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Sex, please — we're British


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Sex, please — we're British

Thousands of British women willingly surrendered to the charms of American GIs throughout the second world war. But there were unforeseen consequences to their reckless passion. Report by Christopher Hudson

, early spring, 1944. It is late at night, and the wartime blackout is in force. No vehicles are moving in the darkness. Most Londoners are asleep at home or in bomb shelters — but in the heart of the capital, Piccadilly Circus seethes with furtive nocturnal life. The statue of Eros has been taken down for protection, but his spirit rules. American GIs are pouring out of West End clubs and bars, joyous, tipsy and looking for sex. On every corner the girls are waiting for them. They congregate at the bottom of Shaftesbury Avenue, near the Rainbow Club for American servicemen; they mass at the entrance to the Underground and walk up from the all-night Lyons Corner House, keeping on the move so the police won't book them for soliciting. In the streets near Mayfair, elegant women in furs await officer clientele.

The soldiers, their cigarettes glowing in the dark, loiter in shop doorways. The girls pause. They are carrying matches or pencil torches, and flash them on their faces before lowering them to illuminate their stockinged legs and ankles on high heels. A deal is struck at a rate of £3 or £4

(a huge sum in today's money), and then it all happens quickly, up against a doorway, the GI's greatcoat covering them both — after which the prowl begins again, four or five times a night.

The 1960s generation likes to believe that it was the first to have remembered something their elders had forgotten — the joys of sex. Recent discoveries in the archives prove them misguided. Well before the Beatles' first LP, the home front during the last three years of the second world war saw the greatest sexual free-for-all in living memory. It wasn't so much the "Piccadilly Warriors", as the local prostitutes were dubbed sardonically, but thousands of young British women, some of them wives of servicemen fighting abroad, who found the vast army of GIs billeted here in the run-up to the invasion of France completely irresistible.

The jokes and catchphrases of the time say it all. "Heard about the new utility knickers? One Yank and they're off." The army girls, the ATS, were known as "officers' groundsheets". With their unfeminine uniforms and khaki bloomers, they were far less popular than the much-envied Waaf girls in their dashing air-force kit, who were known as "pilots' ****pits" because of their access to airmen, all of whom were heroes after the Battle of Britain. Nor did the ATS match up to the more exclusive Wrens of the Royal Navy in their smart navy blue. "Up with the lark and to bed with a Wren" was the well-known crack. On official social visits to ships of the Royal Navy, Wrens were inspected to check that they were wearing special-issue black knickers with stout elastic at the waist and knee. As for the Women's Land Army, its motto "Back to the Land" became "Backs to the Land" when the GIs arrived.

Under a regulation known as Paragraph 11, servicewomen who got pregnant were demobbed and could not re-enlist. So any woman wanting a quick release could stand outside the men's sleeping quarters at night and yell "Paragraph 11!" whereupon every effort would be made to oblige her. Even so, venereal disease (VD) and illegitimate birth rates in the women's armed forces were much lower, and sometimes half their equivalent in the civilian population.

The statistics are astounding. In pre-war Britain, most petitions for divorce alleging adultery were filed by women. By the end of the war, two out of every three applications were filed by husbands against their wives, and there were five times as many divorce petitions in 1945 as there were in 1939. Not unconnected is the fact that, of the 5.3m British infants delivered between 1939 and 1945, more than one-third were illegitimate. Their mothers belonged to every age group and every section of society.

A wartime survey in Birmingham found that around one-third of all illegitimate births were to married women. This would be a conservative figure, given that any child born to a married woman was deemed to be legitimate unless the mother chose to register it otherwise.

The authorities were appalled. As we now know from a fascinating cache of documents that were declassified last month from the National Archives in Kew, dismay was registered throughout Whitehall, all the way to the office of the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. Ministers were concerned that all this sexual activity, and the upsurge in VD, would damage Britain's image abroad. Besides endangering the transatlantic alliance, it could present the Germans with a propaganda coup, allowing them to portray Britain as a decadent nation in which "immoral women" preyed on unwary American soldiers. The Scotland Yard files reveal US Army chiefs were so concerned about the pestering of their troops by "loose women" that a series of high-level meetings had to be held to defuse the issue.

What got them going was an article in the Sunday Pictorial from August 1942 called The Spider's Web of Vice! It describes dens of vice in which flashy-looking men with heavy rings on flabby fingers connived to fleece innocent young servicemen far from home, "pretty girls whose attempts to look demure don't conceal what they are there for", and "pale dissolute Mayfairites whom the call-up hasn't combed out". "The mile of vice around Piccadilly Circus is a disgrace to the rest of Britain," it concludes. At the top of the page, an anonymous Whitehall hand has scribbled in ink to Scotland Yard: "What are you doing about this?"

There was little that the Metropolitan police felt it could do. In 1941 the US authorities had pushed through draconian legislation to check prostitution and VD. Red-light districts were closed down; a 1941 act made any form of prostitution illegal within "reasonable distance" of US military installations. The US legislature had recently permitted the authorities to compulsorily examine and treat VD suspects. But British law remained far more considerate of personal privacy. Brothels were illegal, but the transmission of VD was not a crime, nor was prostitution, unless it caused a public nuisance.

Joan Wyndham chuckled when I mentioned the dens of vice. "We should have been so lucky," she said. Living in Chelsea, with a painter's studio nearby, she was 18 when the war started. During the 1939 "phoney war", she spent hours bandaging healthy limbs for practice in a huge converted hospital nearby; when the bombs began falling, she was bandaging real victims. "You didn't know what you were going to lose first, your life or your virginity, but I didn't think I could possibly be killed," she said. "My mother had a bomb shelter on the lawn. I wrote my diary in a corner; we took along plenty to drink and talked about food until the all-clear." After Joan had finished her hospital shift she would go dancing and drinking. In 1941 their house took a direct hit, and her mother moved into a one-bedroom flat with her female lover, "who must have had to sleep in the bath". Rather than stay with them, Joan became a squadron officer with the Waaf. On her 48-hour leaves, she went overnight by train to parties at her studio.

Before the war, most people had never heard of VD. Those who had, like Joan, were phlegmatic about it. "I was much more worried about getting pregnant," she said. Almost 9 out of 10 parents didn't talk about sex to their children, any more than their own parents had talked to them. As a result, many young people were ignorant of the facts of life. The BBC was not about to enlighten them. Its first director-general, Lord Reith, did not allow any divorced person to work for the corporation. Meanwhile, churches preached that fornication was a sin. "Promiscuous" girls, many of whom had become pregnant through sheer ignorance, could still be dispatched to the workhouse to have their babies, or be locked away in an asylum under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Sex-education books insisted on chastity before marriage. As for the sex, a 1921 manual explained reproduction through an illustrated discussion of "the male and female parts in primrose and vegetable marrow".

The climate of fear this fostered led to pitiful misconceptions. Some girls believed they could get pregnant by kissing a boy or by sitting on a lavatory seat after one had sat there. Often, menstruation came as a terrible shock and increased a young woman's feeling of sinfulness. Sex education in most schools was minimal, and any sexual contact between boys and girls was considered a disgrace, to be punished. Doctors and clergymen preached that masturbation could lead to blindness, impotence, epilepsy, madness.

All this made courtship a very chaste affair before the war. Parents had more say than ever before — or since — over where the couple went, when they got home, whether they should get engaged and where they would be married, in what was inevitably a white wedding. Even when they went to work, curfews applied. Employers tended to enforce strict rules about getting home by 9pm, and landladies took a dim view of suitors coming to the house.

These taboos were overturned after the GIs (eventually numbering 1.5m) started arriving in 1942, at the same time that British men of call-up age left the family home to fight overseas. What Sigmund Freud called "war aphrodisia" took hold of young women who now had only their mothers to keep them in line. After three years of Blitz, blackouts and austerity, there suddenly appeared these tall, confident, clean-cut Yanks. GIs had glamour and style; they were like a burst of colour in a black-and-white film. And they had money, plenty of it. At a time when a smallish slab of butter had to last British households a month, they dispensed presents with instant sex appeal: chocolates, nylon stockings, cigarettes, scented soap and luxury foods from their military stores. Above all, they dispensed themselves.

Averil Logan, now in her late seventies, was one of the youngest war brides. At 13 she was evacuated from London with her brother to Selsey in Sussex. After her parents had divorced, her mother joined them. Like a good girl she got her 11-plus, and won a scholarship to Chichester high school. Then the war started and Averil wanted to be a part of it. She tells how the war came to Selsey in the form of "English soldiers at the holiday camp, followed by American Seabees building shore facilities at Selsey, then plenty of young GIs". Her heart was won. "I ran away, I wanted to be where the action was. I went to stay with girlfriends. It was a crazy time. I always put my age up a few years; the GIs were only 17 or 18 themselves. I painted my legs with make-up to make it look like I was wearing nylon stockings." To make money she served ice cream at Rainbow Corner, the old Lyons Tea House. "We lied about our age. We said we'd come from the north and were 18. At night we went dancing. We wore short skirts and bleached our hair. GIs just liked girls. After the divorce, my mother liked going out with GIs too."

"Overpaid, oversexed and over here" was the catchphrase, and it was as least as true as the GIs' return sally about the British forces: "Underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower". Suddenly GIs were everywhere, pulling girls onto the backs of Jeeps, doing the jitterbug in village halls, sleeping in the spare bedroom if they happened to be billeted on you, and grinning across the breakfast table over their gift of fresh fruit juice. Sometimes they were unwelcome. One young mother on a Birmingham housing estate recalled how nearly every evening she and her friends "would hear a knock on the front door and on opening it would find a GI who stated that a Greg so-and-so had sent him. When one flatly denied knowing his friend he would calmly say, 'Come on, baby. I know your husband is away in the forces.' One would have to slam the door in their faces to keep them out." Inevitably, there were cases of rape. Eight American servicemen were hanged for it during the course of the war.

But most GIs, and Canadian soldiers, who were also pouring into Britain, weren't as aggressive in their search for "a cute piece of ass". They were polite and charming; they "lived well and lay warm", as one Norwich woman recalled, bringing "colour, romance, warmth and a tremendous hospitality to our dark, shadowed island". Children loved them, as they dispensed sweets and comics. Still, they were thousands of miles away in a foreign country, having probably left home for the first time and about to go to a war that might end their lives — and there was no question what was on their mind.

The GIs were not the only people thinking of gathering rosebuds while they might. Life on the home front in the first two years of the war was more dangerous even than active service. During the Blitz, in the winter of 1941, 60,000 civilians died — a far higher death rate than that of our armed forces in the same period. The possibility of death created a camaraderie with erotic overtones, as captured in Joan Wyndham's diary: "Saturday night, 7th. Midnight. Well, I sit here in the air-raid shelter with screaming bombs falling right and left . . . the bombs are lovely, I think it is all thrilling. Nevertheless, as the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert tomorrow. Rowena has promised to go to a chemist's with me and ask for Volpar Gels just in case the French thingummy isn't foolproof."

It wasn't long before Joan lost her virginity to Rupert, her first love. "And boy, was it a disappointment — I'd rather have got my fags out and had a good smoke!" she laughed. Volpar Gels were the anti-pregnancy pills that all Joan's girlfriends took as a matter of course. "I was too shy to ask for them in the chemist. Someone else had to do it for me. But they worked. At least they worked for me. In the end I had a coil thing." But not for protection against GIs: "We all rather despised GIs. We thought the girls who went out with them only did so to get silk stockings from the GI stores; you could tell by a girl's legs if she was going out with a GI. And the British Army we called 'brown jobs'. In the Waaf we only went out with our own kind. The pilots were heroes: if we could, we'd only go out with an air-force boy who'd got his wings. The others we called 'wingless wonders'."

Sex was an affirmation of life amid so much destruction. Averil shared this view. "We had no fear," she says now. "Young people don't fear death." Chloe Bowering, who was then 21, says: "People thought, 'To hell with it,' threw off their clothes and went to bed with each other as a gesture to life rather than death." Across England, in forest glades, air-raid shelters and phone boxes, young girls lost their virginity to GIs. The Americans were intrigued by British women's propensity for what the GIs called "wall jobs" or "knee tremblers". They may not have known that many of their conquests were so untutored in the facts of life that they believed they couldn't get pregnant if they had sex standing up.

The clubs and bars caught the mood of infectious gaiety. If Hitler was going to drop a bomb on them, he might as well catch them enjoying themselves. A British serviceman, Eric Westman, returning on leave to Bridgwater in Somerset, noted bitterly how scores of girls lined up along one wall of a dance hall: "Some GIs would walk up and down surveying the girls and then select one, who would gladly go and dance with him. I was horrified at this slave-market attitude. Then a smart-looking British soldier walked along the line asking girls to dance with him, but none would. I've never forgotten it."

On Shaftesbury Avenue, the Rainbow Club was the most celebrated of the many American Red Cross clubs, and one of the causes of the high-level anguishing over wartime sex. After the war, it would become a school for GI brides, to teach them American customs and useful tips, such as drinking eight glasses of water a day to make up for the lack of moisture in the American air. But up to 1945 it was the spiritual home of GIs. Here they could drink Coca-Cola, smoke American cigarettes and watch American films. Food was served throughout the night (everything except hot dogs, as the GIs disliked British sausages). A thousand couples could jitterbug in the huge dance hall. There was a billiard room, a jukebox and a shoe-shine parlour, and, most necessary of all, a "prophylactic centre" dispensing condoms and advice.

Contraception was a sensitive topic with the British and American authorities. Condoms were not easy to obtain, owing to a shortage of latex after the Japanese invasion of Malaya and because the government was giving priority to teats for infant feeding. When supply caught up with demand, at the expense of hot-water bottles, the thick rubber of the condoms, made to be washable, were more of a barrier to pleasure than an aid to it — and GIs had the nerve to complain that British condoms were too small anyway to fit their erections. Not until early 1943 were supplies of American condoms made readily available to GIs and distributed free under a US War Department ruling. "I'm told that we've got 30,000 rubbers in the supply room," one US sergeant barked at his men at reveille.

"I want you people to do something about this." Thereafter, contraceptives littered the landscape. In London streets, used condoms could be, and were, collected by the basketful, the detritus of quick, unseen encounters. They were strewn like confetti on roadsides, around GI camps and in shop doorways; they hung on hedgerows and littered churchyards and bus stops. GIs inflated the rubbers like balloons and dropped them in rivers to float past girls lying on the bank. It all suggests that a Canadian soldier was not exaggerating when he wrote: "We were going to open a Second Front. Everyone knew that, and that a lot of men were going to die . . . I won't describe the scenes or the sounds of Hyde Park or Green Park at dusk and after dark . . . You can just imagine a vast battlefield of sex."

Residents of Mayfair felt much the same. Respectable flats were being turned into nightclubs — half drinking and gambling dens, half brothels — which kept being closed down by the police and opening up elsewhere. Prostitutes — who were never taxed, because the Inland Revenue wouldn't stoop to living off immoral earnings — avoided military service by writing "prostitute" as their profession on call-up papers. Left without their pimps, many of whom had been called up, prostitutes fought over their beats, and did a brisk trade in selling them on. "Honey, I want to rent it, not buy it," was the GIs' response to some of the asking prices for sex — but there were other traps for the unsuspecting doughboy. It was a familiar trick for a prostitute to lure him out of a crowded pub to somewhere quiet on the promise of sex and, during the preliminary embraces, slip the notes in his wallet into the top of her stockings before replacing the empty wallet and making an excuse to leave. If he checked his wallet, she was usually safe in betting that he would be too inhibited to make a scene.

Superintendent Cole, responsible for policing west London, described Mayfair as an American colony. In his declassified August 1942 report on West End prostitution, produced for the Anglo-American meetings, he categorises the red-light areas by location and class. So we learn that Shepherd Market and Burlington Gardens prostitutes are "rather expensive and using fairly clean premises for their trade, but occasionally dishonest given the opportunity"; that Maddox Street is home to "French prostitutes, a colony among themselves, clean and businesslike, who although persistent in their soliciting rarely cause trouble"; the Piccadilly Circus area features "a lower type of prostitute, indiscriminate in their choice of client, and persistent thieves"; Glasshouse Street has "a little better class", and the Soho area "the lowest type of all — drabs".

In his defence of the Yard's softly-softly approach, Cole identifies most of the problems that would bedevil the Anglo-US discussions. Chief of them was that in dealing with soliciting, annoyance had to be proved — hard enough for the police in normal conditions, but almost impossible in the blackout. And US forces were, largely speaking, subject only to their own laws, which weakened the authority of the civilian police. Cole could have added that even when detectives traced a prostitute, the offence often could not be pursued because the men involved would not give evidence in court.

At the first full-scale meeting in October 1942, the US Army representatives couldn't understand why the British didn't simply pass a law like they had, making soliciting a criminal offence. That aside, they discussed a curfew for US troops, finding somewhere safe where GIs could deposit much of their cash, and increasing the strength of the US military police — all of which turned out to be nonstarters. There the matter rested for the next five months. Then, in March 1943, the minister of state at the Foreign Office, Richard Law, weighed in on behalf of his boss, Anthony Eden, with a letter to the Home Office. After claiming that prostitution made US soldiers generalise unfavourably about English women, Law opened up a new line of attack: "If American soldiers contract VD in this country, they and their relatives in the United States will not think kindly of us after the war."

This was a real bone of contention between the two allies. In the first world war, the incidence of VD among the allies was seven times higher than that of the Germans, largely because Britain refused to admit that a problem existed. The 1.5m soldiers taken out of combat to be treated could have changed the course of the war. This lethal prudishness lasted into the second world war. British newspaper proprietors in 1937 refused to publicise health-ministry warnings about the dangers of VD. The next year, when the ministry proposed a fleet of 20 mobile clinics to tour military bases, the Treasury refused to fund them, until after Dunkirk.

Although, in 1942, 70,000 new cases of VD were reported to civilian clinics alone (leaving aside all those cases treated by armed-forces doctors), the Venereal Disease Act still made it a slander to accuse even a known prostitute of being a carrier. VD treatment centres were advertised only by a green light, which was of course extinguished in the blackout. In the first three months of 1943, cases of VD among GIs in Britain tripled to 60 per 1,000 — six times the level of home-based troops. Some GIs and good-time girls believed the old wives' tales that sex with a virgin would cure them of VD, or that you could get rid of it by "passing it on". Yet the best the government was prepared to do was to enact a new regulation, 33B, allowing carriers to be investigated by the authorities if named by two separate people as the source of the infection.

Regulation 33B snared a few hundred prostitutes at most. It had no effect on the good-time girls who had sex with GIs because they loved them, because it was fun, because they might not see another sunrise, or from a mixture of all those feelings. The ambitious ones stayed in hotels and sat in the lobby until they picked up a US officer; others picked up GIs on the streets and made love in alleyways and on bomb sites. Some saw no reason why they shouldn't get pocket money out of it and solicited a few dollars for a good meal or new blackout curtains. They were not on the game, like the Hyde Park Rangers or Piccadilly Commandos (their grungier equivalents in the royal parks), but were more likely to pass on VD because most of them never thought about it, unlike prostitutes whose livelihoods depended on staying disease-free.

This was a salient point raised by the Home Office in the declassified Anglo-American documents. The discussions were rapidly squaring off between the Foreign Office, which joined with the Americans in wanting a putsch on West End prostitution to improve Britain's image abroad, and the Home Office, which recognised more clearly where the problem lay. At the culminating April 1943 conference at the Home Office, the arguments were thrashed out.

The opening speech was by Sir Frank Newsam, deputy undersecretary at the Home Office, who knew precisely how to couch his argument. He pointed out that exaggeration was a most potent form of mischief, and he could think of no more effective Axis propaganda than the picture of a decadent Britain where immoral British women preyed on American soldiers. It was a mistake to say that prostitutes were the main cause of the trouble. The acquaintance between American soldiers and good-time girls frequently led to intercourse and the spread of VD.

Superintendent Cole took up the theme. It was impossible for the police to take any action against the good-time girls, because they were not common prostitutes and did not accost: they simply made it clear that they would welcome advances, and this was not a criminal offence. Thereupon the Americans agreed that there was no more moral laxity in Britain than in the US, and that the problem could be addressed within existing legislation. Newsam wound up by branding as mischievous any suggestion that the present state of affairs was in the nature of a scandal, and in time-honoured style the whole issue was swept under the carpet by setting up a committee to examine the problem of VD. Nothing much more was heard. A government publicity campaign (as always stigmatising women as the carriers) had swift success, and VD infection figures fell by nearly two-thirds in the last two years of the war. That roughly corresponds to 15,000 men, the equivalent of an infantry division, whose absence could have severely hampered the Normandy landings.

So the carnival rolled on towards D-Day, which was to be Disappointment Day for millions of British women. Many were older women who had found the wartime separation from their husbands unendurable. Some had only known their husbands for a few weeks of marriage. Starved of emotion, they were often almost shocked to find themselves vulnerable to men who were not their husbands. The stakes were much higher for them. They were likely to be shunned by their friends and prey to guilt, even if the new relationship was a happy one. If they became pregnant, they were more likely than their daughters to have an illegal abortion — going to a backstreet abortionist if they could afford it or, if not, using their mothers' methods with hot water and a syringe. Many more parents felt a similar loss after the war when their married daughters sailed off to the US, which back then felt almost as distant as the moon.

Yet for every unhappy outcome there was a happy one: GI babies born out of love and accepted by the husband when he came back from the battlefield; girls falling in love with glamorous young soldiers; GI brides waving exultant farewells from the ship's rail. Joan Wyndham was one of the former. In the Waaf, she fell in with a group of handsome Norwegian torpedo-boat officers and had a very good time with them until the end of the war. Averil was one of the child brides. She had never considered herself a good-time girl — "because I still had to answer to my aunt in London. I didn't screw around. It was the dancing that excited me, and the lying about my age. I wasn't very naughty but I liked to think I was". At a dance she met a GI named Salvatore Rico Bono. "I married my GI husband in a register office in London, after first bringing him home to meet the family. It seems like 100 years ago now," she sighs. "It was very romantic. I was 16 and I wanted to go to America — I was very fond of him as well." After six weeks in a quarantine camp, she shipped out to New York, where she lives to this day.

It was a pardonable exaggeration by a historian of this period, John Costello, to write that military victory had only been won by millions of British and US citizens sacrificing the trappings of a civilised morality. As it was, the second world war did not lead to a collapse in morality so much as a collapse of the Victorian taboos on discussing sex openly. It made it easier for the state to accept new responsibilities for unmarried women and their children. For the first time it introduced free legal help for divorcees, and allowed mothers to claim a maternity grant and modest child support. There is a generation of grey-haired grandmothers out there who know something we don't: that sexual liberation began in the 1940s and has been flourishing ever since.

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