IT’S more than 70 years since American GIs first landed on British soil to join their allies during the Second World War.
Before the conflict with Germany, many British people would never have met an American and only knew them as the gangsters and cowboys depicted in the Hollywood films that were so popular with British
Generous, boisterous and eager to meet women, GIs earned more than five times the wages of a British soldier and brought with them such exotic luxuries as candy, Coca-Cola, cigarettes and nylons.
When the war was over, about three million US soldiers had passed through Britain with around 70,000 British women becoming GI brides and an estimated 9,000 ‘war babies’ born out of wedlock.
Aiming to chronicle this extraordinary invasion in more detail are Midlands husband and wife team Martin and Fran Collins who have been writing books about US military units based in the UK for the past 20 years.
The couple’s work is full of detailed research and reveals the minutiae about the structure that serviced the US forces over here including information on the supply depots, post offices, hospital camps and the servicemen and women behind the men on the front line.
“The interest started when Martin’s grandmother used to share stories with him of the GIs based at the large American post office that was based in her home town of Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire,” says Fran.
After writing their first book, Letters for Victory, about the First Base Post Office, the couple were bitten by the bug and continued researching units based further afield, including bases in Warwickshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire – and for their most recent book, those in Shropshire, Wrexham and Flintshire.
US Army Hospital Center 804 tells the story of the five US Army hospitals located on the Shropshire and Flintshire/Wrexham border during the Second World War.
Fran and Martin reveal the secrets behind the centres at Llanerch Panna, Penley, Iscoyd Park, Oteley Deer Park and Halston Hall.
“The two hospitals in Wrexham, Llanerch Panna and Penley, were the first of the group to be completed and occupied by American military personnel,” explains Fran.
“During 1943 and the early part of 1944, the hospitals acted as medical units for US soldiers training in the area, but after D-Day they received casualties from the combat zone who had travelled by train from ports in the South.
“Llanerch Panna was built originally to take just over 800 patients while Penley could accommodate around 1,000.
“But due to higher casualty figures than expected, it was necessary for both hospitals to extend their capacity to over one and a half thousand by fixing tents onto the ends of wards.”
The influx of American personnel into the area unsurprisingly had a big impact on the surrounding towns, especially on the female population.
“On the whole the new residents were welcomed into the area, particularly by the young ladies and the children,” says Fran.
“A number of the female residents succumbed to the charms of the smartly dressed servicemen with their Hollywood accents and, as the war progressed, there were a number of weddings between local girls and American soldiers. They took place at Poyser Street Methodist Church, Wrexham, St Mary’s Cathedral, Wrexham and Wrexham Parish Church.”
The book also reports on stories of less savoury liaisons between US servicemen and the local girls such as one married woman who was labelled ‘The Unworthy Wife of a Hero’ in the Wrexham Leader after she was charged with the wilful neglect of her four children, who she left ‘home alone’ while dating GIs.
Elsewhere the book looks at the day-to-day activities at the military hospitals using archive material and accounts as well as unpublished photos from those who were there at the time and their relatives.
“Muriel Engelman, a nurse based at Penley who is now in her 90s, has contributed her stories and photos to the book,” says Fran.
“While based at the 16th General Hospital at Penley, she managed to track down some of her Russian-born relatives living in the Manchester area and one of her colleagues from the 16th, nurse Sylvia Johnson, returned to England at the end of the war to marry the legendary Spitfire pilot and TV presenter, Raymond Baxter.”
The book also looks in depth at the stories of some of the patient-soldiers who passed through the hospitals and examines the impressions of the local area from the personnel staffing the hospitals as well as the patients.
“A lot of the books about the US forces concentrate on fighting units,” adds Fran, “but we’re interested in the support units, such as the hospitals and the army postal service. “They provided the framework that enabled the war to be won.”
l Signed copies of ‘U.S. Army Hospital Center 804’ are available from the authors at a cost of £12.95 & £2 postage. This can be paid through paypal: email@example.com or by cheque payable to Mrs F.D. Collins posted to Martin and Fran Collins 3 Ipswich Crescent, Great Barr, Birmingham B42 1LY.
Fran and Martin would also love to hear stories of those who remember the GIs to add to their archive information. Contact Fran directly or email firstname.lastname@example.org