During the early 1940’s, village life was far different from today. Each village was a smaller and much closer-knit concern, with a population of just a few hundred. The arrival of the American forces turned these hundreds into thousands. Although not living directly in a village, everything they did came into contact with village life. Whether it was men passing through on ‘manoeuvres’, or the convoys of lorries travelling from local pits delivering sand, ballast and supplies to the airfield, or just simply standing alongside residents in their local pub.
An American serviceman’s first impressions of England and in Birch’s case, East Anglia, were probably based on the weather. At best our climate is unpredictable and although morale was always reported as ‘high’, this did have an impact on their daily routine and schedules, causing a certain amount of disruption to the airfield construction programme.
A villagers first impression of an American serviceman, or Yank as they had become known could only be based on what had been portrayed in the cinema of the 1930’s or written in the media. Overnight there appeared hundreds of men, smartly dressed in uniform with an accent that had only been heard on the ‘silver screen’. After several years at war and all the difficulty this had caused, their glamorous image came as a breath of fresh air to society. They made an immediate imprint on the community and soon developed a reputation for having it all. Cigarettes, sweets (candy) and nylons were their secret, with these three things , a little natural charm and generosity, and a here today gone tomorrow approach to life, everybody was impressed. Schoolboys would ask for ‘gum chum’ and servicemen enquired politely, ‘have you got a sister?’
In the early days of construction at Birch, there was no entertainment on the camp. Men lived either in tents or basic Nissen huts with few home comforts or amenities. Servicemen had to find their own amusement. Most recreation time was spent in local pubs, where it wasn’t uncommon for them to close on a Monday because it had been drunk dry over the weekend. There was always a bicycle lying around somewhere because it’s owner was incapable of riding back to camp.
With so many men concentrated in one area, tension was sure to rise. This reflected in their spare time when they had a few hours to unwind. Quite often the landlord didn’t need to ring the last orders bell, he knew it was time to close when the fight started!
As the airfield progressed and the many buildings and Nissen huts were completed, the servicemen at Birch acquired their own cinema and dance hall. Until now they had travelled to local villages and towns, and also as far as London for their nightlife. The cinema and dance hall were intended for use by the many units that had made Birch their home. As well as these men, local school children would benefit from them. At weekends, lorries were sent out to villages that surrounded the airfield to bring back school children to watch the latest films from America. On other occasions local girls were invited to attend dances held at the camp. The free entertainment that the ‘Yanks’ supplied was never more popular than the Christmas of 1943. Parties were held at village halls, local farms and even on the camp itself. Lorries were sent to collect children from Birch, Messing, Easthorpe and Layer Marney, which brought them into camp. Each lorry was individually numbered and the children were told to remember their number to ensure they travelled home on the same one that brought them. There was a Father Christmas who had a present for everyone and there was enough food for even the hungriest of children.
Because of the enormity of the task and also a lack of resources, some civilian labour was employed to work on the building of the airfield. Some airfields depended heavily on manpower recruited from the public; Birch was the exception to this. Only a few individuals who were specialist in a particular field were asked to help. Many women were also actively involved. The Red Cross was set up in Messing village at the ‘Red House’. At any one time there could be up to two thousand extra people in and around the village, so this was a vital contribution to the morale of the servicemen.
During 1944, over one hundred ‘Flying Bombs’ landed in Essex. Some comfort to this threat was gained by the large anti aircraft gun positions that were situated around the two hundred acre site. Set in the middle of open countryside, the guns were always trained on the sky in readiness for what was one of the wars most frightening weapons.
The atmosphere that the military presence brought was a schoolboys dream. The American occupation was a big adventure that never seemed to end. Long summer days were spent looking for that elusive crashed aircraft, or hunting out bullets and empty shell cases.
“We used to go out and try and find live bullets which we could explode later on. We had an old treacle tin which we put over the bullet which we had pushed into the ground head first. We would then hit the treacle tin causing the bullet to fire with great amusement to everyone present”
Pat Adkins-Birch Schoolboy
In total, American units were stationed at Birch less than two years. During this period great friendships were made and several local girls met and eventually married men from the station. Everybody that I have spoken to remembers these times with fondness and humour and of course nearly all the boys had a sister, if only to get the ‘gum chum’.