The Launceston Showdown, back in 43, is a terrific story, still remembered a little round here.
It was a classic American western scene, lasting five minutes, leading to a court martial which gripped the world.
It was late September and troops of all kinds were having a bit of a party weekend, with the war going well, an England–Wales football match on the Saturday and ceremonies on the Sunday to mark three years since the Battle Of Britain.
It was the second year of American troops flooding Europe. As a new book puts it, Launceston had seen nothing like it since the Normans built a castle there. Tavistock and Bodmin, Ivybridge and Plymouth, had similar garrisons but Launceston was star location, with Dixie jazz every Saturday at the town hall and celebs like Artie Shaw and Joe Louis dropping in.
So this Sunday evening, everyone was down the pub, coming down from a raucous Friday and a dance night on the Saturday. Except for a company of “black Yanks” who had once again been confined to barracks. In charge of stores for the 501st Ordnance Ammo Company.
The white GIs had all that Yankee flash of Coke and beer on tap, mess pool tables, gum and chocolates and smokes on the house, and so on. The black men lived in their own bare bunkhouse and did not even have the dress blousons which were required for a town pass. When they did manage to get out, they got in trouble and the Military Police solved it by sending them home again.
This time, they were heading for a last chance at last orders on the last day of the holiday. And they were tooled up, with guns and knives, to confront anyone who tried to stop them. They marched from their base at Pennygillam into Launceston Town Square around 10 o clock and came face to face with a bunch of MPs (Military Police) and white GIs, at the heart of a crowd including British troops. About 10 words were exchanged – quietly, apparently, but there must have been menace in them. Then somebody shouted Hands Up. Some of the MPs probably began to raise their guns. Somebody on the other side of the showdown fired a couple of bursts from a tommy gun, took out two jeeps, smashed up the legs of one MP and winged another. At least one MP started firing back but mostly they were just taken completely by surprise. Rifle bullets thudded into the wall of the White Hart Inn, chipped the war memorial and shattered a couple of shop windows. And then everybody ran.
Kate Werran, a historian whose father came from Launceston, has been piecing together the story for a new book from Pen & Sword Publishing, An American Uprising In WW2 England – Rebellion In The Duchy.
Tavistock Bookstore has it at £25, selling well.
The way she tells it:
Their marching footsteps could be heard stomping downhill long before row upon row of them trooped into a quiet Cornish market square, three abreast. The night-time air was cool, pavements were wet from earlier rain and it was the pitchy-ink dark of blackout, wartime Europe. Suddenly they appeared ‘in a body’, from out of the darkness, encircling a group of military policemen, fellow Americans, who were standing next to a jeep and chatting. A man seemed to be the spokesman for the group and he said, very quietly: ‘Why don’t you let us come into town, come to the pubs?’ Flashlights snapped on. ‘Hands up!’ was shouted. The military police raised their arms and backed up. As they did, ‘I heard bolts open on rifles,’ said the jeep’s driver. ‘I heard a bolt crack and a shot landed at our feet. Someone hollered ‘DUCK’. I jumped in behind the wheel of a jeep. I felt a bullet whizz past me.’ A flashlight revealed a soldier ‘with a denim hat and overcoat firing a rifle from the hip and he was really pumping them out.’
Then chaos as British soldiers, Polish airmen, WAAFs and Land Army girls, as well as the Americans under fire, scrambled for cover amid ricocheting bullets.
The Americans thought they were after a posse of about 35. They rounded up 14 and got signed confessions out of them all. But whether they were the right 14 was quickly thrown into doubt when the court martial started. Turned out the only white witness who could identify any of them was their CO. The only thing the accused recognised from their confessions was their signatures. And there was a rumour, pursued and blocked all through the trial, that English soldiers had fired alongside them.
A lot of the British almost hoped so, the way this book tells the mood of the time. We had our own racists, of course, but many working class Brits had been horrified, for some time, to see decent coloured farm boys, tradesmen and college lecturers, routinely treated like dogs by their over-indulged comrades in arms. Women right up the social ladder found the black Yanks especially charming, which drove the US segregationists wild and worried the British government. Dance hall and pub fights were common and so were little mutinies, which the Americans mostly hushed up. They tried to keep the racial element out of the reporting of this one but the British press refused to play ball and there was huge anticipation of the trial. And then it became another American film brought to life in Devon – the courthouse drama. The US Army wangled permission to run a court to their own rules and ended up holding it in Paignton, which had a big room for the fishermen’s hangover court and was quite happy to have the Stars n Stripes flying over its civic buildings and being played by a band on the lawn every day for two or three weeks.
The British press wrote colour pieces about the smoke breaks, where lawyers with no wigs or robes, defendants, military police and all, would josh and compare notes with the public on how things were shaping, in a way never seen in a British court.
In the end, the defence got attempted murder thrown off the list of charges but then ran out of steam, or gave up by agreement, and left the tribunal to find everybody in front of them guilty of something. Only they were not told that at the time. The court announced that its findings and sentences would not be published and got away with it. The 14 defendants were driven away, waving to their new friends in Paignton, apparently under the impression they were facing nothing worse than dishonourable discharge. In fact they were heading for at least 15 years hard labour each, back in the US prison system – 20 years for the three sergeants who were the alleged ringleaders.
Kate Werran sums up: “The trial injected Hollywood–style drama to a war-weary Britain and captured world attention briefly before it was lost in an ever-escalating blitz of world conflict.”
The popular rumour was that the convicts had been executed. By the time she tracked down their records, they were all dead anyway. Tough luck. She deserved to find one to tell the story. As it is, she fills in the context well and gets the best out of the recorded evidence, to make a thrilling summary of all there is to know. One day, no doubt, the gaps will be filled in on film.
One of the tipping points for mood in the run-up to the Launceston rebellion was cricket hero Leary Constantine, from Barbados, being tipped out of his London hotel, with his family, just a couple of weeks before, because American troops objected to having him there.
Another – less publicised but no doubt in the heads of the men who marched on Launceston Town Square – was the unsolved murder of a black GI who wandered into The White Horse in Ivybridge a few months before.
The book sums up: “The ripple of silence reached the bar about the same time as a wooden chair rose up out of the crowd and came down on the man’s head.”
Nobody would identify the culprit and nobody was ever charged.
Kate Werran has made history programmes for Channel 4, Channel 5 and the BBC. This story has been on her mind since she was a child, on holiday in Launceston, and put her fingers in the bullet holes in the war memorial and wondered: Why?