G.I.s in Tewkesbury 1943-45 - Part One

by John Dixon

a. Ashchurch Camp

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"The local community has fond memories of the American forces, but little is remembered of the thousands of U.K. troops that came and went."[1] Ashchurch Camp is indeed famous as the home of the U.S. forces, and 1942-46 is perhaps the only period when the camp has been a fully integrated part of the life of the town.

The German military described the camp as a nachschublager, or store camp, when aerial reconnaissance photographed it in 1940.[2] However, more recent research suggests that between 1939 and 1943 Ashchurch Camp was known not only as 'G-25' but was also the home of a number of special British War Office Units, which had no connection with vehicles. No members of these three units have been interviewed, but it is believed that the units were working on advanced communications systems for the R.A.F. from the time of the erection of the camp in 1938. When the camp was handed over to the Americans, two of the three units moved to Fife in Scotland. It is thought, therefore, that the camp was a 'location of expertise in research in communications'. The full significance of Ashchurch Camp will become known only when a book now in preparation is published.[l]

One survivor from the period has claimed that many of the British officers at Ashchurch in 1942 became P.O.W.'s in Singapore, where a considerable number died, has claimed that "there were between 2000 and 2500 of us at Ashchurch, soldiers and A.T.S." There was a "great handing-overdo to US. troops with the best gear and uniforms. We looked on in envy." This stark contrast has been verified by Miss Norah Day, who was a volunteer worker at the camp between 1943 and 1946. "How quiet they were," she recalls in 1994, "when they marched by; their shoes had ordinary soles....The other ranks were well-dressed in good quality greenish cloth, a contrast to the familiar khaki battledress."[3]

Sergeant Joseph Care was one of the first American soldiers to arrive in the Tewkesbury area. "From our embarkation point in Bristol there was total blackout," he recalled in a letter written in 1994. He was "one of the volunteers who drove the many troop carriers that were awaiting our arrival. Blind driving was an instant learning experience!" Their destination was the cold Baptist Alley Sunday School room. To greet them there were "inviting bunk beds with straw mattresses." Lacking firewood, they survived by wearing long underwear for two weeks, despite suffering from ticks; "we didn't freeze and the ticks got on with their feast. [4]

The Baptist Sunday School room soon became "our home away from home with a little yankee ingenuity". They dried out clothes on gravestones, installed a shower in a shed by "placing 50 gallons water storage drums atop the shed". The establishment was embellished by sticking news cuttings to walls or blackout curtain. "The Baptist Church facility was by far the best" (billet in Other billets were in the former Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society (then T.B.S.); Tolsey House (former H.Q. of the 2nd. Tewkesbury Rover Scouts); Royal Hop Hotel[6]; above the King's Head bar room; while a store opposite the roundabout housed the Company Command Post.

Mr. Care's unit was the 3008th. Ordnance Company, comprising 200 men, which was part of the 624th. Ordnance Base Automotive Battalion (henceforward OBAM). As the other three companies were billeted at Ashchurch, Sergeant Care and his comrades trucked each day to Ashchurch to their job of assembling mobile equipment of all sorts that was arriving... "in massive crates", and other advanced operations.[4]

It appears that the most famous unit at Ashchurch was the '622 OBAM Battalion' whose veterans visited Tewkesbury in 1993 and who have supplied much of the information about the working of the camp. The Battalion was formed on 9 July 1942 as the '126th. Ordnance Motor Base Shop Regiment'. Subsequently, from ordnance depots at Atlanta, Camp Normoyle, Texas, and Camp Halybird, Maryland the 800 soldiers made a fourteen-day crossing to England by way of Fort Lee in Virginia. Thus was installed "G-25, one of key general depots". [5]

In the early days accommodation was spartan. In August 1942 3,000 men lived mainly in "squalid pyramidal bell tents"[6] while 158 buildings, including ten hangars and five small warehouses were prepared. A hutted camp was later built in Northway, possibly for the coloured soldiers. In addition, there was the vital extension of the Midland Railway line into the camp, making an extra signal box necessary to cope with the extra lines:

b. A Working Camp

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Numbered among eighteen General and forty-six Branch Depots, 'G-25' was reorganised in August 1943[6] by Major-General Lee, and became "something of a model installation... a show place" for visiting dignitaries.

"Picture Henry Ford's River Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn Mich.... then transplant the whole set-up to a sleepy English countryside...." In the spring of 1943 'Stars and Stripes', the American forces' newspaper, waxed lyrical about the operation of Ashchurch Camp, and wrote reports eulogising the system of reconditioning faulty engines. It boasted that "not a piece of material, not a motion is wasted". Indeed, water which had cooled engines was subsequently used to heat office radiators. Apparently, one unit of ~500 men worked a ten-hour day; fortunately the enlisted men had relevant industrial experience from the ordnance schools in U.S.A.. Reminding us of wartime realities, the report added that "everything including soap and towels was sent from U.S. - they didn't take any chances with shortages."[8] The optimistic motto of 'G-25' was "keep 'em rolling; keep 'em supplied". 'Stars and Stripes' noted with democratic pride that there were "more stripes here than you'll find on a zebra farm". Another priority was to rebuild worn-out tyres, "65 tires being produced in an eight hour shift by 3 men." [8]

In May 1943 'Stars and Stripes' described a developing capability, listing a spare parts issuing shed which is "the largest of its kind in the world, an armament bulk storage shed and a small arms inspection shed where even bayonets were refitted". In the Reclamation Shed an N.C.O. was quoted characteristically, "Hell, I didn't join the army to become a junk man!" Nevertheless the newspaper claimed that 'G-25' had played a part in making the North African landings ('Operation Torch' of the winter of 1942-43) such a success.

By midsummer 1943, however, there was a serious shortage of two and a half ton trucks, and on 7 August 1943 the order came to start assembling trucks within nine days, although there were no mechanics trained in assembly work and none of the necessary technical equipment. "Fortunately the 622nd. had an energetic and enterprising commander, Major William R.Francis," reports 'Rerun', "who had studied mass production techniques at the Austin Motor Works. That, coupled with Yank ingenuity, did the rest". In operation only two days late, trucks were produced within three months after the arrival of two more companies.

We have been fortunate that the veterans of '622 OBAM' have kindly sent us a set of sixteen cartoons and captions explaining how mass production techniques were used to assemble a US truck at Ashchurch, under the legend, "Another truck, assembled by U.S. soldiers, rolls off the overseas assembly line."[8] By September 'Stars and Stripes' was describing the whole operation. Vehicles, shipped in parts, take less than half the shipping space. At first, British civilians had worked on the assembly line until the Ministry of Labour had a manpower shortage and removed them. Once it became a "miniature Willow Run" seven hundred mechanics took ten days, working twenty-four hour shifts, to build a production line which included monorails. A truck, which arrived in four separate cases, was assembled every fifteen minutes, one truck taking three and a half hours to pass through its twelve stations. (See Doc A: Cartoons)

Reveille was at 5.15 a.m., and work began at 7.00 a.m. At 5.30 p.m. the night shift toiled until 2.00 a.m. Eventually a third shift followed. Egalitarianism featured prominently when the reporter featured a mechanic with a Yale background who constantly studied "time and motion. 'See if you can see an officer,' he asked. There was only one - and he was in denims."

It was not only house organs like 'Stars and Stripes' that were proud of the work of 'G- 25". Joseph Care remembers that it was not unusual to see Generals Eisenhower and Patton making "fast but thorough inspections".

"General Patton also visited to inspect progress on his personal command vehicle, designed by himself, that was being fabricated by G.I.'s at Ashchurch. Its basic units consisted of two '1.5 ton Dodge 4 x 4 trucks that were converted to one vehicle with much more traction and a longer bed. In its finality it certainly resembled the character of Gen. Patton. The G.I.'s at Ashchurch were very proud of this contribution."[4]

In concentrating on this technical proficiency we must not forget that some soldiers were engaged in massaging the morale of the engineers. We know something about the 'G.I. Postal Unit' because. during the war, Miss Norah Day was working at Tewkesbury Post Office. She still possesses an archive which reveals "an authorisation of H.Q. 518th. Army Postal Unit APO 518" to deliver U.S. Mail to and from the local Post Office, There is a list of authorised soldiers and photographs of men with fascinating nicknames: 'Wally' and 'Shacks', a dog; 'Vic', 'Stet' and 'Barney'; Ted Piano and Lodell was also a Lt. Ryerson whose own advice he will ignore later.[3]

c. Personnel

The documents provided by '622 OBAM Veterans' contain much information about individual soldiers, but, before they can possess any analytical value, much cross-referencing still needs to be done with the aid of a computer. At this stage we can offer potted biographies of only two veterans of 'G-25':

To mark the impending visit to Ashchurch in 1992 the 'Statesville Record and Landmark' produced a profile of Wade Watts, who is a native of North Carolina. Having graduated from Scotts High School in 1936, he progressed to the State Highway Department which augured well for his future military career. In November 1941 he was drafted into the army for one year, until Pearl Harbour detained him for several more.

After eight months' training he helped set up and operate the rebuilding shop at Ashchurch Depot. Trucks arrived in convoy from Plymouth with the necessary parts, but they suffered from rust caused by salt water spray.

Mr. Watts admitted that he was never involved in action, though he did see St. Paul's after its bombing. The main wartime inconvenience was the food until they obtained a cook who could cook "powdered egg and spam". For some reason it was considered beneficial to keep onions in their pockets.

In December 1944 he was transferred with the whole battalion to Paris, where he stayed until he was discharged in November 1945. Since then he has been active in the Veterans' Association, taking part in their group reunion every two years.

He said about the return visit to the scene of his youth, "Yes, the roses still bloom on garden walls in Tewkesbury - and the hollyhocks and lobelia - and, yes, the clematis still climb about the doorways. But just as beautiful and pleasant to behold are the warm smiles and welcomes of the people you meet - that, too, remains the same as fifty years ago."

He remembered the "Black (sic) Swan Hotel"; the hole in the fence which allowed latecomers to catch the last train to Birmingham. He noted that the barracks were still in use today, and that the slogan "Keep 'em rolling" had not totally faded with the years. His conclusion reflected on his nemesis that day; "It would have been so easy to have lingered on at 'G-25' but they were transported into Tewkesbury where the Tewkesbury Historical Society met them with pad, pencil and tape recorders for interviews and a sharing of recollections of the 40's."

Happily, Wade Watts is still alive, but often it is only death which brings recognition. Among the documents forwarded by '622' was the obituary, which I have augmented from information in other documents, of Lt. Col. William Raleigh Francis, 1914-1993. Born in 1914, Col. Francis gained his B.Sc. in his native Oklahoma, and was subsequently commissioned into the 'T.A.', one of the last Horse-Drawn Artillery units. However, his work in the automobile industry at both Fords and General Motors between his graduation and his call-up for active duty was to prove valuable.

We first meet him on June 26th.,1943 as a Captain when he was a 'Distinguished Guest' at all the anniversary functions which we shall later describe. Whilst he was a Major he introduced baseball to bolster morale.

By November 6th., 1943 he had been promoted to Officer Commanding the '622 Ordnance Battalion' as a Lieutenant Colonel. He transferred to France in 1944 with the Battalion, and in 1948 he resigned his commission. After the war he became prominent as a Methodist, and was involved professionally in car and truck hire and leasing.[8]

d. G.I. Social Life on Base

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'622 Ordnance Battalion Association' veterans have sent copies of programmes for several social functions held at the base during 1943-44. Companies appear to have hosted a series of functions to commemorate anniversaries: August 1943 was the First Anniversary of Service in the European Theatre Of Operations (ETO). In August 1944 the mood was less optimistic, when 'two years active service' was coupled with 'I Wanna Go Home'.

These occasions usually took the form of Cabaret Dances, with music supplied by such bands as Ivy Benson's All Girl Orchestra, and the Versatile Vernon Adcock and Orchestra. Horace Marshall and his Players were 'Birmingham's Brightest Band'. There are eyewitnesses, though, who speak of a base band, possibly led by 'Rusty', called the 'Rhythmaires', whose signature was 'My Shining Hour'.[l]

There was the usual roll call of Distinguished Guests, who were officers like Col. C.W.Richmond and the ubiquitous, then Captain, William R. Francis. Less distinguished guests feature in only one programme. "THE OPPOSITE SEX...the cream of the crop...the hit parade...the tops...the soldiers' choice...glamour! EVENTS...very informal and impromptu...anything can happen!"[8]

Evidently G.l.'s felt free to be frank about their feelings, for the anniversary which followed SD-Day' seemed less positive than the tone of 'Stars and Stripes':

"After 2 Successful Years of
PUB CRAWLING
HEART BREAKING
REST AND SUNSHINE
15 DAY FURLOUGHS
FRESH EGGS
Is it anv wonder that we
WANNA GO HOME?
Here we are
read it and weep!

Brother, why worry about tomorrow?
Because today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. " [8]

The menu offered at these showpiece social functions is surprising in view of the legendary opulence of American fare. The food offered was always "cold plate", comprising ham roll, spam, corned beef and Alaskan sardines, while the drinks were cold beer, coca cola and fruit juices. On one occasion there was the rider "and whatever the boys can sneak in!"[8]

The camp mess fed men and could cope with a further 200 casuals: As well as the formal facilities, there were the comforts of the canteen. Miss Day worked there as a volunteer from 1943 to 1946.

"Once they had settled," she recalls, "the American Red Cross opened a canteen and started casting around for local volunteers...] first went there on 31 December 1943 to stand behind the counter and serve the cokes and cakes and soup..] cycled to the camp on Friday nights to work for a couple of hours."

The journey along the Ashchurch Road in the blackout was so hazardous that eventually the authorities provided a car to pick up the volunteers who worked on Fridays and Sundays. Miss Day confirms the absence of luxury foods: "we were allowed a coke and something to eat, but only one hamburger when they were on the menu." She confirms the legendary importance of leg attire when she states that "my first pair of nylon stockings came from winning a game of poker dice there". [3]

Another eyewitness emphasises the contrast between British and American dietary standards: "The PX Stores kept the area alive! There was not much of a black market since the GIS s gave freely - they could not believe what we had to eat. "[1]

"The one thing, moreover, that the Post Boys complained was missing from their menu was fresh eggs so whenever we could scrounge some we passed them on, usually decorated with weird faces"[3]

Dried eggs were, however, an American invention. Since "a large percentage of egg is water, so dried eggs took up less space in ships. Moreover they did not go bad."[3]

Perhaps it was to seek relief from such fruits of technology that the enlisted men's desire to leave the post for entertainment became a major source of indiscipline in the early days, so Major William R.Francis started a baseball league.[6] This was not the only injection of Yankee culture. Mr. Care has provided a photograph which shows that American football "first came to light in Tewkesbury sometime during the winter of 1943-44. The local paper wrote it up as some sort of freefor all."[4]

The '622 Veterans' have provided an archive of photographs which show the standard of the barracks in which the G.I.'s lived; that the playing of volley ball was "recreation G.I. style" and was taken sufficiently seriously for the pitch to undergo "reseeding the grass, 1943". There is also an informal photograph of a group of G.I.'s drinking Coca Cola - "the pause that refreshes"[8]

Soldiers did leave the camp. Tewkesbury School pupils discovered that "some soldiers built a five-seater bike for trips to Tewkesbury." [13] Photographs of that example of Yankee ingenuity are among the '622 Veterans' collection, entitled 'G.I.'s transportation Tewkesbury 1943' and 'Bicycle built for five'. On the back we learn that the photograph was "taken May 4 - 44; cloudy 8.10 evening."[8]

The RERUN, the '622 Veterans' newsletter, published an article entitled 'In Tewkesbury Fifty Years Ago' which mentioned that the "soda fountain was the main item for homesickness" and that there was "an initial dislike of tea" because it was made from tea bags. They were also fascinated by pubs. There is a photograph with the caption "Three 622nd. men and Two Pub Operators, Tewkesbury, England 1942-44".[8]

Mr. Care has a photograph which illustrates the seriousness with which the U.S. authorities took G.I. behaviour in the town. It shows a "Notice to American Troops" warning of likely misdemeanours and their consequences. It was posted near the Tewkesbury Bridge on the turning to Upton-on-Severn:

NOTICE TO U.S. FORCES
OUR COURTS HAVE IMPOSED FINES
FOR VIOLATIONS LISTED BELOW

IMPROPER WEARING UNIFORM 25
FAILURE TO SALUTE 85
NO DOG TAGS 58
IMPROPER UNIFORM 85
DRIVING OFF HARD SURFACE 58
UNATTENDED VEHICLES 85
EXCESSIVE SPEED 1015
RECKLESS DRIVING 3020

Mr. Care stressed the esteem in which the troops held the Y.M.C.A.. There is a photograph entitled "At the YM.CA. on a Sunday in Tewkesbury"[4]

There were also distractions further away from Tewkesbury. Miss Day says that the legendary Bob Hope visited the camp on 20 July 1943.3 The 'Rerun' reminds us that the champion boxer, Joe Louis, visited Cheltenham. He "arrived with five coloured soldiers and three American officers" and stayed at the Fleece Hotel. He was due to give a boxing exhibition on Reeves Field, but was suffering from a cold.[8]

London was a major attraction, and there is a series of annotated photographs which underline the fascination of the capital. Sights worth seeing included the Law Courts, the River names, London and Tower Bridges; Parliament "where I set my watch by the big ben the one you hear over the Radio in US." ; Westminster Abbey with its grave of the Unknown Warrior and the Strand where, in 1945, there are "still cars and two story (sic) buses".[8] The 'Stars and Stripes' confirmed this interest in its regular column entitled 'Army Poets' :

"Tour of London
On London Tour, our G]. Joe
Reviewed the world' s most exciting show......
Trafalgar Square, the River Thames;
A million other places, names...
But all recalled as time goes by,
Is that cute blonde who winked her eye. '"8

Our G.I.'s are thus safely installed at Ashchurch and making their significant preparation for the D-Day landings. The effect on the Germans is well documented, but we shall have to await next year to find out more about the perhaps more controversial impact the G.I.'s made on the good people of Tewkesbury.

References

  1. Correspondence John A Spiller 
  2. Gloucester Record Office 
  3. Miss Norah Day's Archive 
  4. Mr. Joseph Care's Archive: Letters written in February 1994 
  5. 'Rerun' No. 74, June 1994 
  6. Bill Rennison: 'G.I.Joe at Ashchurch' , T.H.S. Bulletin No. 2 
  7. Recollections by Ladies' Group at Holy Trinity Church, ed. Mrs. J.Devereux 
  8. Staton Archive 
  9. Gloucester Echo Archive 
  10. 'War Brides of World War II; E.F.Shubert & B.S.Scibitta; Penguin 1989 
  11. Karen Rogers, Tewkesbury School Yll 1994-95 research project 
  12. Statesville Record & Landmark, Statesville NC, 11.1092 
  13. Note 10, John Dixon, TBS. Bulletin No. 2 

Notes

Mrs. Staton letter 22.6.1994: 

'Mr. Joseph Care...who was also at 'G-25' was not a member of the 622nd." 

August 1943 Establishment 

  • H.Q. staff  - 115 (all ranks)
  • Coy A - 206 (ex 3021st.)
  • Coy B - 206 (ex 3022nd.)
  • Coy C - 139 (ex 3041st.)
  • Medical - 10
  • Total - 676

Then added 3005 Ordnance Base Battalion + 117 

List of 31 Officers by name and rank, 31.12.43 (Bill Rennison: "GM. Joe at Ashchurch" ; T.H.S. Bulletin No. 2 

March 1944; shop rebuilt ISO engines a week; 3005 distributed 65,000 parts (Bilt Rennison: "G.I. Joe at Ashchurch"; T.HS. Butterin No. 2 
Machine shop produced 'Dematome', a skin-cutting device for use in surgical grafting. (Bilt Rennison: "(3.1. Joe at Ashchurch"; T.H.S. Bulletin No. 2 
February 21st. to March 3rd 1944; erected three buddings for own motor pool of 24 vehicles. (Bill Rennison: '"GJ. Joe at Ashchurch" ; T.H.S. Bulletin No. 2 
Routine training; mad marches and bayonet practice with 1903 rifles. (Bill Rennison: "G.I. Joe at Ashchurch"; T.H.S. Bulletin No. 2 

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