1942 – American troops arrive in Britain

Author Mark Ellis has been on A Writer of History before talking about writing historical fiction, and I’m delighted to welcome him back as his new novel, Dead In The Water releases in paperback. Dead In The Water is set in London 1942 where “As war rages on, a killer stalks the streets.” Today, he writes of the impact of the arrival of American troops in Britain during World War Two.


In 1942, U.S. troops began arriving in Britain in great numbers following America’s entry into the Second World War. I write a detective series set in wartime London and the latest adventure of my protagonist, Frank Merlin, takes place in 1942. As always, before writing the book, I heavily researched the period and, in the course of so doing, learned a number of interesting facts about the impact of the American arrival in Britain. Focusing as I do in my books on the legal and criminal world, I took particular interest in how the influx of U.S. troops changed things in that area. Here are some of the things I discovered.

  • The most important impact, and the most surprising to me, was a change in the law. In the summer of 1942, after discussions between the American military authorities and the British government, an Act of Parliament was passed under which legal jurisdiction in all cases involving American military personnel was transferred to the American authorities. Thenceforth, British police would have to hand over any such cases to the U.S. Military Police and British courts would no longer handle any cases which went to trial. These would all be processed by American military courts. If prison or capital sentences were passed, the Americans were to be responsible for dealing with them. Inevitably this jurisdictional change led to friction between British and American police, particularly in its early stages.
  • American troops naturally brought with them the racial outlook of their country at the time. Wherever troops were in the country, local inhabitants were swiftly made aware of strong racial prejudice between white and black people. While such prejudice was hardly unknown in Britain, the country’s relatively small black population then meant the problem was far less prominent than in the United States.
  • Prejudice in the American military raised its ugly head publicly most often in places of entertainment. Brawls often ensued when white Americans saw black soldiers dancing with white girls in dancehalls or clubs and regardless of the change of law, it was usually British police who had to sort out the mess.
  • Similar problems arose in pubs around the country when white American soldiers would often object to black soldiers being served in the same bar. Again, fights would frequently break out. In many areas, as the war progressed, a form of apartheid grew up in which certain pubs in an area agreed to serve only white American troops, and others only black.
  • The American military courts were also imbued with the pervasive prejudice. Far more black soldiers were prosecuted and convicted than white soldiers and, if convicted, black sentences tended to be much harsher than those of whites. This fact did not go unnoticed in Britain and there were a number of blatant examples of injustice which drew public interest. In one case, black soldier Leroy Henry was convicted of rape on flimsy evidence and, as rape was a U.S. military capital offence, was sentenced to death. The British press got hold of the story and saw the conviction and sentence as the unfair result of prejudice. Over 30,000 people in the city of Bath, where the alleged offence had taken place, signed a petition seeking Henry’s reprieve. In the end, General Eisenhower, the commander of U.S. forces in Britain, felt bound to set aside the conviction as unsound and Henry was returned to his unit.
  • The Americans had the use of their own military prison facilities, but the British authorities also handed over one of their prisons to them for their use. U.S. executions were carried out in Shepton Mallett in Somerset, in the west of England. Britain did retain some involvement in this part of the legal process, as instead of shipping their own hangmen over, the U.S. military authorities were happy to rely on British practitioners. These mostly came from one family, the Pierrepoints, the doyens of the British execution business. In one of the last U.S. executions, in 1944, Tom Pierrepoint hanged a white U.S. Army private, John Waters, for the murder by gunfire of his English girlfriend Doris Staples in a shop in Oxfordshire. 

There are many other interesting facts about the American wartime presence in Britain, but unfortunately I have not space enough to cover them here. Find out more about my new Frank Merlin thriller, Dead In The Water at markellisauthor.com. The paperback will be published in the U.S. on January 17. It is already available in ebook and audio.

Dead In The Water by Mark Ellis ~~ Summer, 1942. The Second World War rages on but Britain now faces the Nazi threat with America at its side.

In a bombed-out London swarming with gangsters and spies, DCI Frank Merlin continues his battle against rampant wartime crime. A mangled body is found in the Thames just as some items of priceless art go mysteriously missing. What sinister connection links the two?

Merlin and his team follow a twisting trail of secrets and lies as they investigate a baffling and deadly puzzle.

Many thanks, Mark. Although I’ve read many novels featuring Britain during WW2, I had no idea of the complexities involved in policing or of how American attitudes spilled over onto British soil.

Dead In The Water is available through Amazon or IndieBound.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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