Many people have told me that we in England remember Glenn Miller far more than the people on the United States. I put this question to Big Band Buddy Chris Nash who lives in the Area of England, known as Little America during the war years.
This is his comments:-
Big Band Buddy and Pilot Chris Nash who flew this aircraft to Duxford on the 60th Anniversary of the Spitfire. The recently renovated Control Tower at Twinwood in the background.
During the 1930's the British dance band was musically supreme in England. Names like Ambose, Roy Fox (himself an American) Lew Stone, Henry Hall and Ray Noble, also with vocalists including Sam Browne, Al Bowlly and Dan Donovan ruled the airwaves, and recording studios.
The music was popular and easy to listen to, jazz was frowned on by the BBC, however musicians such as saxophonist, Freddie Gardner, and trombonist George Chisholm could delightedly give vent to their musical frustrations on record.
In 1934 Ray Noble departed for America taking with him Al Bowlly and drummer Bill Harty to take up an appointment as leader of New York's Rainbow Room Orchestra. At first the Unions were not happy at a 'Limey' taking over the top spot, however they relented when Noble agreed that all the musicians would be American, and chosen by a young trombonist called Glenn Miller!
Back in England things trundled on with the BBC stuffily controlling the type of music they thought the population ought to hear, and to be honest some of the recorded arrangements were very good indeed.
Then came September 3rd 1939.
The thirties were over and war was with us, and both these events combined to create the demise of the dance band.
In 1940 a bomb killed bandleader "Snakehips" Johnson, and in April 1941 Al Bowlly was killed also. The singing heart had been taken from the London's musical scene.
Then conscription took over, and the bandleaders saw their bands decimated, as their musicians were absorbed into the Services. They struggled on but the excitement and innovation was gone.
Life in Britain slowly degenerated into a miserable existence of shortages, rationing and military setbacks. It was a cheerless time for the average Briton even though morale remained doggedly high. By the Autumn of 1941 Britain had experienced two bitter years of war and life was pretty colourless.
Then on 7th December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.
Suddenly everything had changed. The 'Sleeping Giant' had been roused!
The first contingent of GI's landed in Britain in January 1942, less than two months after the US had entered the war. By the middle of that year US troops were pouring into Britain and continued to do so, building up to a peak of over one and a half million. They missed America and all things American; they listened to the BBC radio, but it was not to their taste. To be true the musical output was not to a lot of Britain's taste either, however Reith Ruled (John Reith BBC director-general during the 40's) and we had to get what the authorities thought was good for us.
Not so the Yank!
The fact that music could raise morale had not been lost on the brass, and Eisenhower himself determined that the GI's should have the music from home.
Enter the American Forces Network.
A.F.N. began broadcasting on 4th July 1943, and it did not take long for the Brits. to find the wavelength and eschew the BBC for the delights of jazz and swing.
Meanwhile the USAAF had been settling into airfields all over East Anglia, so much that the area became known as 'Little America'. In spite of the obvious cultural differences the Yanks began to mix happily with the locals, and it was not long before village damsels were invited to airbase dances, with music supplied by the base band. Local people also began to experience the delights of the PX, and the natural wariness of the East Anglian was inexorably worn-away by the natural friendliness and generosity of the Yank airman.
When it hit the locals, that every time a B24 did not return, it meant the loss of ten young Americans, some of whom they may well have been dancing with the weekend before, respect took the place of suspicion. It soon became a regular sight to see a large proportion of the local population lining the perimeter fence to wave the Liberators and Fortresses off,
and also be there to count back 'their' bombers.
The village of Thorpe Abbotts was desolated when only one of the 100th. Bomb Group B17's returned from a raid. The war went on and the Americans were being taken into the hearts of the East Anglians.
Then on June 22nd, 1944 the mighty A.A.F. Band left New York on the Queen Elizabeth to join Glenn Miller, who had already left for England. Eventually the band settled in its HQ at Bedford, which gave it easy access to all the bases in 'Little America'
In the next five and a half months and seventy-one concerts the AAF and Glenn Miller created, an attachment to the English that can only be described as a phenomenon that shows no sign of waning fifty-eight years later.
The American's brought colour, fun, goodies that were unobtainable, friendliness and a boundless generosity into our dull and staid lives, the whole epitomised by their music, and Glenn Miller made that music.
Glenn Miller AAF Orchestra on a base in England 1944
For the few lucky ones who could get to a live concert on bases there were thousands of Brits avidly tuning into the AFN to hear Shaw, Miller, Goodman, Sinatra, Forrest, Shore etc. The Brits came to associate the Big Band sound with the American forces they had come to admire and respect.
And the big bands were dominated by the marvellous AAF, which seemed to be everywhere and on every base at once. They would perform a concert in Bedford and then fly off in a B24 to Hardwick in Norfolk, home of the 93rd Bomb Group and while playing there the C.O. of Halesworth in Suffolk would arrange for another B24 to be ready to fly them in there for yet another session. At all of these concerts the locals would be panting to get an earful of their favourite music. The day of the English dance band was over. Yankee swing was King and the Brits. loved it.
Then December the 15th.1944
music loving Brits and Yanks alike were stunned at the news filtering through that Miller was lost over the channel. The AAF returned to the States in August 1945 and for us in the UK an era was over. The US govt; wanted their boy's home fast, so with typical US efficiency the airfields were emptied of their life force, and were soon abandoned leaving a large gap in the lives of the East Anglians. All the buzz and glamour of the Yanks was gone but their music remained through the services of AFN and records.
It was now that the realisation dawned of just how much we owed those gutsy, lively young Americans, and the only connection most of us had with them, was the remaining music. Absence makes the heart grow fonder they say and as time went on our respect for the American Airman grew.
Old Control Towers were restored, memorials to the Bomb Groups and individuals crews created. The debt we owed began to sink in. Above all the one thing always associated with the Yanks was Millers music. The strains of 'Moonlight Serenade' could always be relied upon to conjure up a vision of a Fort. or Lib. struggling back with "two turnin' and 'two burnin'. The enjoyment of the music always tempered with an underlying sadness for the 50,000 young men lost to America and ourselves in the Air Corps alone.
So, with the music being so popular people began to think, "Why not emulate the Miller sound with bands of our own?" after all we have the talent and what a way to remember the GI's?
Syd Lawrence was the catalyst. His massively successful orchestra emulated Miller to such a degree that it became hard for the ordinary guy to tell the difference and the people loved it. More tribute bands followed, many of them playing in the uniform of the USAAF to honour the USAAF as much as for authenticity.
Syd Lawrence and his Orchestra 1967 to the present day.
As I write the respect for the wartime American airmen shows no signs of abating. New memorials appear with great frequency and with each dedication a Miller tune will be played. At the public bandstand in Norwich is a plaque to the effect that "Glenn Miller played here" His name is inscribed on the wall of Remembrance at Cambridge American Military cemetery. The Corn Exchange in Bedford has as inscribed plaque on the wall beneath a bust of the great man and so it goes on.
The Bust of Glenn at
The Corn Exchange Bedford.
Cambridge American Military Cemetery
Glenn Miller's music will be forever associated with the sacrifices made by America's youth in England and we will not forget, but we will ensure that the Music and memories live on. (Chris Nash)
Glenn Millers names on the wall of rememberance at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery
Some of the many who gave their lives