Getting it right: This little book was given to all American GIs who set foot on English soil during the Second World War. Its purpose: To teach them British customs in a hurry.
It’s a little tan colored book with few pages, but it played a big roll teaching millions of GIs, away from home for the first time, how to act while guests of the English in Britain during World War II. “INSTRUCTIONS for AMERICAN SERVICEMEN in BRITAIN 1942” is what it was called.
Art Nicholas a resident of Oak Forrest subdivision in Englewood, Fla. allowed me to borrow this rare edition. He was a boatswain’s mate aboard a LST (Landing Ship Tank) that made repeated trips to the Normandy beaches on D-Day and for weeks afterward delivered troops and supplies and took injured Allied soldiers back to England for treatment.
The introduction notes: “YOU are going to Great Britain as part of an Allied offensive—to meet Hitler and beat him on his own ground. For the time being you will be Britain’s guest. The purpose of this guide is to start getting you acquainted with the British, their country and their ways.
“NO TIME TO FIGHT OLD WARS. If you come from an Irish-American family, you may think of the English as persecutors of the Irish, or you may think of them as enemy Redcoats who fought against us in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. But there is no time today to fight old wars over again or bring up old grievances. We don’t worry about which side our grandfathers fought on in the Civil War, because it doesn’t mean anything now.
“BRITISH RESERVE, NOT UNFRIENDLY. If the Britons sit in trains or buses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude.”
“Another difference. The British have phrases and colloquialisms of their own that may sound funny to you. You can make just as many boners in their eyes. It isn’t a good idea, for instance, to say ‘bloody’ in mixed company in Britain—it is one of their worst swear words.
“DON’T BE A SHOW OFF. The British dislike bragging and showing off. American soldiers’ pay is the highest in the world. When pay day comes it would be sound practice to learn to spend your money according to British standards. They consider you highly paid. They won’t think any better of you for throwing money around.
‘THE BRITISH ARE TOUGH. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because the people were panty-waists.
Sixty thousand British civilians—men, women and children—have died under bombs, and yet the morale of the British is unbreakable and high. A nation doesn’t come through that, if it doesn’t have plain, common guts. The British are tough, strong people, and good allies.
“YOU will find out right away that England is a small country, smaller than North Carolina or Iowa The whole of Great Britain—that is England, Scotland and Wales together—is hardly bigger than Minnesota. England’s largest river, the Thames, is not even as big as the Mississippi when it leaves Minnesota. No part of England is more than 100 miles from the sea.
“AGE INSTEAD OF SIZE. On furlough you will probably go to the cities, where you will meet the Briton’s pride in age and tradition. You will find that the British care little about size, not having the biggest of many things as we do. For instance, London has no skyscrapers. Not because English architects couldn’t design one, but because London is built on swampy ground, not on a rock like New York and skyscrapers need something solid to rest their foundations on.
“REMEMBER THERE’S A WAR ON. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best. There’s been a war on since 1939. The houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint—they’re making planes. The British people are anxious for you to know that in normal times Britain looks much prettier, cleaner, neater.
“BRITAIN THE CRADLE OF DEMOCRACY. England is still one of the great democracies and the cradle of many American liberties. Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly 1,000 years. Today the King reigns, but does not govern. It is well to remember this in your comings and goings about England. Be careful not to criticize the King.
“THE PEOPLE—THEIR CUSTOMS AND MANNERS. THE BEST WAY to get on in Britain is very much the same as the best way to get on in America. The same sort of courtesy and decency and friendliness that go over big in America will go over big in Britain. The British have seen a good many American and like Americans. They are not given to black-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections. But once they get to like you they make the best friends in the world.
“THE BRITISH LIKE SPORTS. The British of all classes are enthusiastic about sports, both as amateurs and as spectators of professional sports. They love to shoot, they love to play games, they rid horses and bet on horse races, they fish. But be careful where you hunt or fish. Fishing and hunting rights are often private property.
“INDOOR AMUSEMENTS. The British have theaters and movies, which they call ‘cinemas as we do. But the great place of recreation is the ‘pub.’ A pub, or public house, is what we call a bar or tavern. The usual drink is beer. The British are beer drinkers and can hold it. You will be welcome in the British pubs as long as you remember one thing: The pub is ‘the poor man’s club.’
“KEEP OUT OF ARGUMENTS. You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him, ‘We came over and won the last one.’ Neither do the British need to be told their armies lost the first couple of rounds in the present war.
“BRITISH WOMEN AT WAR. A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves. There is not a single record in the war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic—remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone in Ipswich.
“SOME HINTS ON BRITISH WORDS. British slang is something you will have to pick up for yourself. But there are many words which have different meanings from the way we use them. For instance, instead of railroads, automobiles and radios, the British will talk about railways, motorcars and wireless sets. Automobile lingo is just as different. A light truck is a lorry. The top of a car is the hood. What we call the hood (over the engine) is a bonnet. The fenders are wings. A wrench is a spanner. Gas is petrol.
“SOME IMPORTANT DOS AND DON’TS. BE FRIENDLY—but don’t intrude anywhere it seems you are not wanted.
You will find the British money system easier than you think. A little study beforehand on shipboard will make it still easier.
You are higher paid than the British ‘Tommy.’ Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him. He can be a pal in need.
Don’t show off or brag or bluster—‘swank’ as the British say.
If you are invited to eat with a family, don’t eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations.
Don’t make fun of British speech or accents. You sound just as funny to them, but they will be too polite to show it.
Don’t try and tell the British that America won the last war.
Avoid comments on the British Government or politics.
NEVER criticize the King or Queen.
Don’t criticize the food, beer or cigarettes to the British. Remember they have been at war since 1939.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 12, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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