The Second World War was the largest and deadliest war in history, as Allied forces fought to defeat Hitler’s fascist ambitions of world domination. Littered with era-defining battles such as Stalingrad, D-Day and Midway, you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of the Battle of Bamber Bridge.
Unlike the other conflicts during WWII, Bamber Bridge didn’t take place between Allied and Axis forces. Occurring in the quiet village of Bamber Bridge in the heart of Lancashire, American troops from two different military units opened fire on each other during the night of 24-25 June 1943.
The reason? Fuelled by American racial segregation, tensions between U.S. white and black troops boiled over, resulting in an early civil rights struggle that played out on British soil.
This is the story of one of WWII's most unusual conflicts.
Ever since the RAF successfully defended the UK from Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, the country had become an important staging post as the Allies looked to gain a foothold once again in Occupied Europe. This meant that troops from a variety of Allied countries were stationed at one point or another in Britain, including nearly two million American servicemen between 1942 and 1945.
The village of Bamber Bridge, which lies around 30 miles northwest of Manchester and three miles southeast of Preston, played host to the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment of the Eighth Air Force. The American regiment was based at Air Force Station 569, nicknamed ‘Adam Hall’ and lay on Mounsey Road in Bamber Bridge.
The regiment was a logistical unit, tasked with moving war materiel to other U.S. Air Force bases around Lancashire. The unit was almost entirely made up of black troops, whilst the officers were nearly all white. Stationed to the north of Bamber Bridge were the 234th U.S. Military Police Company, a unit made of entirely white soldiers.
At that time, the U.S. military was racially segregated, divided units based on skin colour and openly endorsed racism. Back home, many of the American States employed Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation. Nothing of such was in place in Britain, therefore black American servicemen were well received by the locals, sometimes more so than their white counterparts.
As celebrated English novelist George Orwell once wrote, ‘the general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.’ (sic)
Black Troops Only
With racial tensions within the American military reaching boiling point, fuelled by the recent Detroit race riot that led to the deaths of 34 people, Bamber Bridge became the cinder which lit the proverbial fuse.
In the wake of Detroit, American troops attempted to demand a ‘colour bar’ in the village. However, the locals adamantly objected and the three pubs in Bamber Bridge all put out signs saying, ‘Black Troops Only’. The locals were firmly in support of the black soldiers and refused to bow to the racist laws of the U.S. military.
On the night of 24 June 1943, troops from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck regiment were enjoying drinks in the Ye Olde Hob Inn. Reports vary but it seems that at least one troop attempted to keep the night going and buy beer after the last orders had been called.
Two passing American MPs (Military Police) were alerted and entered the premises. They attempted to arrest Private Eugene Nunn on the infraction he wasn't wearing the required uniform. An argument broke out with the locals, including British servicewomen of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and others from the 1511th who all backed Nunn.
A black Staff Sergeant successfully diffused the situation until a bottle was thrown at the departing MP's Jeep. Unwilling to let that lie, the MPs gathered reinforcements and ambushed the members of the 1511th as they walked back to base. A fight ensued and shots were fired.
Fight breaks out
It didn't take long for rumours to reach Adam Hall that a soldier had been killed and white MPs were out to shoot black troops. Panic quickly ensued, suppressed all but briefly by the only black officer in the unit, Lieutenant Edwin D. Jones. However, when several Jeeps pulled up to the base around midnight, loaded with armed MPs and accompanied by an armoured car with a machine gun, the 200 black troops of the 1511th grabbed all the weapons they could find.
Villagers were told to stay indoors as the firefight broke out. British police officers later claimed the MPs had set up roadblocks and ambushed the black soldiers. In the ensuing gunfight, seven men were wounded and one, Private William Crossland, was killed.
The fight came to an end around 4am and the soldiers and MPs returned to their bases.
In the immediate aftermath of the fight, blame was firmly placed on the black soldiers. Two trials were carried out which resulted in 32 convictions including mutiny, seizing arms, firing upon officers, rioting and ignoring orders. Sentences ranged from hard labour to 15 years in prison. None of the white MPs were ever charged, not even the one who fired the fatal shot at Private Crossland.
However, support for the black troops eventually came from up high, as General Eaker, Commander of the Eighth Air Force, placed most of the blame back on the white MPs. Appeals saw all 32 sentences reduced, with the longest serving time brought down to 13 months.
Eaker introduced several changes in the wake of the incident, including combining the trucking units into one special command, removing racist and inexperienced white officers from the unit, as well as racially integrating the MP patrols. In 1948, the U.S. Armed Forces officially ended segregation within the military upon the Executive Order of President Harry S. Truman.
The Battle of Bamber Bridge marked not only a turning point for the U.S. military but also for American society. Sparking debate about racial integration and equality, it became a precursor to the events that unfolded on American soil during the Civil Rights Movement.