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“Don’t Be A Show Off”

June 2024
2min read

The book that taught GI’s how to behave in England

There were three deadly serious crimes a serviceman could commit, said the United States Army Air Corps commander Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz; “Murder, rape, and interference with Anglo-American relations. The first two might conceivably be pardoned, but the third one, never.” Seemingly Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed. When he learned that two different-nationality officers of his integrated staff had exchanged harsh words, he sent the American one home. “He only called me a son of a bitch, sir,” the second party to the dispute told Eisenhower.

“I am informed that he called you a British son of a bitch. That is quite different. My ruling stands.”

On the subject of British-American relations, Eisenhower was, he said, a “fanatic.”

“Every American soldier coming to Britain,” he remembered, “was almost certain to consider himself a privileged crusader, sent there to help Britain out of a hole. He would expect to be treated as such.” The British view was that their country had held the fort against Hitler in the name of civilization’s values while America was booming on the Empire’s poured-out financial resources.

Now the Yanks had come, arriving to a place made by the war—pinched, straitened, anxious, grim and grimy, and dark and chilly for lack of fuel. Food was scarce. Clothing was unobtainable. King George VI ordered the painting of a line five inches from the bottom of Buckingham Palace bathtubs to show the level above which lukewarm water must not rise.

But the Americans, taking down four times the pay of the British Tommy, could at the PX find fruits, whiskey, cookies, chocolate, cigarettes, and gum. The possibilities of culture clash were obvious.

The U.S. War Department set out to do what it could. It produced Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942 , some 7,000 words, recently reprinted by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library in a pocket-sized edition with an introduction remarking that at the time of original publication, The Times of London compared the pamphlet with the works of Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in their time also tried to interpret Britain for an American readership.

Sixty-five years on, we read: “You will be Britain’s guest… . Don’t refer to the First World War by saying America came over and won it… . Don’t play into Hitler’s hands by mentioning war debts.

“NEVER criticize the King or Queen… . Britain’s money is in pound, shilling, and pence… . all your arguments that the American decimal system is better won’t convince them… . Britons are often more reserved… . it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. The British have phrases and colloquialisms that may seem funny to you. You can make just as many boners in their eyes. Don’t say ‘bloody’ in mixed company, don’t say ‘bum.’

“don’t be a show off. Look, listen and learn before you start telling the British how much better we do things… . The British ‘Tommy’ is apt to be specially touchy about the difference in his wages and yours… . Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him…. Avoid swiping his girl.

“The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap… . We have so much in common—our language, laws, ideals of religious freedom… . Most people get used to the English climate eventually… . If invited for a meal, go easy. It may be the family’s rations for a whole week.”

Time proved the generals’ fears groundless. There was very little unpleasantness. With the passage of time nothing so evoked to the British the gone days and departed GIs as the playing of the golden oldies “Moonlight Serenade” and “Stardust,” even as London hotels came to charge for a night what Tommy got for a year and the West End restaurants served Thai, Japanese, Greek, and Indian delicacies instead of the war’s mushy Brussels sprouts and boiled potatoes—while back in their own country those who had read Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942 turned gray and then white and now are passing on.

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