• U.S.

D-Day: Overpaid, Oversexed, Over Here

5 minute read
George J. Church

The Yanks came with chocolate and left with British brides

The joke in Britain 40 years ago was that only the thousands of stubby little barrage balloons, tugging at their cables above every spot that might offer a target to low-flying German planes, kept the island from sinking into the sea under the weight of men and machines massing for Dday. London was a kaleidoscope of uniforms: British, Commonwealth, French, Norwegian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, Polish and, of course, American. So many U.S. officers worked around Grosvenor Square that G.I.s walking through the area kept their arms raised in semipermanent salute. In the southern counties, near the coast from which the armada would sail, military convoys clogged the crooked lanes of the countryside; entire fields disappeared under swarms of tanks and trucks and piles of ammunition and fuel.

Everybody was trying to figure out what to make of the roughly 1.5 million Americans who poured into England between July 1943 and Dday, introducing many Britons to such exotica as jitterbugging, Jeeps and even pitchers’ mounds. When a mound was installed in Wembley Stadium for a baseball game between two U.S. service teams in early June 1944, the London Times informed puzzled readers that “its use adds to the speed of throw.” Despite their far-reaching empire, many Britons, particularly in the smaller towns, had never seen a black man until the G.I.s arrived.

The Americans, bursting into an England gone drab and gray and plagued with shortages of everything after four years of war, were nothing if not jaunty. Residents of Somerset still remember G.I.s tossing chocolate bars and gum out of passing trucks to goggle-eyed children. According to a popular gag, so much American chewing gum had been tossed in the fountains of London’s Trafalgar Square that the pigeons there were laying rubber eggs.

“Hi ya, cutie” was the universal greeting called out to females from 15 to 50. “They took all the girls,” mutters one British war veteran who on the whole liked the Americans. And indeed the walls outside American barracks were lined every night with panting couples twined in a last embrace before bed check. William D. Kendall, who represented the town of Grantham, complained in Parliament that “it is unfit for a woman to walk unescorted” there because of the “unconcealed immorality” of the G.I.s. Others of course had a different opinion; some 60,000 British women eventually became American war brides.

Grouse though they did about the G.I.s being “overpaid, oversexed and over here,” most Britons found the Americans to be warmhearted and valiant Allies. Thousands of English families opened their homes to American servicemen, who responded with equal generosity. Glen Brimblecombe of Ilsington in Devon recalls that as a child “I wanted a bicycle for Christmas. Very selfish, I know now, for Mum could not afford it. Mac, an American sailor from Stover Camp, whom I can still remember, appeared on Christmas morning with a brand-new Elswick bicycle.”

All the while, an air of tension was building. Everyone speculated about the date of the invasion, despite the posters that exhorted CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES and ended in an execrable pun, BE LIKE DAD. KEEP MUM. An American major general blabbed at a cocktail party, “On my honor, the invasion takes place before June 13.” An angry Dwight Eisenhower ordered him reduced in rank to lieutenant colonel and sent back to the U.S. As the invasion was about to begin, Leonard Dawe, a physics teacher who composed crossword puzzles for the London Daily Telegraph, was grilled by Scotland Yard detectives. They could not believe Dawe was unaware that such words as Utah, Omaha, Neptune and Overlord, all of which had appeared in his puzzles, were code names connected with Dday.

As D-day drew closer, English civilians saw increasingly less of the Americans, or for that matter their own soldiers. As early as December 1943, residents were cleared out of coastal villages that the invaders needed for training and sent elsewhere for a year or so. Butcher George Hannaford recalls that when he returned home to the hamlet of Torcross at the age of 13, “a cowshed and a pigsty were demolished out back of my father’s shop, and apple trees were down. It was a tank park there, I think.” After April 1,1944, no unauthorized civilian travelers were allowed within ten miles of some eastern and all southern shores.

The armies then stepped up massive landing rehearsals against fortifications similar to those the Germans had erected in Normandy. Exercise Tiger, off Slapton Sands on April 28, ended in tragedy when German torpedo boats slipped into a line of landing ships and sank two. A total of 750 Americans died. Though a U.S. divisional history mentioned the incident as far back as 1948, it has attracted widespread attention only in recent weeks.

On the night of June 5, American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division boarded C-47s at Greenham Common and embarked on their fateful flight to Normandy. Today the airbase there is the scene of bitter protests by the British peace movement against the stationing of U.S. nuclear missiles. “Oh, how short our memories are!” exclaimed the writer of a recent letter to a local weekly, taking angry issue with the protesters.

After the anticipation of the pre-invasion weeks, the great battle “seemed almost anticlimactic,” recalls Kathleen Frost, who as a clerk typed up some of the D-day orders. Today the beaches, lanes and fields of southern England are quiet again, ever-present plaques the prime mementos of the frenzied activity of 40 years ago. American ex-G.I.s sometimes visit, walk those familiar streets, stay the night. But the atmosphere cannot be recreated: the girls, the buddies, the excitement, all are gone. The old soldiers take solace in memory, and in the wonderful glow of victory.

—By George J. Church.

Reported by Arthur White/London

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com