I can still recall my spiralling sense of discovery at the British Library one morning when I found a story my Dad told us as kids appearing in every single national newspaper I searched – the fusty Times excepted. I learned that one night in September 1943 an “entire company” of American soldiers had calmly returned to their Cornish camp, armed themselves and marched in formation to confront the despised “snowdrops” of the 29th Infantry Division who policed them in the UK. The ensuing firefight in town sent soldiers who would later face Omaha beach sprawling for cover, leading one elderly Cornishman to tell the Daily Mirror: “There hasn’t been anything here like this since the days of the smugglers.” The mutiny captured the tabloid imagination and reporters happily dressed their copy in Hollywood-style cowboy and gangster imagery which was reproduced in newspapers throughout Great Britain and beyond.
When, three weeks later,14 accused members of the 581st Ordnance Ammunition Company stepped into a Devon police court – transformed with enormous stars and stripes and some nifty rearranging of furniture into an American military courtroom – it was front page news.Nobody had died – just two MPs were hospitalised with leg injuries, but it was a case that caused Churchill “grave anxiety” and was potentially so damaging to Anglo American relations that officials airbrushed the verdict. Why?
The clue, I discovered that day in the British Library, was a single detail critical to story’s x-factor, cover-up and continued relevance today: the mutineers ethnicity. The mutiny was committed by African American soldiers in a US Army segregated by race and it came to epitomise the officially unacknowledged racial tension that was exploding with increasing violence all over Britain – to the bewilderment of civilian bystanders. It was a personal turning point. I had wanted to find out what really happened ever since childhood when I felt for myself the holes scorched into British walls by this dramatic display of American firepower. Encouraged by my Dad, whose own childhood memories of shrapnel, rations and V2 bombs, have imbued me with a lifelong love of history, I was determined to find out more. And after nearly 15 years in journalism and history documentary TV production, I knew where to start. Thanks to a lucky freedom of information request in 2006 and more recent research in British and American archives, I was able to put the story back together and into its historical context. Along the way, fascinating characters such as George Orwell, the NAACP’s Walter White, journalist Roi Ottley and cricketing legend Learie Constantine have stepped out from the shadows to reveal a forgotten but crucial strand of Second World War history.
An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy explains what happened that night in the Norman town of Launceston – and an intriguing wider story of how everyday British people reacted against imported American racial violence with a near uniformity that put the “special relationship” itself under great strain before D-Day.
It was why the judge first tried to ban reporters from mentioning race altogether and then, having failed, refused to announce the verdict that his army panel had reached. This meant the African American soldiers who mutinied one night in Cornwall,and whose plight briefly flickered nationally and internationally in 1943,became an obscure and mysterious footnote in the history of Great Britain’s “American Occupation”.
It is a story for anyone interested in the Second World War and the origins of the Civil Rights movement – as encounters like this in the UK (and indeed wherever in the world segregated US servicemen were stationed) inspired a generation of veterans to overcome the odds and register to vote back home. I hope that people reading this in the Authors’ Lounge get a more truthful view of the race and allied relations during the Second World War – I guarantee it will surprise.
I would love An American Uprising to be better known in the United States. It was difficult enough to announce its publication in the UK during lockdown – and impossible to reach out across the Atlantic. I hope it will be made into a documentary and a drama for TV. The lost and now found story must be remembered nearly 80 years on not least because their lives mattered too.
Between writing and publishing the book my family and I have moved to the West Country where we now raise chickens and sheep as well as researching my second book, An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy, is available from Amazon.
I can be reached on twitter @WerranKate and my website is Kate Werran.