Tuesday 5 July 2022

Yanks in Clevedon: 1943-44

 In December 1943 an U.S Army jeep appeared on the Six Ways interchange in Clevedon. The occupant, Major Barney Oldfield, and his driver, Corporal Max Shepherd, were scouting for 'a village site in the West Country' which would take about 700 men. 

Right in front of the GPO exchange on Six Ways stood a man in a top hat and tails wearing a morning coat - rather formal for a vacation type seaside town thought Oldfield who nevertheless stopped his vehicle and approached the man in question.

"I'm from a an American town about the same size as Clevedon, called Tecumseh, so landlocked you have to go half way across the united States to smell salt water."

The Clevedonian listened, stiff as a board before asking "what sort of unit are you bringing to OUR town?".

In recounting this meeting in the Tecumseh Chieftain newspaper in the early 1990s, Colonel Oldfield remembered the apprehension in his tone. 

"I told him they were media people, that they would form the press facilities and support for the American and Canadian field armies when Europe is invaded - no convoys of lorries, Just the odd two and half ton truck".


Major Barney Oldfield - Public Affairs Alumni Association 

The unit which arrived in Clevedon following Oldfield's recce, was pretty unique. The Publicity and Psychological  Warfare Battalion consisted of several hundred journalists, photographers, PR men, linguists, radio operators and drivers. The unit had been set up by Jack M.Redding a newspaper man from Chicago, who had obtained a commission in the Air Corps. Oldfield remembers his boss as 'having a ferocious scowl, which he wore in various styles for various occasions'. 

Oldfield's conversation with the smartly dressed man on Six Ways brought the required result. 

"He faced down each of the streets, punched his clenched fists in the air and lo, the streets were full of ladies - some with babies in prams, a-wheeling kids or scooters. He had a village map of housing available showing the number of rooms in each building suitable for offices and lodgings."

" We were taken down to the Pier and Ma Cole's pub (Note: this was the bar of the Pier Hotel). There were nearly 200 locals down there with great smiles and I was introduced as 'a fine American chap'.  I told them I was bringing a lot of new neighbours from all over America - one of them a little odd. Roy Wilder from North Carolina who wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune. You'll have to put up with a lot of strange smells when he gets care packages from his homefolks containing things called chitlins (Note: a delicacy made from the intestines of domestic animals). There was another, a fellow named Lt James W Campbell who was a Tennessee bureau chief for the United Press. Newspaper people tended then, to write with a cigarette butt lip-clenched, the smoke coming up in to their eyes. I told how he'd licked that by using a 14 inch cigarette holder which took the acrid smoke well beyond his nostrils".

The unit was in town for almost six months, and by all accounts made quite an impression. Oldfield felt that as a result of the incursion, Clevedon 'became a highly sophisticated - even intellectual - centre'! When the press camps left to join their First and Third Armies on the eve of D-Day Clevedon apparently became 'a ghost town'.

Local resident Val Seeley remembers the American soldiers. "Some of them were billeted in the Walton Park Hotel and they used to walk past our house on Wellington Terrace. We quickly learnt to say 'got any gum, chum?' and they always had sweets for us kids. Lovely guys". 

So where did this eclectic mix of characters go when the war moved onto the European continent? 

Major Barney Oldfield - Nebraska State Historical Society

Major Oldfield had understood that airborne troops would be at the forefront of the fighting and he therefore arranged for a number of the press corps to be trained for parachute jumps. Colonel James M.Gavin was sceptical of the need for imbedded journalists but nevertheless acquiesced to the training that Major Oldfield was suggesting.

The men of The Publicity and Psychological Warfare Battalion were to serve their cause with distinction throughout the remaining period of the European war. With the invading troops on D-Day, through to the liberation of Paris, onwards into Holland (Oldfield with the Ninth Army) and then reaching Berlin after hostilities had ended - prompting some interesting interactions with the Red Army.

Colonel Barney Oldfield (since promoted) recounted his exploits in his book 'Never A Shot in Anger' published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce in 1951. He dedicated his book to 'all the correspondents, all the military public relations crews, and all the brave men they knew, whether they like it or not'. Oldfield had access to the senior Allied commanders and his observations on their leadership and relationships make fascinating reading. The short stay in Clevedon obviously left a strong impression on him and he spoke of the town in glowing terms.

After his wartime service had ended, Oldfield worked closely with General Eisenhower in the early days of NATO before resuming his career as a Hollywood agent working with many big name stars including Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Janis Paige and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Oldfield & Reagan - Public Affairs Alumni Association

Colonel Oldfield returned to Clevedon for a visit in 1951. He was working in London on a NATO project and decided to call Ma's Pier pub (The Pier Hotel). 

"Ma started to cry and she said over and over - Barney you get on the next train at Paddington Station and come on down here. My son Jack will meet you at Bristol Temple Meads Station. So I went. Jack met me in a top hat and morning coat and a chauffeured 1926 Rolls Royce. The whole town was there to meet me when I reached Clevedon and I was showered with 'what happened to' questions."

"Late that evening a stood at the big window with Ma Coles, watching ships outbound from or inbound to Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. Ships always blacked out before, sparkled like a country fair. 'Ah Barney' said Ma Coles. 'I come here every night and think I'd even put up with a war if I could you and all my boys back again. You were a lovely lot. Remember how the others drank stouts, ales, beers and sometimes the hard stuff? But only you drank orange squash!'." 

Barney's Book

Barney Oldfield died in April 2003, aged 93. In his obituary he was described as Variety's Nebraska correspondent, a Hollywood press agent and a retired USAF colonel.  He was the first journalist to become a paratrooper and served as press aide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On D-Day Oldfield was assigned to write Allied communiques about the invasion before joining 12th Army Group in France. In 1945, he organised and established the Berlin Press Club in the home of former Hitler finance minister Walter Funk.

Note: I came across this story by chance having picked up a copy of 'Never A Shot in Anger'. The post war recollections from the Tecumseh Chieftain newspaper were collected by David H Wood, a volunteer at the now defunct Clevedon Heritage Centre. Happily, his research is now preserved by the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust.

As an aside, the British Army had a similar outfit - the British Army Film and Photography Unit. At the 'We Have Ways' military history festival in July 2022, I was lucky enough to spend time with the living history team who are reenacting what they did, what they wore and what they carried. They operate as part of the 'Monty's Men' group and pride themselves on total authenticity. The group have recently acquired one of the original movie cameras used on the front line from D-Day through to the end of the Second World War.

Living History - the BAF&PU 

Original BAF&PU Camera

To hear Barney Oldfield talking about his wartime experiences here

Local historian Mike Horsfield interviewed Maisie Coles in the 1980s. Maisie had a lot to say about the Yanks in Clevedon and you can read a transcript here.