Gaddesby Hall and it’s GI Guests
American soldiers watch a baseball match in Abbey Park, Leicester during WW2; a carefree moment in troubled times. These troubles weren’t all supplied by the Nazis. When white airborne troops arrived in Leicestershire, they brought all their prejudices from back home with them. But the black ordnance and quartermaster units already in the county had tasted the freedoms denied them in the States. Tensions grew. And on February 28, 1944, race war broke out on the streets of Leicester, with at least 12 servicemen knifed.
In May 1944, just a month before D-Day, Britain housed more than a million US troops, with 12,000 billeted in Leicestershire. The Leicester Mercury reported: “A military policeman was one of two American soldiers who received fatal injuries. One died from a knife wound in the neck (Abrams), the other is stated to have died from self-inflicted wounds (Phares).
Evington Lane where airborne troops were in a tent camp
While white GIs sought to have their black counterpart banned from pubs, clubs and cinemas and frequently subjected them to physical and verbal assault – “Our biggest enemy was our own troops.”– many ordinary Britons welcomed the black troops into their homes – and on several occasions physically stood up for them against their tormentors. The American Red Cross Service Club in Burdett House, 124 Granby Street was run to provide GI’s with a ready meal, an overnight bed and a dance date with local girls who were willing to be entertained the men at local dance halls jiving and jitterbugging.
On the night of February 28, 1944, civil War broke out on the streets of Leicester as black and white American soldiers fought pitched battles against each other. It was the first race riot of the modern age. At least 12 servicemen were knifed. The American Red Cross Club, in Granby Street, was wrecked (Burdett House, 124 Granby Street?). The following day, Lt Col Herbert Batcheller issued every paratrooper (with prized jump boots and bloused out trousers) from the ‘all-white‘ 82nd Airborne Division a pass out for the evening. We can only guess at his intentions, but the upshot was all too clear. Leicester was swamped with men hell-bent on exacting bloody retribution. “There wasn’t much trouble after that,” recalls Albert, then a Sergeant on the white side of the military divide. “The Military Police expected the locals to resent the presence of the blacks but the locals readily sided with the blacks. The MPs, using racial expletives, tried to frighten the blacks, who fought back with bricks and bottles.”
Shortly afterwards, black supply and service units, based in Gaddesby Hall, were transferred 28 miles away to Kettering. It was reported that they broke into an armoury in Kettering, stealing guns to take revenge on the 82nd Airborne Division. Roadblocks were set up by Military Police on the A6 Road. On Monday, May 1, 1944, a white US Military Policeman (Abrams) was murdered by a black soldier in the Humberstone Road, he died from a knife wound in the neck according to a blink-and-you’d-miss-it report in the Leicester Mercury.
The deadly affray occurred about closing time outside the ‘Old Dixie Arms’, a James Shipstone & Sons Ltd of Nottingham Brewery’s public house on the Humberstone Road, near the City centre. A Military Policeman received fatal injuries, trying to restore order. The soldier who fatally stabbed was Corporal Arthur Abrams (of jewish faith), of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Military Police, from Camp Braunstone. Abrams was buried in the US Military Cemetery, Cambridge.
The Dixie Arms, was named after the 17th Century Dixie Family – the Baronets of Market Bosworth , the pub was in a restricted area and strictly off limits to the black GIs. The relevance of the pub name “Old Dixie” retained a completely different meaning to the American Southerners, from the 11 deep southern states of the USA known as Dixieland. It is likely that the all white ‘red neck’ members of the 82nd Airborne had deliberately gone there to confront and intimidate what they considered as ‘uppity’ black GI’s. They had held a long standing contempt for these men being the former slave generation legacy of their past status as owners which evoked the grudging memories that long outlasted the American Civil War.
Curtis Edward “Bucky” Phares of Riverton, Pendleton County, West Virginia enlisted at 20 years of age prior to Pearl Harbour and volunteered for paratroop training as soon as the service was established. Serving with the Headquarters Company of the 82nd Airborne at “Camp Braunstone“, he was one of the 2 GIs who died on the night of May 1st 1944 during a disturbance at the Dixie Arms public house on Humberstone Road (the other being Corporal Arthur A Abrams of the 82nd’s Military Police Platoon). Phares died of “self-inflicted” injuries as the Military Police were restoring order. Why Phares was there will probably never be known. At a time of censorship, even the story’s appearance in the Leicester Mercury seems odd. The statement Phares “died from self-inflicted wounds” may simply have been to put the public off, deny the racial aspect or deflect criticism of how it had been handled. What is beyond doubt is that the circumstances behind his death were covered-up. Phares is not commemorated on the Headquarters Company’s roll of honour, although his 1947 re-interment back home was with full military honours. Oadby historian Deryk Wills, who first revealed the story in his 1992 book ‘Put on Your Boots and Parachutes’, had friends who served in the 82nd’s MP Platoon, all of whom firmly believed the 2nd man was not with their division. – “Edward-or Bucky” was killed in Leicester serving as Military Policeman for the 82nd Airborne division. All military records list him getting killed in France and the details kept strictly confidential. These is no record he was ever in France.
The ‘self inficted’ fatality’s body was eventually sent back to the USA in 1947 at the request of his family, Private Curtis Edward Phares (known in the family as Edward) – was originally interred right next to Abrams. The burial register for North Fork Memorial Cemetery, Pendleton, West Virginia – where Phares rests today – lists him as having died on May 1, 1944, aged 23. One of 6 children (5 boys 1 girl,) Phares was a “typical mountain boy” who joined the US Army in 1940 and volunteered for paratrooper training before Pearl Harbour.
The re-interment of Private Curtis E Phares, of the US 82nd Airborne Division – who was murdered in Leicester on May 1, 1944 – at North Fork Memorial Cemetery, Pendleton, West Virginia, in 1947. Having had the body of his son returned home in 1947, Edward’s father remained dissatisfied with what little the army told him and in 1951, inquired again. They replied ‘Death occurred in the line of duty and was not the result of his own misconduct’.
The incident was investigated by US authorities and classified as “no crime,” in accordance with Home Office instructions. Jock Joiner, then a young CID detective working out of Charles Street Police Station in the City, remembers the violence all too well. “They were buggers,” he says. “The whites hated the coloureds and the coloureds hated the whites. There was a lot of trouble. A lot of the blacks I met were very decent people.”
Today, the tinderbox of imported race-hate, which exploded into bloodshed in the months leading up to D-Day, is a black hole in the history of the WW2, an inky truth buried in the small print of Military Records long since shipped back to the United States. “I don’t think it is something they are particularly proud of,” says a helpful curator at the Imperial War Museum. The war, according to sepia-tinted myth, saw the Allies stand shoulder to shoulder against fascism. Few wish to be reminded of a dark chapter in America’s history which saw black men, still denied the vote in the segregated South, treated like 2nd-class citizens by their so-called comrades in arms here in the UK. It survives largely in the minds of those who saw the unvarnished reality at first-hand.
Trevor Green witnessed it as a small boy growing up in Gallards Hill, opposite Braunstone Park, where black and white units came to be based. “We found it strange seeing the Americans fighting among themselves,” says the 67-year-old. We all got on with the blacks. It was hard to see why the white GIs were so uptight about them. The whites detested the blacks. Most of the trouble came from them. There were a lot of fights in the Shoulder of Mutton pub of the Leicester Brewing and Malting Company’s Eagle brewery. One night, we heard lots of activity. We all drifted out to watch it. They were tearing into one another outside the pub. Then the Military Policen turned up. They started wading into the blacks and the whites with their batons. You’ve never seen anything like it.
There was a fight between blacks and whites nearly every Saturday afternoon by the Clock Tower, according to Pauline Cox. “There would be bottles and glasses flying,” says the 74-year-old. “I remember it as if it was yesterday.” It seemed like the white American soldiers’ one objective in life was to humiliate the blacks,” remembers a former gunner officer in the Home Guard, who was detailed to guard the US Base at Scraptoft. Around the locals these good ‘ole boys were often the living, breathing embodiment of gracious Southern hospitality – but behind every “can I help you, ma’am?” kindness lurked something darker, he recalls. “I was in the canteen at Stoughton Aerodrome once,” says the 84-year-old Leicester man, who asks not to be named. There was a coloured chap eating his dinner in the corner. Four white guys came in, tipped his tray over and kicked his chair right out from under him. “Anyway, being a pugnacious type, me and 3 of my pals took it up with them. We half-wrecked the place.”
Stoughton was an RAF airfield that was just half a mile from Evington POW camp in 167 Shady Lane and the British Army was stationed in the Leicester Racecourse Stables, which is situated within the boundaries of Oadby. General Ridgeway, the American commander was stationed in Sir Johnathon North’s house opposite the Leicester Racecourse.
Len Johnson’s dad was head barman at the Braunstone Hotel during the war. “Coloureds and whites were allowed in together for the first month,” he says. “There was a lot of trouble. They let them out on separate nights after that.” Violence was rife wherever black and white units came into contact, according to Floyd Thomas, curator of military history at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Centre in Ohio.
“It happened in France, it happened in Italy and it happened in the UK,” he says. “The plain truth is that black men were fighting for freedoms they did not yet have themselves.” Black Ordnance and Quartermaster units landed in Leicestershire months before the paratroopers, paving the way for the whites’ arrival by setting up camps. Deryk Wills, of Oadby, an expert on the 82nd Airborne and honorary life member of the division’s association, says: “They came in and found the blacks in charge of the dance halls and the pubs and the women.”
The all white men from the 82nd – nicknamed the “All Americans” – came primarily from the southern states, he explains. They were mainly farm boys who had lived through the depression. They joined the Airborne because Uncle Sam paid an extra $50 every time you jumped out of a plane. Seeing those black men (seen and not heard at home), talking to local girls, well, “it was bound to get hairy,” says Deryk. Albert, who served with the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment in Italy, is adamant the bad blood went a lot deeper than that. They had a hell of a time in Italy, he says. Bodies – black and white – would often be found floating in the bay. It got so bad over there, he says, they were not allowed out without a sidearm and a knife.
They were strafed by the enemy one time, he recalls. He claims the black truck drivers who were meant to be carrying them around drove off and left the white boys stranded. “I don’t know if it was the same Quartermasters we had in Leicester,” says Albert, from his home in California. “They might well have been. When we turned up in the UK, we found them wearing our boots. It didn’t sit so good when they told us we could go out one night and they could go out one night. England was a lovely, clean country. We wanted to be able to enjoy that.” That, he says, is the God’s honest truth.
A report, in October 1945, by General ‘Hap’ Arnold, in Washington DC, described how fights between white and black GIs in Leicester escalated, with some black GIs of a Quartermaster Truck unit returning to their depot, near Melton, for firearms and a lorry. Following previous trouble, the 82nd’s Military Police at Camp Braunstone had been expanded, but still struggled to contain the violence. Mustering everyone they could, they cleared Leicester of US Servicemen. When it became apparent the black GIs were likely to return for revenge, roadblocks were erected around the City.
Ernest Andrews, a black Quartermaster in the war, remembers it very differently. “Well,” says the 84-year-old, from his home in New York, “I’ll tell you what I know: White guys tell a lot of lies. That’s what got us all riled up. This wasn’t the South. We weren’t going to take that. The local people were very friendly – I think they were a little afraid at first, but then we got on just fine. They treated us just as nice as you could treat us. But the white and the black Americans, they had to be kept apart. If we were out together, it was Civil War. There was going to be a fight. I never was able to figure that out – and that’s the truth. We were all supposed to be fighting on the same side. Why did there have to be segregation in the first place? We’re all human beings – just different colours, that’s all.”
Dora Harper states: “The death of my uncle Curtis Edward Phares was a great loss for our family. Not knowing what happened to him left us sad and bewildered. We now know more, but still feel betrayed. What makes me mad is we never knew anything but what rumours circulated in the community”.
“The 82nd Division held a review on the airfield at Stoughton, Leicester, on Friday, August 11, 1944 when General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower took the salute and thanked the men for their efforts on a parade of the 12,000 men of the 82nd Airborne Division, after they returned from Normandy. “After 3 combat jumps, and many casualties totalling 46.18%, the paratroopers felt sure that the war was nearly over for them and they would be going home. It was a hot day and to save the paratroopers from discomfort, they were ordered to remove their helmets during the speeches.
In his speech, Ike said,
‘I’ve owed you a lot in the past and I imagine I’ll owe you more in the future.‘
These words were heard in silence, and when they realised that they were now not going home, helmets started to be thrown down on the concrete runways in disappointment. The helmets hit the ground like a roar of thunder.
Somebody remarked, ‘This guy is not giving up until we’re all dead.‘
“5 weeks later, the 82nd Division was called on again when they parachuted into Holland for the Market Garden Operation.”