A few years ago one of my students found a metal tag in the grounds of Bristol School of Art in Clifton. She had been in the military and recognised it as an American military dog-tag from the Second World War. I didn’t have an immediate explanation and was challenged to find out more. I knew Bristol was the headquarters of the US First Army in the run up to the Normandy Landings in June 1944. My son took an interest and contacted the US Embassy in London who very helpful. What has grown from that has been a fascinating window on the American presence in Bristol in 1944, the use of parts of the building by the American Red Cross and the experiences not only of a small group of US servicemen but also the local people around them.
Sometime between November 10 and December 24, 1944, a US Army corporal called Laures Champlin visited the American Red Cross Club at the Royal West of England Academy in Queens Road, Clifton. Presumably, along with coffee and doughnuts, he took advantage of the shower block put up by the army in the back-yard. In the process he lost one of his dog-tags which ended up in the dirt outside the shower block entrance. Champlin came from Louisiana and was a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. They had arrived at Avonmouth Docks from New York on November 10 and were stationed nearby in Sea Mills awaiting posting to Europe in the follow up to the Normandy Landings in June. On Christmas Eve they left by train for Southampton and shipment to France.
18 year old Laures Champlin as a new recruit in the summer of 1944 (photo courtesy of the Champlin family).
That’s the basic story. Along the way we were able to add lots more detail about the Americans in Bristol in 1944 and the experiences of the 244th Engineers. We originally wrote it up for Bristol Times in 1999 but responses to that article and recent changes at the Art School have brought more to light.
The Royal West of England Academy and the American Red Cross in WWII
The Academy building in Queens Road was built in 1858 to accommodate two separate institutions; upstairs the West of England Academy, an artists’ body with exhibition galleries and meeting rooms modelled on the Royal Academy in London and downstairs the School of Practical Art (now Bristol School of Art). When the Second World War broke out in 1939 both continued to operate normally although many students were called up. Things changed in 1944 as the military build up began for D-Day and the Normandy Landings. Bristol was an important entry point for American troops and equipment, and the decision was taken to establish the US First Army commander General Omar Bradley’s headquarters at Clifton College. Many local buildings and open spaces were commandeered to act as offices, camps and billets for the US forces. The Art School continued to operate normally through the war but the (by now Royal) West of England Academy upstairs was taken over first as offices and then as an American Red Cross Club. The clubs served fresh coffee, peanut-butter sandwiches and doughnuts and offered music and dancing (no alcohol or hot food). The RWA was for white US soldiers only – black US troops had a separate club in Great George Street. Bigger events such as band performances were held at the Victoria Rooms over the road. American women Red Cross staff ran the clubs assisted by local people like Elizabeth Crawford and Margaret Davies. Margaret was a stenographer and they both acted as hostesses for dances. Elizabeth agreed to be interviewed and described the arrangements in the RWA galleries and some of her adventures. The main gallery was the canteen and the one behind it had a piano.
‘They had dances in there and they used to have a little three-piece band or something like that and then on Sunday night was a big thing in the Victoria Rooms when this band came up from Warminster. They were very good.’
The smaller galleries held a quiet lounge and a table-tennis room.
‘I was quite good in those days and they had an awful sort of arrangement that the one who beat you took you home. So I used to be up for hours and by the time I was getting tired my boyfriend would come in and I would get beaten so he could take me home. One awful night! A sailor beat me and I thought my Mother was going to have a fit if went home with an American sailor.’
She eventually acquired a Military Policeman’s lapel badge and wore it on her blouse to ward off suitors.
The dog-tag was found just in front of a small outbuilding in the garden. Looking at it with a fresh eye, it is familiar as the kind of prefabricated concrete structure often seen on wartime airfield and hospital sites. Known as a Ministry of Works and Procurement (MOPW) Standard Hut, they were built in large numbers although not usually in the backyards of art galleries and art schools. There were two sizes and this one is actually half of a small one with a tower in one corner for a water tank and a boiler below. Markings on the floor suggested stalls. A brick and concrete staircase added to the back of the main building at the same time, links the art gallery on the upper floor to the garden, effectively avoiding the art school. It seems the hut provided shower and washroom facilities appropriate to the new busy use for the art gallery in 1944. It seems a reasonable guess that Laures lost his dog-tag(s) whilst taking the opportunity for a shower.
Wartime Utility coffee mugs and plates, an American Aqua Velva aftershave bottle and sample size Drene shampoo bottles uncovered by recent building work near the MOWP hut.
This winter, building work in front of the hut has disturbed the ground where the dog-tag was found and revealed a small dump of wartime pottery and glass. The china consists largely of ‘utility’ white plates and mugs produced under government control and marked G VI R with the date 1944. These were made primarily for military use and issued to NAAFI, Red Cross and evidently American Red Cross kitchens and mobile canteens. The glass includes American Aqua Velva aftershave and sample size Drene shampoo bottles and shards of a clear glass Coca Cola bottle made for the US Army (5 cents a bottle). There is even an official issue fork. Presumably the other American products were either sold by the Red Cross or issued to service personal as part of their rations. (The pottery is interesting from a ceramic history point of view and I will write a separate post about it shortly).
Laures Champlin and the 244th Engineers
The US Embassy in London and various organisations in the States have been very helpful in enabling us to find out more about our soldier and his unit. T5 (Corporal) Laures Edwin Champlin came from Jonesville in Concordia Parish on the Mississippi in Louisiana. His family were farmers. He served as a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion and was 18, coming up 19, when he arrived at Avonmouth docks on November 10, 1944. The 244th Engineers were a specialist unit tasked primarily with road repair and construction, an essential role but one that tends not to get much mention in the history books.
The US Army Military History Institute in Pennsylvania has a 60-page account of the adventures of the 244th Engineers from recruitment to discharge, written by Sergeant Edward Hagerty and some other members of B Company while waiting to return home from France in late 1945 (Laures Champlin was in C Company). In it the larger picture of the war is replaced by an eye-witness account in which food and warmth are as important as anything. The Battalion spent six weeks living in the camp in Sea Mills. Exploring Bristol brought their first experience of the effects of war. Coming into the city, they found the blackout difficult and they were shocked by the extent of the damage caused by bombing. They involved themselves with the local community. Hagerty writes,
‘As Christmas Day drew near everyone in the Co. decided to give their candy rations to the orphans who lived in an old castle on a hill in Shirehampton (presumably Nazareth House). On the 23rd of Dec. Madden and I took the rations in a big basket up to the children as the Co’s Christmas present to them. We talked to the Mother Superior and when she discovered that Marsden lived near a brother of her’s on 154th Street, Manhattan, I felt it time to leave. They were a good pair. We promised her that we would return again and if possible bring movies for the children.’
On their return to camp they were met with the news that the Battalion had been ordered to leave for France the following day. Food for Christmas Day was all ready for preparation but had to be put away as their trucks, supplies and kit were loaded on to rail wagons at Avonmouth Station.
They had to walk to Avonmouth to catch the train – it seems odd now to think of young soldiers going off to war along the Severn Beach line through the Avon Gorge and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At Southampton ‘We pulled into a large freight terminal and once again the Red Cross was prepared for us. We ruined their supply of “coffee and” in nothing flat. We were really hungry and didn’t mind showing it.’
Some Engineer units had played major roles in the Normandy Landings in June and had been actively engaged in severe fighting. By December the fighting had moved on and the 244th arrived peacefully by ship at Le Havre, minus their trucks and equipment somehow left behind at Avonmouth. They were soon faced with freezing conditions. Poorly accommodated and short of basic kit they had to improvise cooking facilities and took up fishing and hunting for extra supplies. Once reequipped, they began repairing roads and when laying a minefield in mid-January they had their first confusing experience of hostile shelling. Their most significant military achievement came with the Rhine crossings on 23-24 March, 1945, when they worked under fire to build approach roads on both sides of the Rhine at the Ninth Army’s bridging point at Wallach near Wesel. This was the American assault on the Rhine alongside the British attack under General Montgomery at Wesel.
Sgt. Hagerty describes the actions of the truck drivers, working under fire, probably including Laures:
‘From the first load that was needed to the last, load after load of rock came to the river. Never once slowing up, these drivers got everything out of their trucks that was in them. At noon, the drivers changed places with the assistant drivers and the trucks kept right on rolling. They deserve much credit, these men, because they not only worked hard, but really travelled the roads. Their goal was to make as many loads as possible in the shortest time possible. I am not going to name any of the drivers here because if they were named they all should be. They did a splendid job and were commended for it by Capt. Lipe.‘
Later they briefly saw front line action as infantry before taking part in the crossing of the Elbe in northern Germany as the war ended. From there they moved back to France and returned to the States a few at a time over the coming months.
Laures Champlin was awarded the Good Conduct Medal and after the war retrained and joined the US Air Force as a radio repairman. He died in 1972, and his family in Louisiana must have been a little surprised to hear from Bristol. They say that he mentioned getting into trouble for losing his dog-tags but he never knew where he had lost them. They have kindly provided photographs of him – looking very young in his crisp new uniform.
Stop Press. The garden soil has now given up a second dog-tag, this one belonging to Coastguardsman Kenyon D. Clauson of the US Coastguard Reserve. The main overseas role of the USCGR was as crew for troopships and landing-craft. Another story to explore.
With thanks to Phyl Barton, the Champlin family, Maxine Davies, Ben Kent, Elizabeth Longney (nee Crawford) and the Embassy of the United States of America in London.
Hagerty, Sgt. Edward D., 1946. Old Company “B”. 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. (unpublished manuscript). College Park, MD: US Army Military History Institute/National Archives at College Park.
Kent, Oliver, 1999. ‘Dog-tag clue to forgotten soldier’. Bristol Times. (Bristol Evening Post supplement). Oct 19, 1999, 3.
Sansom, John, (Ed), 2002. Public View. A Profile of The Royal West of England Academy. Bristol: Redcliffe.
Wakefield, K., 1994. Operation Bolero. The Americans in Bristol and the West Country, 1942-45. Crècy Books.