame, and the resulting daily struggle for life and death over the skies of England and the continent forged a unique sense of community in these British villages and towns. For the American air crews and ground personnel and their British hosts, their common goals, together with the daily demonstration of sacrifice by the young air crews for Mother England and the Free World, shaped a special relationship between the embattled British people and their distant American cousins from "over the pond."
There occurred a cross-Atlantic cultural exchange when these tens of thousands of young American airman and their support crews interrelated with the citizens of rural East Anglia. While too often trivialized by references to the British complaint that the Yanks were “over paid, over sexed, and over here,” the interview record has shown that during this time of grave international trial, young men from America and families in England were drawn together in a community of crisis. They shared their cultural values, developed close personal relationships, and sometimes conflicted. From experiences positive and negative, the lives of both Americans and the British were profoundly changed, impacting not only the generation that experienced the war, but other generations that followed as well.
Recent trends in the literature of military history have revealed that historians have broadened their approach to the study of military manoeuvre and contest to include much more than the operational realities of conflict. The New Military History, as it has come to be called, has added social history to the mix, providing a more diverse portrait of the human experience in war. New tools and sources add to the resources applied to the story of war and the men and women who were the actors in that drama. Oral history is one such tool that can bring diverse threads to the historical canvas: music, culture, language, food, religion, and a host of other elements that can play a role in the unfolding story. These stories of community, once considered new elements in the military narrative, have become a traditional component of the literary deposition laid down as the historical record. More than mere facts and figures of manoeuvre, tactics, or grand strategy, oral history often tells us more about the world in which the military drama played out. As historians considered the social history in the military arena, oral history as a tool has grown in importance and frequency of use. Across the university landscape, oral history programs and centers have sprung up to support the new scholarship. Over the last quarter century technological advances have paved the way for oral history to grow as a sub-discipline and to develop as one tool among many for the historian. More recent and dramatic developments in digital technology have created other tools that perhaps need to be added to the military history arsenal. The East Anglia Air War Project (EAAWP), based at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas, has expanded its study of Allied air operations and World War II England to include a full array of technology tools.
In 2002, the EAAWP was established with the goal to preserve the memory and history of community in wartime England, in particular the community established between the American airman who came in large numbers beginning in 1942 and the British families who lived in rural England near and around the American bomber and fighter bases. The project focuses on the agricultural areas north and northwest of London where large numbers of American air bases were established among the farming villages and towns that stretch from Norwich on the east to Kettering to the west of Cambridge. The target interview audience has been American aircrews and ground personnel stationed in the Eighth Air Force and British family members who were children or young adults during World War II. Since 2014 the Ninth Air Force bases and areas have been added to the study. The underlying oral history methodology continues to rely heavily on an archival research design and a literature review of a growing historiography of secondary works, memoirs, and regimental histories.
Historical archaeology proved to be an essential tool in developing historical data relating to life on the American air bases in East Anglia and in the surrounding villages. Today the historic sites are deteriorating, but much of the physical environment remaining offers clues to the history that played out there during World War II. Archaeological site surveys produced maps and photograph collections that revealed patterns of site use, structural relationships, and living styles that adds to wartime memory. The archaeological survey supported a varied investigation of the physical environment that addressed these four specific objectives:
1. Collect data that will establish a sense of place and demonstrate how the built environment figured into community
2. Examine and record structural relationships, construction descriptions, and building use.
3. Determine the level of decay and residual evidence remaining that confirms archival and interview evidence.
4. Create databases, still photography, and videography collections relating to the historic site.
These collections will support the oral history interviews associated with the events at that World War II venue.
It will be worth a few moments to examine a sample site survey to see how the methodology assisted the oral historian with outcomes from such collateral work. The 381st Bombardment Group was one of many such heavy bomber units arriving in the East Anglia area in England after 1941. The 381st’s base at Ridgewell, not far from Cambridge, was one of many such airdromes constructed in rural England during the war. In almost every case, these bases were placed among pastoral villages where more than 3,500 Americans arrived to live among the small rural population. Constructed in a hurry and suffering from wartime shortages of building materials and labor, these bases became home for a bomb group for the duration of the war. Ridgewell and the 381st Bomb Group became an early priority for EAAWP’s oral history interviews and its collateral field operations in England.
Control Tower, Wartime Ridgewell Night work at Ridgewell during the war
Since 2001 more than fifty oral interviews of 381st Bomb Group air and ground crews have been produced. In conjunction with the interview program, in summer 2002 the EAAWP conducted a historical site survey at Ridgewell using a team of eighteen university students and two historians. Using site maps of wartime Ridgewell, the team (see images below) produced a collection of materials that documented the following historical realities and opportunities for additional study:
1. The survival status of structures from wartime Ridgewell to the present day.
2. Produced a survey of major elements at Site 3 and Site 11, representing the largest remaining groups of buildings of any of the wartime sites at Ridgewell.
3. Documented patterns of construction that provided essential data on the patterns of living and site use by individuals and by groups.
4. Identified a disposal area where both military artifacts and personal refuse were found. No previous disturbances are evident so this site holds great promise for a future excavation.
Site Survey Underway at Site 3 and Site 11 at Ridgewell, England 2002
The resulting data collection relating to the physical place at Ridgewell added essential evidence to the oral history collection. Further, the potential for future excavations at the newly-identified refuse dump at Ridgewell promised to yield a significant collection of artifacts, many of which relate to the living conditions for the Americans at Ridgewell. Figure 2 contains a sampling of surface artifacts collected at the proposed excavation site. Notice that the pictured artifacts include not only aircrafts parts, but also personal items such as a toothbrush and a shaving cream tube, all discarded at Ridgewell before 1945. These samples and the presense of a large scatter field on the site’s surface, suggests that a future excavation would yield a significant collection of physical evidence about life at Ridgewell during the war.
Surface Artifact Samples at Ridgewell Dump Site (courtesy Graham Thussell)
While archaeological operations at the related historic sites produce valuable data for the interview collection, steps are taken during the interview session to add to the collateral collection as well. During the years since the site survey, a large number of 381st Bomb Group interviews have been added to the oral history collection.
Writing the First Book Begins in 2015
After over almost a decade and a half of research and interviewing, I have begun the first volume to draw on the historical materials developed by the East Anglia Air War Project. The volume is tentatively titled: Crucible of War: The Anglo/American Exchange in World War II England, 1942-1945. This book will explore the World II experiences of American ground and air crews in wartime England, and the British rural families who lived in the villages and towns in and around the Americans. The project will examine the sense of community that held them together from 1942 to 1945. The volume will be the first such study to incorporate an extensive new oral history interview collection relating to the joint Anglo/American communities that stretched across East Anglia and west into the Midlands in rural England. I have conducted a series of archaeological site surveys of base sites, in context with neighboring villages and towns that will answer questions about the built environment, the sense of place and the living patterns that existed during the wartime years. Together, with newly found manuscripts and other collateral materials that accompany the oral history collection, the volume will provide new insights on the social history of the war in England before 1945.
Crucible of War will be organized into seven chapters:
Chapter 1. Setting the Stage
Chapter 2. Little America
Chapter 3. Race: The Shifting Landscape
Chapter 4. The Moral Dilemma
Chapter 5. Glamour and Hollywood
Chapter 6. A Sense of Place
Chapter 7. War Brides
Chapter 8. Bonds that are Never Broken
Chapter 9. Epilogue
1. Setting the Stage–this chapter will introduce the war in England beginning in September 1939 and explore early American involvement in strategic planning, preparations for the air war and later military operations against Germany, and the emerging construction strategy that will grow into a massive American presence in rural England.
2. Little America—will examine the built environment that developed in East Anglia and west across the Midlands. Emphasis will be made on the sense of community that developed between the British and Americans in the villages and towns and on the architectural footprint that changed village life in much of the rural areas north of London.
3. Race: The Shifting Landscape—this chapter will explore the introduction of large numbers of African-American troops into the largely all-white British rural community, the cross-cultural interchange, the arrival of large numbers of all-white American military units, and the resulting racial conflict that developed across England.
4. The Moral Dilemma—with the arrival of large numbers of American military personnel throughout England, problems developed that strained the social framework in British society. Promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, unwed mothers, threats to the institution of marriage, and the confusion to standards of morality—all contributed to a growing sense of crisis in a society suffering from threats from many fronts.
5. Glamour and Hollywood—During World War II a new American-style of music made its appearance in England, dominating the Anglo-American cultural exchange that reached dramatic proportions after 1942. American big band music, coupled with the jitterbug dance craze, swept the British Isles by storm during the war years. Glenn Miller’s arrival in England with his new Army Air Corps Band in 1944 triggered a new blitz for the British—this one much more pleasant than the German one. Reaching out into the rural heartland, Miller’s band played over eight hundred concerts, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, and aired live concerts on the BBC from the Corn Exchange in Bedford. The resulting invasion of the new band music and dance craze signaled a new optimism in wartime Britain, lifted up morale for both the Americans and the British across war-weary England and provided a platform for a growing cross-cultural exchange as the American presence grew to a staggering level in the last years of the war. The wartime musical trends lasted well into the 1950s when a new revolutionary musical style exploded upon the scene—rock n’ roll.
6. A Sense of Place—for many Americans East Anglia and the villages and towns across rural England became a refuge from the stress and terror that was the air war against Germany. Air crews who flew missions against dangerous targets and survived the battle in the skies across occupied Europe, returned to their base and the villages nearby. These villages and the British families who lived there provided a sense of normalcy that staved off the war temporarily and allowed the Americans recovery time before the next mission. As the war wore on, a sense of home developed in the comfortable cottages around the base, the pubs, passes to London, weekly dances, church fetes, and in other routines that mediated that rigors of war. This chapter will examine the American and British experience and how the war established a sense of place in the villages and towns across England.
7. War Brides—for many British families the arrival of the Americans in England signaled more than a momentary cultural exchange, it produced dramatic change, upheaval, struggle, loss and for many a victory of sorts. My interest in the war brides part of the story produced a series of oral interviews that disclosed much more than the tale of the young British wives and their new lives in the United States. These narratives revealed much about the lives of British families, the impact of the European war on family life, and the cultural collision that took place as an American soldier entered the family structure and threatened the status quo. Marriage to an American meant a goodbye and separation that for many proved permanent and forever. This chapter will examine these social realities and the cultural exchange that they produced.
8. Bonds that are Never Broken—this chapter will investigate the relationships developed during the war and how those relationships have fared over the years since 1945. Has the sense of community in wartime England survived? Is there a significant bond between the people of England and the Americans that is based on the wartime experience? How does succeeding generations of British family members view the Americans and the wartime experience? How was the war brought home to the British villagers? How does memory add to the historical record in British minds?
The manuscript will be finished and submitted to the published by the end of 2016. Updates on the progress of Crucible of War will be posted here.
University Field Team to England in June 2016
On June 1, 2016 a team of student historians led by Dr. Vernon L. Williams will arrive in England to work on World War II history in Essex and Suffolk areas north of London. The team will be based at the Ministry of Defence Police facilities at Wethersfield (just north of Braintree), the former World War II site where the 416th Bomb Group flew missions against occupied Germany during the war. The team will work on historical projects that will include oral history interviews, documentary film projects, museum exhibits, archaeological survey work, presenting history programs for the public, and producing a digitalization project for historical materials for the communities and local history committees. As the project unfolds, the team will post on this website regular updates, videos clips, and images showing the work as it is underway. Make a point to return to this website in June to follow the team’s progress.
The four images below picture Wethersfield during wartime.
The following selected exhibit panels were produced are part of a 30-panel exhibition gifted to Shalford village in 2008. They contain a few images from the wartime history of Shalford. A new series of exhibits and public programs are planned for both Shalford and Wethersfield should the June 2016 project go forward.
Dr. Vernon L. Williams is a military and naval historian. He received his doctorate from Texas A&M University in 1985. He is currently serving as professor of history in the Department of History at Abilene Christian University. Since 2001 Dr. Williams has been working to document the wartime experiences of American and British citizens alike. Planned outcomes from this project include several books over the next few years. Currently Dr. Williams is writing a volume on the sense of community that developed between the Americans and British families living in villages around the American bases. The working title for the book is: Crucible of War: The Anglo/American Exchange in World War II England, 1942-1945. A number of documentary films have been produced and more are in production and pre-production stages. For over a decade Dr. Williams' university students have also produced a series of short documentary films on wartime England that are gifted to British schools and museums for use in teaching current generations of British students about World War II in England. For more about Dr. Williams and his background, check the appropriate links below: