England as a Staging Area

Benjamin B. Ferencz

As night was falling on December 16, 1943, the HMS Strathnaver pulled into port. We soon learned, to our surprise, that we were in Liverpool, England. We disembarked and boarded a train that took us to Manchester. We left the train in darkness with each man carrying all of his equipment on his back. After dragging a mile or two that seemed like ten, we plodded through the entrance of what had been a large amusement park. By the dawn’s early light I could make out a large marquee saying “Bellevue.” I immediately recalled the hospital in New York by that name, which specialized in treating the insane. I felt homesick. We had come to the right place.

Our accommodations were rather improvised. Soldiers in British uniforms directed us to our new abode. It had previously been the elephant house; the prior residents had left us some evidence of their presence. The floor was covered with piles of straw, mostly clean. The British, speaking a foreign tongue they called English, pointed to the straw and seemed to be saying something obscene. It was only when they handed out empty sacks that I understood where we were expected to stuff the straw.

As far as I could figure out, our mission in the Manchester staging area was to wait. We were well trained to do nothing. There was no prohibition against the pursuit of happiness. Bellevue’s surroundings included several pubs and a dance hall. The lovely lassies of Manchester, whose husbands were serving overseas, had been encouraged to raise the morale of the visiting “Yonks.” They performed their patriotic duties in a variety of ways. There were dances every night and morale was high, even if morals were low. A major problem soon arose. The British girls had never known about racial discrimination. White soldiers from the South had heard that “all men are created equal” but they insisted that some were more equal than others. If an English girl started to dance with a black soldier a violent brawl was sure to erupt. It got so bad that blacks, who were segregated in separate companies, were confined to barracks on those days that only whites were allowed to go into town. Before leaving barracks, every man was searched to see if he carried a hidden knife or bayonet. I didn’t realize when I joined the army that the first war I would witness would be between black and white American soldiers.

One evening, I was assigned to do routine Military Police duty at the Bellevue pub. I was given a brassard with the letters MP that I could wrap around my arm. I was assured that it was just a formality since nothing ever happened. I was sitting quietly at the pub when all hell broke loose. It looked like a scene from a John Wayne movie. Chairs and bottles were flying in all directions. Two burly American soldiers were punching each other furiously while a crowd of other inebriates jumped into the fray. Being the military authority in charge, I immediately retreated to the adjacent Ladies Room (not to be confused with the WC) and hid under a table. The two drunks who started the fracas were thrown into the back yard to sleep it off, and things simmered down. I was never one to shirk my duty, and I approached them cautiously and managed to get their names. When my tour as temporary MP was over, I wrote a detailed report on how I had heroically quelled a riot in the Bellevue pub. I thought I might get a bronze star or maybe even a silver star. But I was only a corporal, so I got nothing.

Manchester, like all of England, was completely blacked out at night to avoid being targeted by German planes. The V-2 rockets being perfected by Hitler’s prodigy Werner von Braun (who later was treated as an American hero) had not yet been able to reach much past London. Our antiaircraft guns were useless. But American soldiers are noted for their ingenuity as well as their patriotism and they figured out something that might help win the war. They would work hard to raise the morale of the suffering British public. Unfortunately, most British men were serving overseas. The forlorn females were home alone, in the dark, and in need of consolation. I was consoled by letters and photos from my pinup girl Gertrude, back home in the Bronx, who anxiously awaited my return. Bellevue was surrounded by a tall brick wall. Every night, by moonlight, one could detect that every few yards, pressed along that wall, was an American soldier wearing a heavy woolen coat wrapped around someone to shelter them from the cold. Lonely ladies of Manchester were being consoled. For obvious reasons, they all hated to leave the friendly people of Manchester.

Our next move was south toward Salisbury—much closer to the French coast we were expected to attack. The flat plain seemed a good place to assemble the countless tanks and armored vehicles that would be needed for an invasion of Europe. My tent was literally pitched against one of the famous prehistoric rocks at Stonehenge. One morning at daybreak, I was awakened to find my tent surrounded by a circle of people chanting in white robes. It looked more like the Ku Klux Klan than the German army, but I grabbed my rifle anyway. It turned out that they were harmless pilgrims come to celebrate at what they believed was an ancient religious shrine.

The accommodations there had not been renovated since the stone age. No lights, no heat, no running water—no nothing. The plain was made of solid chalk, as I can attest from the latrines I dug there. I recall the resourcefulness of a G.I. who had an open trailer attached to his jeep. He had pinched a spigot from a brewery somewhere and he plugged it into a hole he bored in the bottom of his trailer. He collected rainwater in the trailer and then lit a fire under it. The genius had invented a way to have a hot bath where there was no plumbing. Hot water on tap! Since he was a friend of mine, he allowed me to put my helmet under the beer spout and he would fill it with “slightly used” hot water. Sometimes he gave me a pint even before he had taken his bath. The warm water was always good for a sponge bath and even for washing socks. Getting the sequence right was important.

In the distance stood the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, which I visited repeatedly to study its beautiful architecture. Not far away was an old English nobleman’s castle. I don’t remember his name but he was noble in spirit as well as title, and I shall never forget his kindness. In the basement of the castle he had built a row of about 6 bathtubs. He would invite the Yanks to come by truck and “have a wash.” Since fuel and water were limited, only a few inches of water were available for each tub. Praise the Lord—whatever his name was. He was a real English gentleman!

One day, while doing my routine filing of army regulations, I came upon an announcement that a special club was being formed to allow distinguished English gentlemen and American gentlemen to come together socially and thereby strengthen relations between the two armies. “The Churchill Club” would meet in the Dean’s Yard of Westminster Abbey in London. Since no American could get into London without having a confirmed place to stay, I immediately applied for membership in the Club. Upon seeing my application, my company Captain also applied and then the battalion Colonel, who had to approve the applications, did the same. I soon received my membership card. Neither the Captain nor the Colonel received any reply. I volunteered to go to my Club in London and find out the cause of the unfortunate and inexplicable delay. I received a legitimate three-day pass to enter the forbidden city.

There were about a million Yanks in London at that time. The common joke among British men was that “the trouble with the Yanks is that they are overpaid, overfed, over sexed, and over here.” I proceeded to “My Club” where I presented my membership card and was greeted with the icy stare of a British doorman. The luxurious surroundings, tapestries and old paintings on the walls, fine rugs, and paneled walls were just like in the movies. I never saw such opulence before; not even at home in The States. I was escorted to the bar where a number of high ranking British and American officers were strengthening relations. No one spoke to me until a British Colonel with a flowing mustache, and a swagger stick under his arm, asked contemptuously, “Corporal, where is your officer?” I said that I was there alone. In England, every college graduate is automatically entitled to officer’s rank. In both the English and American armies fraternization between officers and enlisted men is prohibited. I was the only enlisted-man visible. No officer in the Churchill Club ever deigned to engage me in conversation. I thought of the American Declaration of Independence that it was self-evident that all men are created equal. Obviously, that does not apply when one puts on a military uniform. I was not cowed or impressed by high-ranking snobs. I left and never visited the Churchill Club again.