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Journal ArticleDOI

A Forgotten Legacy of the Second World War: GI children in post-war Britain and Germany

01 May 2011-Contemporary European History (Cambridge University Press)-Vol. 20, Iss: 2, pp 157-181

AbstractWhether in war, occupation or peacekeeping, whenever foreign soldiers are in contact with the local population, and in particular with local women, some of these contacts are intimate. Between 1942 and 1945, US soldiers fathered more than 22,000 children in Britain, and during the first decade of post-war US presence in West Germany more than 37,000 children were fathered by American occupation soldiers. Many of these children were raised in their mothers’ families, not knowing about their biological roots and often suffering stigmatisation and discrimination. The question of how these children were treated is discussed in the context of wider social and political debates about national and individual identity. Furthermore, the effect on the children of living outside the normal boundaries of family and nation is discussed.

Topics: World War II (52%)

Summary (1 min read)

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  • Like wartime Britain, post-war Germany was faced with a sizeable presence of US troops and in 1945 around 1.6 million GIs were stationed on German soil.
  • These largely negative images of the women who had had intimate relations with US soldiers were as pronounced within Germany as in the United States, and they were projected onto the children.
  • Ironically, in most cases it was impossible for the soldiers to adopt their own children in order to pave the way for providing for them.
  • A clear recognition of political responsibility, arising out of the National Socialist legacy, guided sociological and political discussions of the subject.


  • Inevitably, any attempt to engage in a historical evaluation will have elements of a top-down exercise, heavily reliant on published and unpublished governmental and administrative records and secondary analyses which are supplemented by accounts from the affected children that provide anecdotal rather than qualitatively and quantitatively comprehensive or even representative evidence.
  • By and large it was expected that the children fathered by foreign soldiers would be absorbed into their mothers' families and the local communities with the expectation that, where applicable, the mothers' husbands would adopt the children or act as their guardian.
  • The Second World War with mass displacements and record numbers of homeless and orphaned children throughout Europe, skilfully explored in Tara Zahra's exposition of 'lost children' 124 at the post-war intersection of redefinition of family and nation, led to a concerted effort to rehabilitate those children beyond the provision of material goods by way of 'amelioration of psychological suffering'.
  • In Britain, little public and open political debate took place.

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A Forgotten Legacy of the Second World War: GI
children in post-war Britain and Germany
Lee, Sabine
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Contemporary European History, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 157-181.
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A Forgotten Legacy of the Second World War: GI children
in post-war Britain and Germany
Contemporary European History / Volume 20 / Issue 02 / May 2011, pp 157 - 181
DOI: 10.1017/S096077731100004X, Published online: 08 April 2011
Link to this article:
How to cite this article:
SABINE LEE (2011). A Forgotten Legacy of the Second World War: GI children in post-war Britain
and Germany. Contemporary European History, 20, pp 157-181 doi:10.1017/S096077731100004X
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A Forgotten Legacy of the
Second World War:
GI children in post-war
Britain and Germany
Whether in war, occupation or peacekeeping, whenever foreign soldiers are in contact with the
local population, and in particular with local women, some of these contacts are intimate.
Between 1942 and 1945, US soldiers fathered more than 22,000 children in Britain, and
during the first decade of post-war US presence in West Germany more than 37,000 children
were fathered by American occupation soldiers. Many of these children were raised in their
mothers’ families, not knowing about their biological roots and often sufferi ng stigmatisation
and discrimination. The question of how these children were treated is discussed in the context
of wider social and political debates about national and individual identity. Furthermore, the
effect on the children of living outside the normal boundaries of family and nation is discussed.
For many US soldiers, the Second World War began on British soil, when they
entered the country after January 1942 to prepare for the opening of a Second Front
in Western Europe. Two and a half years would pass until, on D-Day, 6 June 1944,
Allied troops would land in Normandy; these two and a half year s amounted to little
less than an occupation of Great Britain by American GIs.
When the recruits finally engaged in war in Europe, most of them did not know
what to expect. In particular, few would have guessed that US engagement in Europe
Department of Modern History, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT;
George Orwell, in December 1943, commented in The Tr ibune that it was difficult to go anywhere
in London without feeling that Britain was an ‘occupied territory’. For details of American GIs in
Britain, see David. J. Reynolds, Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain 1942–1945 (London:
HarperCollins, 1996).
Contemporary European History, 20, 2 (2011), pp. 157181
Cambridge University Press 2011

158 Contemporary European History
would not end with the war itself. For many GIs, the relatively short period of active
combat was followed by an indefinite period of a ‘second occupation’: this time
of the former enemy Germany. Both occupations different though they were
brought US soldiers into close contact with the local populations, and in both cases
thousands of children born of GI fathers to local mothers were left behind. Starting
from an analysis of the contacts between GIs and local women in both countries,
this paper aims to compare the experiences of the children born of these occupations
and to investigate how attitudes towards them fitted into the shifting paradigms about
national and individual identity and family life in the early post-war years. The focal
points will be public and governmental debates and responses to children born of
those two occupations. Particular attention will be paid to discussions concerning the
one group singled out in both countries: children of biracial parentage. By comparing
policy responses to what was perceived in both Britain and Germany as a ‘problem’
group, new insights into the post-war normative discourses on key issues such as
family values, multi-racial society and human rights are gained.
With the United States’ entry into the Second World War in December 1941,
plans for a US presence in Europe quickly took shape. After a steady military build
up between January and October 1942, US troop strength reached a temporary
maximum of 228,000 men. Following troop movements to North Africa, resulting
in a decline in numbers to about 105,000 in early 1943,
numbers soared again
in preparation of the o pening of the Second Front in June 1944, when troop
numbers reached a maximum of almost 1.7 million soldiers on the eve of the D-Day
Throughout the war, more than three million US soldiers were stationed
in Great Britain temporarily. ‘Overpaid, over-fed, over-sexed and over here’ was a
common perception of GIs in Britain.
Their situation was comparable to that of
other occupation troops stationed in non-combat or non-conflict roles. Disciplining
an army in waiting was a significant challenge. Boredom, homesickness, insecurity
about the impending combat actions and dissatisfaction about the often substandard
living and housing conditions all added up to a potent mixture of discontent. In
contrast to combat situations, where troops generally regard obedience as essential
for their own safety, soldiers in waiting were inclined to see the necessity to obey their
military commanders in a different light.
Therefore, discipline in the barracks and
beyond was far more difficult to achieve, particularly when in close proximity to the
local civilian population.
This is true for any occupation force stationed away from
William B. Breuen, Operation Torch: The Allied Gamble to Invade North Africa (New York: St Martin’s
Press, 198 5).
United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States. The Conferences at Washington,
1941–1942, and Casablanca, 1943 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 19411943), also
published as http://dig (last
visited 25 Feb. 2010).
This characterisation was popularised by the British comedian Tommy Trinder. The American GIs
retaliated by calling their British hosts ‘underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower’.
Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (New York: Free Press, 198 5), ch. 1.
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle, 2nd edn (New York: Bison Books, 1970), 51.

GI-children in post-war Britain and Germany 159
military action, and it was certainly also true for GIs in wartime Britain as it was true
for US soldiers stationed as occupation and support troops in post-war Germany.
What was more, despite the frequently emphasised ‘special relationship’ between
the United States and Great Britain, mutual perceptions moved in a grey zone of
ignorance and indifference, informed largely by prejudices and stereotypes. More
specifically, the coexistence of GIs and the British local population was influenced
by the particular backg round of this distinct cohor t of soldiers. They were children
of the great depression, and this prolonged economic crisis had been the formative
experience of the majority of the recruits stationed in Britain. About 60 per cent
of all American personnel serving during the Second World War had been born
between 1918 and 1927. This meant that their entire youth had been shaped by the
hardship of the dire economic situation of the depression. For many the career as a
soldier was the first secure employment and for the young recruits military service
held the promise of a better life and, ironically, the promise of a better future.
such promises rarely became reality in the short term, the positive expectations often
contrasted sharply with the wartime experiences of the British civilian population,
and in particular the British women on the home front. Wartime Britain from 1940
was a bombed out and blacked out country. Everyday life was dominated by war
work and war-induced disruptions and, above all, rationing.
A significant factor facilitating casual contact was the great mobility of the British
population. Compulsory military service, in force since 1939, meant that by D-Day
5 million people had been conscripted into the services, 4.5 million of whom were
men. This was the approximately 30 per cent of the male population.
mobility was also influenced by evacuation measures in numerically significant ways.
Although not even the government had exact figures about the evacuations through
private institutions, universities, colleges, businesses, charities and others, numbers
were significant and estimates of around 3.5 million evacuees seem reasonable.
of these evacuees were mothers with children, or children without their mothers
being evacuated from the cities into the countryside. The third important group of
inner-British migrants were young, frequently single, women who moved to do war
work in the centres of war-related industries.
Juliet Gardiner, Over Here. The GIs in Wartime Britain (London: Collins and Brown, 1992); Petra
Goedde, GIs and Germans. Culture, Gender and Foreign Relations 1945–1949 (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2003).
John Modell and Duane Steffey, ‘Waging War and Marriage: Military Service and Family Formation
19401950’, Journal of Family History, 13, 1 (1988), 195218, esp. 1967.
Ministry of Information, ed., Home Front Handbook 1945 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
(hereafter HMSO), 1945; reprinted 2005); Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then. A History of
Everyday Life During the Second World War (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1971), 41921 and 47081.
W. K. Hancock and M. M. Gowing, Br itish War Economy (London: HMSO, 1949), 3512, available at (last visited 28 Oct. 2010).
Richard Morris Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: HMSO, 1950), chapter VII, Appendix II,
Penny Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War (London: Routledge, 1989).

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