On Wednesday 21st May, I visited Dilton Marsh, Westbury, in Wiltshire to talk about Black GIs in Britain during World War II. I had previously supported the society’s successful application for a Heritage Lottery fund grant of £17,600 to support a project on “The Village at War” which will collate and preserve local memories of the wartime experiences in the community. This micro study aims to provide local people and schools with an insight into the impact of war on a small, largely agricultural community, and will include the role of women in the Land Army, the changes in agriculture, and the effects of the” invasion” of American GIs who were camped in the area for several months prior to the D-Day landing.
Amongst these troops was the 960th Quartermaster Service Company – 222 African Americans commanded by five white officers – who were in Dilton Marsh from February to October 1944. When they landed in Europe the 960th were put to work digging graves, something African American troops had experienced from the time of the Civil War onwards. While this was a cause of some resentment among the black soldiers, they could take pride in the fact that they were involved in creating the beautiful U.S. military cemetery in Margraten in the Netherlands where it is carefully tended by local Dutch people.
I provided an overview of the experience of black GIs in Britain and the of the problems posed by the introduction , and sometimes imposition, of American-style racial segregation in the United Kingdom. The History society is trying to discover the extent of segregation and how it impacted on their community and to know more about the wartime relations between black soldiers and the white villagers. They have contacted the US National Archives and have had some responses from Veteran’s organizations. As Neil pointed out, these experiences formed part of both British and African American history and helped to shape race relations both the UK and USA in the coming years. I will also contribute a filmed interview on the CD that that the society will be putting together on this subject.