Thursday, 13 May 2021

Pubs and the military in WW II

Wartime films often show servicemen, especially aircrew, all socialising together down the pub. The reality, however, wasn’t always that simple or idyllic. The reason being the class divide, which was present in the military just as in the rest of society.

The British armed forces reflected the rest of British society. Officers were drawn from the upper classes and the ordinary soldiers from the working class. (This is a generalisation, but mostly true.) Class divisions were physical in pubs. The working man drank Mild in the public bar. Those of higher social status drank Bitter in the saloon bar or lounge.

Early in the war “Officers Only” signs began to appear outside some pubs. Parts, or in some cases all, of a pub was restricted to commissioned officers. Something which obviously pissed off the other ranks. Often non-commissioned servicemen were limited to the public bar while the officers got all the posh rooms to themselves.

The move didn’t come from central government, who made clear that it saw no problem with officers and men mixing in pubs. Nor was the trade itself behind the move. They were also happy to have all types of servicemen in the whole of their premises.

It was the Commanding Officer of a base who would insist on it. If he requested part of a pub be reserved for officers it was difficult for a publican to refuse, for fear of his whole pub being placed out of bounds for all ranks. Doubtless at this stage of the war, 1940, the COs would mostly be regular officers, used to the peacetime distinctions between ranks.

The policy not only went down badly with other ranks, but also with the public in general, who believed everyone was in the war together.

One counter-argument was that in the past the other ranks themselves had preferred to isolated from their officers, mostly for reasons of class. But that was in the days when officers and men had come from different classes. The former from the middle and upper classes and the latter from the working class. By 1940, this was no longer the case, with all classes represented in every rank.

It seems to have been a particular problem around RAF bases. Many had no officers’ mess and pubs were used instead to serve this role.  Ironically, it was amongst bomber crews that the bonds between officers and men were the tightest. As one pilot officer said: 

“If they think I’m going to send my air crew, who’ve just been on a bombing raid with me, into another bar when I go into that one, there’ll be trouble. My boys’ll tear the notice down.” 

After a couple of years of complaints, the government finally took action in 1942. The War Minister, Sir James Grigg, announced that restaurants, pubs and cafes would not be allowed to be designated as for officers only.

That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t quite. In 1944 a serviceman wrote a letter to the Gloucestershire Echo complaining that most of the dances held at Cheltenham Town Hall were for officers only.  Obviously, the 1942 ruling didn’t apply to every venue.


Phil said...

Officers were drawn from the upper classes and the ordinary soldiers from the working class. (This is a generalisation, but mostly true.)

What's almost more important is that officers were treated as members of the upper class - and enlisted men very much as workers. The two groups certainly didn't mix on base. My father - who was an MoD civil servant and hence an honorary officer - raised a lot of eyebrows by mostly swerving the Officers' Mess (atmosphere: rather like an Oxbridge college) in favour of the Sergeants' (atmosphere: somewhere between a prison canteen and a rather basic WMC). But he had more friends there, and they let him play the piano and didn't take the piss because he didn't know which way to pass the port; basically it was a lot more fun. I can't imagine he and my Mum would have had any truck with "officers only" pubs.

Anonymous said...

That is very interesting, thanks. One aspect I've found interesting as an American is the stories of English pubs which refused to enforce racial segregation and only allow Whites inside. Southern segregationists were able to maintain strict rules on US bases, but found they couldn't force pubs to go along, fortunately.

This would have happened later in the war, after the ban on separation between officers and regular troops took effect. I wonder if the levelling effect in pubs for officers and enlisted men was related in any way.