Howard Croft column: War book helped Yanks cope with British way of life

Reproduced copy of the 1942 pamphlet issued by the US War Department.
Reproduced copy of the 1942 pamphlet issued by the US War Department.

John Elduff, a friend and former colleague from my time working in the United States, recently lost his father, James, at the age of 96. I was invited to a few family occasions, Independence Day parties mainly. It gives you a warm feeling when formerly oppressed colonial slaves invite you to join them in celebrating their escape from under the imperial jackboot.

On a couple of such occasions I had an opportunity to sit with Mr Elduff Senior. He had quite a story to tell. He was a decorated combat pilot in command of a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War Two, flying 44 missions. Following his training as a pilot he was posted to the United Kingdom where he was based on a United States Air Force station in Suffolk, and it was about this time in England that he was pleased to talk to someone familiar with the part of England that he got to know well.

What he had no recollection of was a pamphlet produced by the United States War Department in 1942, seven typed pages on foolscap paper entitled “Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942”, a copy of which he would almost certainly have received. At the time it attracted attention in Britain because it gave an interesting insight into how the British were perceived by others. The editor of the (London) Times wrote at the time that it should become a best seller and “ought to be acquired by British readers”.

This is exactly what happened. In 1994 this document was published by the Bodleian Library in book form, with new editions following in 2004 and 2005. It is not clear what changes were made in the 2nd and 3rd editions to justify them: it is after all an historical document, but that’s publishers for you, a few corrections and hey presto! you have a “new” edition and more sales. Really, the Bodleian should know better. The Bodleian also asserts its copyright in the publication, although it contributed only a brief (but excellent) foreword written by the Librarian. I wonder if the United States War Department knows about this.

I was very happy to supply Mr Elduff Senior with a copy, which he very much enjoyed and which prompted many memories. It is in some ways a rather quaint publication. In a section titled “British Reserved, Not Unfriendly” it cautions against using the word “bloody” in mixed company as it is “one of their worst swear words”, and to say “I look like a bum” is offensive to British ears because to them it means you look like your own backside. Days of innocence.

Feminist sensitivities are also addressed. Drawing attention to the fact that many women in England appear in uniform, some of them officers, pluckily sticking to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, it solicits respect. “When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic – remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich”.

The table of British currency reads slightly oddly. The farthing is described as rare, although farthings continued to be minted until 1961, as is the thrup’ny (sic) bit, which soldiered on until our currency was decimalised in 1971. Although the farthing continued to be minted until 1961, the year I went into the sixth form, I have no recollection of handling one even as a child, or seeing anything priced at a farthing. I do remember florins, described by the US War Department as “fairly rare”, which they surely cannot have been.

Differences in vocabulary are well covered and this is, even now, a tricky business. I remember when I went to America going into B&Q (they call it Home Depot) looking for Polyfiller and being confounded by the fact that they call it spackle. Not particularly embarrassing. But imagine the possibilities for misunderstandings arising from the fact that what we call braces (those things that hold your trousers up, seldom seen these days except across the shoulders of estate agents and Conservative politicians) Americans, now as then, call suspenders. Imagine an amorous American GI dating a nice English girl in Ispwich say, boasting “I shall be wearing my new suspenders tonight, my dear”.

As for Mr Elduff Senior, his life went like this. After the Second World War he returned to America, went to university and later worked as a nuclear physicist. Then (was he crazy?) he volunteered to go back into uniform for the Korean War. Thankfully, he survived and I was able to get to know him, to like him, and thank him.