In Operation Bolero, begun in April 1943, the predominantly American expeditionary forces staged men and materiel in the British Isles to plan, train, and prepare for continental invasion. In its scope and duration, Bolero was effectively an occupation, itself a difficult military task, that was conducted within the larger demands of European theatre planning and operations. Nevertheless, despite its many challenges and opportunities for failure, it is undeniable that the success of the final military campaign to defeat the Nazis was written in Bolero. Notwithstanding the logistics feats, it was in the friendships created across the many lines of host and guest that victory was ascertained.
But we do not speak often of Bolero. Perhaps it is the warmth of those relations and their humble origins across broken bread that dampen serious attention from this historic interlude. Surely the hard paths of war and history cannot be carved from such homely deeds. And yet, tending the subsistence of the growing American force both confounded and created the relations between the British public and military personnel in the two years leading up to D-Day.
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Careful management of the conflict between expectations regarding quantity and style of food for the American soldiers and the lived experience of rationing of the locals had a strategic effect and defined the nature and character of the war effort. It would be a war of materiel, best demonstrated in largesse often shared across the alliance, and of care for the human element, both military and civilian.
In the logistics story of Operation Bolero, we have not only the roots of Allied success in WWII, but perhaps as well a glimpse of the strategic ghosts haunting contemporary military affairs.
Hardships in the UK
“The fourth winter of the war falls on a public not flagging or out of heart, but for the time being much more preoccupied with the unavoidable difficulties of everyday life.” As noted by the Minister of Information in a memorandum for the War Cabinet on the eve of the Americans’ arrival, this was the condition of the United Kingdom to which the Americans would soon be arriving. They would find a people ready and willing for the fight but needing to work mightily merely to succeed against the mounting challenges of wartime.
Putting a human face to the struggle, the British temper in war had pricked the consciousness of the American public via the correspondence of Mollie Panter-Downes in The New Yorker. Describing the hardships of rationing, the breakdown of normal standards of reserve and etiquette, her letters were a timely insight into the culture that would abide the arrival of several hundred thousand foreign troops.
She wrote of the common hardships shared across the nation as the capital was evacuated ahead of the German bombing campaign, as “the war has brought the great unwashed into the bosoms of the great washed … who have been told to act as hostesses and keep the guests from pining for Shoreditch.” In February 1940 she wrote of the extension of the pheasant hunt, which “had a cheering effect of British housewives, who like their Sunday roast and who are going to need a lot of education before they really take … that substitute bacon to their conservative bosoms.”
War was a sacrifice for the British people, nowhere more so than with the increasing strictures of rationing, which meant frequent sacrifice and occasional loosening of normal social conventions.
Operation Bolero’s Logistics
Against this context, the military sojourn in the U.K. was necessary to ready the forces for the campaign to liberate Western Europe from Nazi control. On logistics terms alone, without that proximate staging area and training period, any continental offensive would have been greatly complicated. However, a staging area created its own demands. Thus, to understand Bolero’s challenges, its operation must be viewed within the whole of European theatre logistics, which from Lend Lease, through invasion preparations, and across the campaign to liberate the continent from Nazi control, were staggering.
Itself only a fraction of the war’s total, from Normandy to Berlin alone would consume 48 million tons of supply delivered to the advancing armies – an amount equivalent to the volume of roughly twenty large stadiums. Thus, while Bolero would benefit the Allies once the campaign began, it would strain the planning and execution of all logistics.
Despite the difficulties, the enduring cheerful memory of the American soldiers highlights the amity that was the critical enabler, mitigating potential problems in this clash of societies. While the British might have chided “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” had the experience been truly bad, the course of the war would have differed. In part led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal fondness for the British, with significant strategic forethought, the American armed forces occupied their ally with a fair degree of sensitivity.
By the time Bolero began, the British people had been at war and under attack for several years. Their life and economy had been overtaken by the war effort in a manner that Americans would not have understood. Food rationing conducted in the U.K. on a scale far more stringent than that found at home would shock the Americans, and the balance between British sacrifices and American expectations would require careful attention.
Food logistics were strategic to the conflict generally, and to the British public and Allied armies especially. As a maritime nation which had built its economy upon trade over the course of several centuries, the war’s demands and the Battle of the Atlantic strained the U.K.’s ability to feed itself and the war effort. The civilian condition was further sacrificed as the British government exercised its authority to ration goods and foods across society to spare resources and capacity for military materiel. Bolero and the campaign preparations would strain this situation further.
A January 1943 report on shipping linked the matter of food and economies in civilian consumption to the Bolero deployments. Still within the grip of the Battle of the Atlantic, shipping capacity was relatively fixed. If space was given to bring Americans and the materiel to the U.K. then some amount of goods for the British public would have to be sacrificed. Although sacrifices had already been made, the committee believed that “further economies in civilian consumption … appear to be possible.”
Americans accustomed to abundance were about to descend upon a country which was again about to tighten its collective belt.
For the American forces, quantity problems were compounded by issues of quality. Originally planned to be fed from the British larder, the standard British ration fed to the American soldiers was over two pounds less in quantity than what they were accustomed to, and this did not include the discontent over its composition.
“For reasons of morale as well as nutrition,” that American personnel in the U.K. should be fed in a manner as close to the garrison ration received at home, “despite added difficulties in storage and distribution.” But upping the amounts shipped to the U.K. was not without difficulty. The Shipping Committee to the War Cabinet gave shape to the scale and the challenge of increasing imports, reporting in January of 1944 that “the capacity of the United Kingdom ports and facilities for distribution by the various forms of inland transport will be severely strained” at levels above 12 million tons in the next six months.
To give further texture to the scale and breadth, when it came to the Post Exchange supplies, the items that were furnished by the hosts included 54 million gallons of beer, almost 100 million chocolate bars, and 15 million prophylactics.
Food of Friendship
Bolstering the materiel augmentation, American service personnel were cautioned about their behavior around food while in the United Kingdom. To maintain an amicable relationship, empathy towards the terms and costs of war to British society was of paramount importance. One soldier stationed in Northern Ireland wrote to his mother about how he and his fellow soldiers had realized the callousness of their teasing regarding the food shortages.
To assist this learning across thousands of troops who would arrive on British soil, A Short Guide to Great Britain provided orientation material for American service personnel, offering guidance on the issues of concern to wartime Britons.
American appetites in excess of wartime British norms made it necessary to remind that invitations to dine in a home could mean the sacrifice of a week or a month’s rations if the typical Americal soldiers were not careful when told to “eat up.”
But if much time and effort was put into managing the downsides, the human interplay built the fiber of the relationship. Enchanted by the domestic comforts of the British, most American soldiers longed for an invitation to dine. Being “at home” was a solace to the troops, and in their gratitude, they were at pains to be good guests. Whereas the institution sought to constrain inadvertent acts which would harm relations, the individual soldiers themselves more often went beyond to practice personal food diplomacy. Understanding the terms of the sacrifices being made by their British hosts, they were lavish in what they shared with them.
Based in large part on such interactions, the Anglo-American civil-military relationship was a benefit to the larger military campaign. The duration and sacrifices of the war for British civilians meant that the American presence could have been resented as a burden, with severe consequences for the war. That the American presence was in many respects a pleasure to the civilians and that the relationship between the two was almost familial was of great value to the political and strategic objectives during war, and helped to establish an unprecedentedly close and enduring relationship between the two states after it.
Nevertheless, we spend far less intellectual time on the people and the cultural basis of the power derived from those events and their effect on the war. We may enjoy the chance to gaze back in reverent awe at the sacrifices of the armed forces in WWII, but the historical gaze is for more than mere enjoyable vistas. Our eye is cast back to the past to think more profoundly about our present.
With Bolero in mind, it is very difficult not to interrogate our present and recent past for failing to heed the lessons of strategic humanity in warfare learned during the WWII years. From Afghanistan to Iraq, across the map and time to Vietnam, with countless other smaller stops in between, we forgot the profound influence of humanity in war. To our strategic detriment, we spend far less intellectual time on the people and cultural basis of the power derived from those events and their effect on the course of events in WWII.
American foreign policy and military affairs are not haunted by the ghosts of past failures, but of past success. Refusing the lesson of WWII has cost us dearly in the past decades since the Vietnam War, but not yet mortally. Whether we relearn those means soon enough will define the terms of the 21st century, either darkening under the burdens of chaos and fear or becoming the promise of progress for the many.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.