THE BRITISH INVADE RIVERSIDE, 1943
1943; two thirds of the way through the Second World War. In January Hitler had been defeated at Stalingrad, US troops had taken Guadalcanal in February, and Operation Chastise, better known as the Dam Busters raid, had taken place in May. It all seemed a very long way from California. So what was an anti-aircraft Battery of front-line British troops doing in Riverside in October?
America had been at war for about eighteen months and many Americans, untouched by the conflict, questioned their country’s involvement. President Roosevelt wanted to show the American people what the fighting was like and what was needed to win. He also wanted to give the British and American allies chance to get to know each other. To help the US President in his PR campaign, British Prime Minister Churchill, at his request, sent to the US a Battery of British Royal Artillery gunners, complete with their equipment. Their brief was simple but comprehensive: talk to the American people and show them how the allies were working together to win the war.
The 1st Composite Anti-Aircraft Demonstration Battery Royal Artillery was unique. It included heavy and light AA guns, searchlights and highly technical specialist equipment such as radar, which was barely off the drawing board. After six weeks intensive training, the 346 officers and men boarded the Ile de France at the end of June en route to a country familiar from the movies, but which none of them had had the faintest chance of visiting before. In his book Invading America, 1943, Clifford Cole, radar expert with the Battery, explains:
‘I was preparing to visit a country I had heard so much of, read so much about, yet knew so little of that I felt a peculiar nervousness as to how I was going to react to it all. If I were given to nightmares, I feel sure that I should have a nightmare that would have a predominancy of men chewing gum, bootleggers, gangsters, film stars, divorce, skyscrapers, vast machines and vast production, Southern hospitality, tobacco and cotton. [In the interests of security] it wasn’t as though I could ask people to give me their ideas on what I should be likely to meet.’
Once on US soil the pace was gruelling. The Battery toured through more than thirty states of the union giving demonstrations of firing, raising funds, parading through city streets, and broadcasting on US radio. On Friday 8 October 1943, when they had been in the States for around four months, they arrived in Riverside.
Camp Haan had been developed as a base for anti-aircraft training, so it made sense for the British ack ack troops to be based there. Captain Cole’s diary entry for Saturday 9 October reads:
‘A parade today in Riverside so out came the shorts and shirt. I went into Riverside with the colonel after first dashing around inspecting equipment. The drive into Riverside, reminded me of the film country one sees on Technicolor films. The sun just blazed down in a clear blue sky, on country browned with continual sun. The mountains edging the plain on which Camp Haan and Riverside are situated, are of brown rock, sandy type, with the mountains (which are reputed to be 10,000 feet but look only 3-4,000 feet) rising sheer out of the plain. There was no gentle rise, it was just as though they had been pushed up from underneath by a mighty hand. Riverside’s entry is lined with the type of palm that looks just like an oversized Brussel sprout stalk. Nearing Riverside, we ran into rain, the first in this area since 10 April we were told. The rivers are dry, just riverbeds running under bridges. Irrigation is a necessity and seems very capably carried out. The rain was measured by someone and we were told that 100th of an inch had fallen.’
One of the things which caused almost more comment than anything else among their American colleagues was the British Tommies’ clothing. In hot countries British troops often worked in bush shirts, shorts, puttees and boots and it had been decided, before they left England, that such would be the preferred kit for parades. Cole writes earlier in the tour:
‘Tropical shorts caused great consternation when we first wore them in camp. There was a distinct feeling prevalent amongst the Americans that they were next door to being indecent.’ After a parade in Boston he went further: ‘Photographers were everywhere, but the thing that struck me most was that with that huge parade of navy, army, air force, WACS, WAVES, SPARS, bands and civilian services, etc., the only things that attracted any attention at all were the film stars and the shorts of the British Tommies.’
The inhabitants of Riverside seemed to be just as startled by the British working uniform as the rest of their countrymen. Cole says:
‘The parade was well received by quite a sizeable crowd, who displayed the same interest in the arm swing, shorts and decisive step that has been observed elsewhere.’ After the parade the British officers were mobbed by autograph hunters, including a Native American called Henry Jumping Eagle.
One of the things Cole noticed throughout the US tour, he comments about particularly during his stay in Riverside. Not infrequently the British officers were called on to advise, or at least give an opinion on local civil defence. In Invading America Cole writes:
‘Plans had been laid for civil defence in Los Angeles and Riverside, but apparently Mr Cash [head of civil defence] was not happy that they bore any relation to fact and reality, so he asked me to vet them for him. First he gave me an outline of the situation, and from that I could see immediately that his main trouble was convincing citizens that there was a war on; they wouldn’t display interest in civil defence because they didn’t understand the meaning of the word… For example, when I pointed out the important role the fire fighting services played, and when I mentioned that one of our greatest troubles had been water supply and that we had got over that by erecting static water tanks, he retaliated by saying that the reorganisation of the fire fighting services to meet the type of blitz we had had would need far more authority than he had. The only thing he could do would be to recommend it and then, when the first bombing occurred, say “well, I told you so”. He had a very difficult job, but I believed that he did want to have his organisation at least set, so that if and when it was needed, he could put it into operation backed by the clamour of the public for protection. It was a heartbreaking job though, for a keen young man who really did want to protect the people if he could.’
The British Battery didn’t remain at Riverside for more than a few days but, on Sunday, Cole found time to visit Glendale to catch up with Englishwoman Yvonne Glew. Miss Glew used to live near Cole’s sister and had become Mrs Mitchell when she married an American airman. Cole’s diary describes his return journey:
‘Back to Riverside in a very fast ride on a four-lane road, a different way to the one we came in on. The roads around here are good; I shall be thoroughly spoiled when I get back to the usual two-lane traffic routes of England. Had a spot of dinner on my own in the Mission Inn. I felt desperately tired and would have gone home after dinner, but I’d dismissed the driver until 10.30 so that he could have an hour or two off. Two Air Corps boys and the wife of one of them asked me to join them, which I did and we went around to La Casita restaurant and club, which was the only place open on Sunday.’
The British troops were certainly kept very busy, but was the tour worth all the effort? Colonel Tom Metcalf, in charge of the Demonstration Battery, was in no doubt:
‘Support for the British created not only by our gunnery, but also by our mixing afterwards, was worth more than what those men by themselves could have done for their cause in England.’ As Winston Churchill said, when he addressed the US Congress on 19 May that same year: ‘we have certainly a most encouraging example here of what can be achieved by British and Americans working together heart and hand.’
Largely forgotten today, the British Battery’s demonstration tour was a vital contribution towards encouraging American support. As Cole explains:
‘The American people were so eager for news and so eager to learn, that I was amazed at the work our government had done to increase relations.’
His visit to Riverside merely confirmed Cole’s opinion of the warmth of his American hosts’ welcome, and the kindness of their hospitality.
Invading America, 1943, written by Clifford Cole, is an eyewitness account of the British Battery’s US tour illustrated with 200 period photographs. Published by Loaghtan Books further details from www.loaghtanbooks.com