An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy
by Kate Werran
The redoubtable Miss Joyce Packe
Meet the redoubtable Miss Joyce Packe – known in Torbay, Devon, for her role as local historian, no-nonsense tour guide and general pillar of the community. Less known is that nearly 80 years ago Miss Packe, pictured here courtesy of Herald Express, was plucked from the cream of British secretaries to become one of only six US Army court reporters in the land. By producing official US Army transcripts for a spectrum of cases ranging from the mundane to murder, Miss Packe played a crucial and unusual role. As official stenographer, this impressive 21-year-old was mostly the only woman in court and always the only person (other than the court president) entitled to address witnesses directly. In the build up to D-Day, US court martials proliferated throughout the UK as military justice was smashed out to GIs gathering on British soil. Sporting the American star on her shoulder, this stenographer extraordinaire for Britain’s south west region often captured press attention and occasionally, the news headline itself. A Briton at the Court of Yankees was how the Daily Herald saw her role at an extraordinary trial she reported on concerning a mutiny of African American soldiers in Cornwall.
Racial tension explodes
To be fair, if ever there was a trial to fascinate battle-hardened Britain in 1943 this was it: a story of unacknowledged American racial tension that exploded violently in the Norman town of Launceston, Cornwall – much to the bewilderment of British bystanders. It caused Churchill himself “grave anxiety” and was potentially so damaging to Anglo American relations that officials covered it up. Why? The question intrigued me since childhood when I visited my Dad’s hometown and felt for myself bullet holes that were the only tangible reminder of this mysterious firefight the authorities airbrushed. No-one knew what had really happened, why and the fate of those who faced trial. Finally, after a lucky freedom of information request 15 years ago and more recent research in British and American archives I have put the pieces back together and told the story in An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy. Along the way, fascinating characters such as Miss Packe have stepped out from the shadows of this forgotten but crucial strand of Second World War history.
Confrontation with the "Snowdrops"
During the trial, Miss Packe recorded various versions of what happened after dark on Sunday September 26 1943 – a date more widely remembered by contemporaries as marking victory in the Battle of Britain three years before. Undisputed, however, was that in Launceston an “entire company” of armed soldiers marched in formation, three-a-breast, to town to confront the despised “snowdrops” of the 29th Infantry Division who policed them. Those under attack that night would face Omaha Beach during the Normandy landings a few months later.
Back in late September, however, this was their third confrontation in 24 hours. What started on Saturday with the heavy-handed eviction of black soldiers from a town dance deteriorated into increasingly scratchy exchanges between soldiers whenever they met on Sunday, climaxing a couple of hours later in mutiny. Within minutes of arriving in town a few words were said and something snapped. Before long, bullets were ricocheting around the town square shattering shop windows and scattering soldiers, land girls and various civilians. “Suddenly I heard this screaming and shouting. I do remember that woman’s scream. I can hear it today. It was…unearthly,” remembered eye-witness Joan Rendell. Not for nothing did one elderly Cornishman tell the Daily Mirror: “There hasn’t been anything here like this since the days of the smugglers.”
Front page news
I can still recall my growing sense of discovery at the British Library one morning, when I found the story my Dad told us as kids appearing in every national newspaper I searched – the fusty Times excepted. The mutiny captured the tabloid imagination and reporters went to town with cowboy and gangster-style imagery – which was lapped up by local newspapers from Cornwall to Dundee. By the time Miss Packe stepped into a Paignton police court three weeks later – transformed with enormous stars and stripes flags and some nifty rearranging of furniture into an American military courtroom – it was front page news. Looking back to 1943, however, the question was why quite so much attention? No-one had died – just two MPs were hospitalised with leg injuries, which only went to prove that the African American GIs had aimed deliberately low, indicating the murder charges they faced were as wide of the mark as their aim.
So, what was it about this mutiny of 581st Ordnance Ammunition Company men and the subsequent court martial that utterly captured the public’s attention? After rebuilding the narrative, I think I now know. Firstly, it epitomised escalating American racial tension that stemmed from the very fact of an institutionally segregated US Army. When African American soldiers were drafted, they were mostly relegated to combat support roles; the decidedly un-dashing side of war with jobs in the quartermaster, transport and engineering corps and so on. Few were allowed to fight and this fact coupled with the discrimination, bigotry and brutality that accompanied it, created worrying friction. The mutiny that came to Cornwall was rooted in Los Angeles race riots in June 1943 that spread to four other American cities before undoubtedly washing up in the UK on troop ships.
‘We ain’t no slaves, this is England.’”
Secondly, for the first time ordinary British people were exposed to America’s Jim Crow system and attitudes. And according to censored letters, secret government intelligence reports, Mass Observation’s diarists, files and polls, letters to newspapers, editorials, and parliamentary questions I have seen – most did not like what they saw. Just three weeks before Launceston, officials reported a near riot in chocolate-box Corsham, Wiltshire. Caused by white MPs roughly manhandling a group of African American GIs, the record showed “a large group of civilians gathered and were heard saying: ‘They don’t like the blacks’; ‘Why don’t they leave them alone?’ ‘They’re as good as they are’: ‘That’s democracy.’ The situation eventually developed into one of mass insubordination by the coloured troops, and at one point a coloured sergeant who had been ordered to bring his Company Commander replied: ‘We ain’t no slaves, this is England.’” It was far from isolated. Confidential tallies showed America’s race war was being fought in Swansea to Southampton, Coventry to Camarthen and Belfast to Basingstoke. Wherever it played out, as in Corsham, onlookers made little secret of their allegiances. Miss Packe would report that time after time, whenever black soldiers were pushed away from Launceston bars by white Americans, British civilians, or soldiers, stood them beers instead.
The simple fact was that the black British population was only about 15,000 in 1939 and the nation was riven by entrenched class lines but not race. “There is no kind of legal disability against coloured people in this country, and, what is more, there is very little popular colour feeling,” surmised George Orwell in 1944. “This is not due to any inherent virtue in the British people, as our behaviour in India shows. It is due to the fact that in Britain itself there is no colour problem.”
Added to all the other obstacles in the path of smooth Anglo-American relations – including vastly-better paid, fed and dressed GIs – this racial tension was potentially catastrophic. D-Day was still eight months away. The Launceston mutiny and subsequent court martial of 14 soldiers summed up all that was rotten in the state of a “special” relationship. It was why US Army authorities first tried censorship. With his opening words on October 15 1943, Court Martial President Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E Zickel sought to strike the reporting of race from the record entirely. Luckily for the attending press pack, a Daily Mirror reporter piped up that race had already been reported (in fact by his own newspaper) before the trial and therefore it was already public knowledge. What followed was an unashamedly one-sided trial with a star prosecutor and barely present defence. Alongside Miss Packe, millions of British – and American readers – learned for example that not one white soldier under attack that night could identify any of the accused; interrogators could not recognise those they had interviewed from a few feet across the courtroom and statements were shown to have been dictated by investigators rather than the investigated. It was not altogether certain that some of the accused had even been there in the first place. Something was off. The trial lasted far longer than expected – three days in the end that caused Miss Packe to miss a typing exam that would have entitled her to a weekly pay rise of four shillings. Ultimately however, the craved-for news black-out was achieved when Lieutenant Ziekel returned to the court, after ten hours deliberation, and announced that a verdict had been reached but that it would not be made public. The 14 581st Ordnance Ammunition Company Men marched out of court, somewhat bizarrely to the strains of a US Army military band playing outside, not knowing they had been found guilty and sentenced to between 15 and 20 years of hard labour. The war, for them, was over.
The US Army did not forget. It punished African American journalist David Orro for filing for The Chicago Defender by labelling him a “troublemaker”, revoking his press pass and ensuring he was recalled by his paper while quietly moving the Launceston’s incompetent company commander away. Meanwhile, race riots and fights continued in the UK before D-Day and continued to be covered up. There were 56 recorded between November 1943 and February 1944 and by mid-April US Army morale reports warned that “incidents of violence between the two races have increased noticeably during this period.” Two weeks later, a follow-up memo noted tightly that “the whites dislike the Negroes and the Negroes dislike the whites…the predominant note is that if the invasion doesn’t occur soon, trouble will.”
So it came to pass that no-one in Britain ever knew what happened to the African American soldiers who had mutinied one night in Cornwall in 1943. Those in Launceston remembered, but could only guess at their fate and it became an obscure and mysterious footnote in the history of Great Britain’s “American Occupation”. For years, the best bet as to what happened was from Miss Joyce Packe’s grim recollection of her time as US Army Court Reporter. “Cases that ended in hanging I can remember clearly…There is another factor which makes a death sentence memorable: when the court returns for the verdict, every officer of the equivalent of the jury has taken off his side-arms and laid them on the table pointing them towards the accused. This is a spine-chilling sight and not one easily forgotten. All this leads me to wonder whether life sentences were imposed, rather than the death penalty.” Finally, the story behind the lost Cornish mutiny, recorded so diligently by Miss Packe, can be told. It is important to know their tale because nearly 80 years ago, those black lives mattered too.
About The Author - Kate Werran
After reading history at university, Kate wrote for local and national newspapers before switching to television where she worked for one of Britain’s leading independent documentary makers. Here she produced critically acclaimed 20th Century history programmes about subjects ranging from Churchill’s ‘war’ with his generals and the Abdication Crisis to films about the Falklands, the Miners’ Strike and Live Aid for Channel 4, Channel 5 and the BBC. She is currently working on her second book,
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