On January 26, the first influx of American troops arrived in the British Isles during World War II. To a large extent, the British had been single-handedly holding off Nazi Germany for over two years, and the Americans were greeted with both relief and curiosity when they finally landed in the United Kingdom, or, more formally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
After the steady stream of depressing news that had been a regular fare after Pearl Harbor, the arrival of American soldiers in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 26, 1942 was reported with a sigh of relief. At the time, German U-boats were operating, with seeming impunity, off the Atlantic coast of the United States, so there was cause for concern. The first contingent had run the gauntlet of German U-boats and had arrived safely.
Soldiers of the US Army’s 34th Infantry Division, the “Red Bull” Division, landed in Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 26, 1942. The soldiers had been part of convoy A-10 that sailed from Brooklyn, New York on January 15, 1942. The convoy included two troopships bearing 4,058 American combat soldiers.
The Red Bull Division, a National Guard outfit, had been federalized in February 1941 with troops drawn from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The first soldiers to disembark in Belfast were from the Division’s 133rd Infantry Regiment out of Minnesota. Private Milburn Henke of Hutchinson, Minnesota was reported to be the first American soldier to land on British soil. A number of other soldiers, however, had already come ashore and gotten to work before the press captured a smiling Henke waving to the Belfast crowd as he came down the gangway.
The Belfast crowd greeted the American troops warmly. A local band played “Marching Through Georgia,” a song penned at the end of the Civil War to celebrate Union General William T. Sherman’s successful march from Atlanta to the Sea. Crowds gathered along the route the American units marched.
In the crowd, some women remarked that they had expected the Americans to be taller. The presence of American soldiers, however, was seen as a sign among the population that the threat of German invasion of the British Isles was, at last, starting to ebb. Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland had suffered from German air raids in April and May 1941, and concerns about a possible German invasion remained even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in mid 1941.
American servicemen were stationed in Northern Ireland and throughout Great Britain from Scotland to Cornwall (and all parts between). Sent in advance of the planned invasion of Europe, those troops were anxious to join the fight against Hitler. Soldiers and air by the thousands were ferried over in convoys. In all, about 300,000 American soldiers deployed to Northern Ireland. By the end of the war, 1.5 million would be stationed in Great Britain or would pass through to fight in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany.
Although the British people (for the most part) were glad to see the American servicemen, there were complications and resentments. The British people had been at war for over two years and were well used to going without and making due. When the Americans arrived their stomachs were full (and so were their pockets). Some in the Belfast crowd reportedly muttered something about the Yanks being “over-paid, over-sexed and over-here.”
The War Department tried to mitigate some of that friction by developing an orientation pamphlet. Because many of the servicemen had never been abroad before, the War Department deployed them a pamphlet called Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland to familiarize them with the country, its weather, dress, customs, and culture.
The pamphlet urged the soldiers to remember "Every American soldier is an unofficial ambassador of goodwill." Although “Irish girls are friendly,” the War Department authors noted traditional norms were common in rural areas where “the old ideas still exist.” Nonetheless, the troops were told that “modern trends” and wartime pressures have “liberalized social attitudes” in the cities.
There were cautions about religious and political differences between Northern and Southern Ireland. The pamphlet also observed, “Argument for its own sake is a Scotch-Irish specialty, and arguing politics might be called a national sport.” As a result, the pamphlet concluded with the strong advice that American troops “avoid arguing religion or politics.”
The War Department developed a similar pamphlet titled Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. This pamphlet was designed to familiarize servicemen with life in Britain—the history, culture, and even the slang. The pamphlet also encouraged the troops to get along with the British people to help defeat Hitler. It was filled with advice such as “Don’t be a show off,” “NEVER criticize the King or Queen,” and “The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”
The pamphlet concluded by telling the servicemen that while in Great Britain, their slogan should be “It is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”
The Museum’s Collection features letters, photos, and V-MAIL from servicemen stationed in the United Kingdom. They describe what it was like to be away from home for the first time. In a V-MAIL letter from January 1944, PVT Earl Jenkins told an old friend in Pennsylvania that “the sun doesn’t come out much” and “I don’t know why I ever thought I’d like to come here for. It’s alright in spots. But only a very few spots.”
He wrote again in February about the waiting. “I sure wish they would get started here. It really gets on your nerves just to sit and think about it.” Clell Bailey wrote to his nephew how much “one appreciates getting mail in the E.T.U.”
One from John Husak, writing about his time in London, was to a friend back home, “Boy! Alden, as long as there is an England I won’t have to worry about being a bachelor.” Later in the letter he said that “the air raid shelters sure come in handy when you are courting a girl.” Toward the end of the letter, he came to the conclusion that it might not be his personal charms that keeps the ladies attentive but the “chewing gum, candy etc.” that he had been providing them.
The American servicemen in the British Isles knew how important their mission was and they understood the dangers. They flew and fought, defending our country and our allies and, ultimately, defeating the Nazis. When the war ended, the United States relationship with Great Britain did not. On a national and strategic level, the United States and the United Kingdom remained close allies and deepened the “Special relationship” forged during the war.
On a more tactical and personal level, another aspect of the “Special Relationship” flourished after the troops from the Red Bull Division and those who followed them disembarked in the British Isles. Over 60,000 British and another 1,800 Irish women married American servicemen. Many of the War brides came to the United States after the war, and many children were born from relationships formed during the war.
As a result, the United States and the American people continue to enjoy a “Special Relationship” with our allies across the Atlantic.
Michael S. Bell, PhD
Mike Bell is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.