What began as a pub disagreement and escalated to an open gun battle and the death of one soldier, this violent incident between enlisted US soldiers and military police is now known as ‘the Battle of Bamber Bridge’. Involving black enlisted soldiers opposed by white MPs and officers, the incident is generally considered an incident of racial violence and was largely censored in contemporary news reports.
Soldiers from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck regiment were stationed in the village of Bamber Bridge, on the outskirts of Preston, Lancashire, tasked with delivering supplies to various Eighth Army bases in Lancashire during the Second World War. Like many US regiments the 1511th was racially segregated, with the majority of enlisted men being black, while the officers were almost invariably white. Service units were also used as a way of dumping poor officers from combat units, meaning the regiment’s leadership was weak. Accounts from local people suggest that the soldiers generally got on well with the people of their host village, but there was significant tension between the soldiers and their commanding officers. A race riot in Detroit between June 20th and 22nd 1943 which resulted 34 deaths and over 1,800 arrests further ramped up racial tensions between the men. A company of US military police, almost all white, had also been billeted in the village.
On the evening of June 24th, two days after the riots ended, a group of black soldiers were drinking in the Ye Olde Hob Inn alongside Bamber Bridge locals and British servicewomen from the Auxiliary Territorial Service. After last orders were called several of the soldiers attempted to purchase more beer, but were refused. Officers from the 1511th drinking in the pub told two passing MPs, Corporal Ray Windsor and PFC Ralph Ridgeway, that an incident was taking place.
On entering the pub they attempted to arrest one of the soldiers, Private Eugene Nunn, who was wearing a field jacket rather than the required service uniform and did not have a pass to be away from barracks. An argument broke out between the soldiers and MPs, with local people taking the side of the black Americans. After one of the soldiers threatened the MPs with a bottle, Coporal Windsor drew his service pistol, but black Staff Sergeant William Byrd was able to talk the two groups down. However, the private who had picked up a bottle, Lynn Adams, threw it at the MP’s jeep as they left.
The two MPs initially visited the commanding officers of the 1511th, asking them to help control the situation, but the officers refused and instructed the MPs to arrest the men. Windsor and Ridgeway then picked up two additional MPs, PFC Carson Bozman and Private Spurlock Mullins, before intercepting the black soldiers as they were walking back to the base. Later witness accounts differed on how the incident had played out: other black soldiers that had not taken part claimed the MPs had incited a fight by threatening the group and using racial slurs, while a British Special Constable who had witnessed the initial exchange claimed that the MPs had initially approached calmly.
However the argument began, it escalated when Nunn threw a punch at Ridgeway, who in response drew his pistol and shot Adams in the neck. Adam’s comrades, who had begun brawling with the other MPs, scattered after the shot was fired. Jeeps arrived to ferry away the injured, but four black soldiers later claimed that the MPs refused to take them to hospital. Instead, the group returned to their camp. A panicked rumour that MPs were intending to shoot black soldiers quickly spread around the base, but the regiment’s only black officer, Lieutenant Edwin Jones, was able to calm the men, assuring them that the senior officers of the regiment would support them.
A few hours later, a large force of MPs arrived in Bamber Bridge, bringing with them an armoured car mounted with a machine gun. In response, the soldiers armed themselves from the camp gun room and set out to confront them. After warning residents to stay indoors, the men appear to have opened fire on the MPs and a prolonged gun battle took place, spanning at least three hours. Two MPs and two soldiers were wounded and one black soldier, Private William Crossland, was killed. The two injured MPs had suffered a broken nose and broken jaw.
By the following afternoon, the rifles had been recovered after the soldiers reluctantly returned to base. Four of the ringleaders were court martialed and sentenced to between three and four years hard labour. In a further court martial, 28 soldiers of the 1511th were found guilty of a range of offenses, including mutiny, seizing arms, rioting and shooting at MPs. Seven were acquitted. Those found guilty were sentenced to between three months and fifteen years in prison. Seven were handed custodial sentences of over twelve years. However, a rapid appeal that focused on the poor leadership of the 1511th and alleged racial slurs used by MPs saw many of the sentences reduced. A year later 15 of the men were returned to duty, while six others had their sentences reduced to a year’s hard labour. None spent longer than 13 months incarcerated. Considering some of the men had been charged with mutiny during wartime the sentences were generally considered exceptionally lenient.
The incident precipitated a number of changes within the US Army units stationed in England, with black trucking units consolidated into a single special command, its senior ranks purged of the inexperienced or racist officers that had plagued previous units. Morale generally improved, although incidents between black and white soldiers continued on a smaller scale, with serious fighting in Leicester the following February and a publican’s wife killed by fire between black and white troops in Newbury.