Forgotten bullet holes that once held the nation's attention!
‘At approximately 20 past ten, in the square of Launceston, in front of the White Hart Hotel, there was a group of men, armed, who fired at my military policeman.’ Captain Richard P. Scott, An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy by Kate Werran.
On a quiet, autumnal Sunday on the 26th September 1943, gunshots rattled the town as black American soldiers, who were stationed at a Launceston-based training camp, stood up against the inequality they faced under contemporary American Military Law, enforced by the British Army. An injustice that the records show was felt by many local people.
A well-documented court case ensued which featured many voices of Launceston Town. It was a court case that gained an international following and one that was integral in highlighting racial inequality and the unfair treatment of black American soldiers in the 1940’s across the west.
The black American soldiers were stationed at Camp Pennygillam which was referred to as the ‘coloured’ camp. Despite being in England, the American army had adopted racial segregation, ‘Dubbed Jim Crow, after a disrespectful show parodying and old black man dancing, it was supposed to enshrine ‘separate but equal’ treatment.’ (Werran, 2020) and America insisted their soldiers stay under the influence of American military law, regardless of being on British soil.
The African American soldiers’ careers within the army were also unfairly considered with ‘most African Americans [being] denied the right to fight and instead being given the hard, dirty and dangerous work…’, while many uneducated white soldiers would become officers over intelligent and more able black candidates.
There are also multiple records of not only segregation but facilities being worse in the camps where the black American soldiers were stationed and many reports of abuse and insults from the white American soldiers towards the African American troops.
Launceston Life spoke to author Kate Werran who has written a book on the unrest that led to the Launceston uprising, An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy. Kate went on to confirm that the black American soldiers had curfews enforced on them that didn’t apply to the white troops: “When they arrived at Pennygillam, they were told they weren’t allowed out of the camp because they didn’t have the right dress shirts, but it was just an excuse.”
She continued: “The archives are full of comments by the British people asking why the black troops are being treated differently, questioning how they can be denied the freedom that they are fighting for.”
On Saturday, 25th September the African American soldiers decided to all go out, despite the unjust orders. They went into town and enjoyed the local pubs. The records show that this night was full of tension between the white American GI’s and African American soldiers.
There are witness reports of white GI’s threatening black soldiers in pubs and dances with local civilians speaking up in their defence. The black soldiers were eventually forced to go back to their camp after being evicted from a local dance by the military police.
The next night brings us to that haunting Sunday, where tensions were higher still. The black American soldiers came into town again but felt the unrest. A pub closed early and there was a report of a fight in a pub, supposedly between two white GI’s.
The soldiers returned to camp to get their weapons, and reportedly told a young boy to ‘go home’ as they came back into town armed. They were met by a group of military police and simply asked for fair treatment.
Shots were fired from the African American soldiers and two white soldiers were shot, both wounded beneath the knee.
On October 15th 1943 a courtroom in Paignton ‘had been commandeered by the Americans. Their purpose? A court Martial. American soldiers were about to be tried by an American court operating under American military law…’
As the incident took place on a busy Saturday night in Launceston town centre where civilians were present, it meant that although the soldiers would still be tried under American military law, it would have to be a case that was both local to the incident and open to the public. Paignton was the nearest courthouse big enough to hold all those involved in the trial.
The public nature of the trial led to its international attention and its integral role in shedding a slither of light onto the racial inequalities that were prevalent during the Second World War against African American soldiers in particular.
As civilians and troops from all over the world followed the trial on the edge of the seats, a guilty verdict was finally decided despite ‘glimmers of botched statement gathering techniques, an over mighty prosecution and under mighty defence’, but the extent of their punishments were to remain a secret.
The defendants were 14 soldiers. Two of these were sergeants Henry Austin and Rupert Hughes. The twelve privates were Charlie Geddies, James Lindsey, Alexander Shaw, Freddy Blake, James Manning, Henry McKnight, Henry Tilly, Private First Class Clifford Barrett, Tom Ewing, Arzie Martin, Carl Tennyson and Willis Gibbs.
If you wish to know more about this incredible piece of the town’s history which we can barely touch on in this article alone, then a detailed account of the incident and the world in which it took place can be found in Kate Werran’s An American Uprising In Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy.
Launceston Life would like to thank Kate Werran for speaking with us and for all the information collated in her book which has made understanding and learning about this event accessible.