Over the weekend, a village in Lancashire celebrated the 80th anniversary of “the Battle of Bamber Bridge.” There was a dramatic reenactment as well as live musical entertainment, a history walk, and an academic symposium in collaboration with the U.S. embassy. In the American press, the anniversary was marked by long feature articles in both the Associated Press and NPR on the episode and its enduring significance.
This was all a bit excessive considering that the Battle of Bamber Bridge was not a battle at all. It was a race riot. Its central incident was not much more than a bar fight.
On June 24, 1943, two American military police on patrol in Bamber Bridge were told that there was a “disturbance” at Ye Olde Hob Inn. When they arrived at the inn, they found a black soldier not in proper uniform, Private Eugene Nunn, whom they attempted to arrest. A crowd of British civilians and a dozen black soldiers protested that Nunn wasn’t hurting anybody and menaced the M.P.s, who left in their Jeep. As they drove away, a beer bottle flew over their heads and broke on the windshield.
Having been prevented from carrying out a lawful arrest, the M.P.s got backup and returned. They found a group of black soldiers, including Nunn, drunk and disorderly in the street. When they attempted to arrest the men, a brawl began. Stones and bottles were thrown, breaking the nose of one M.P. and the jaw of another. One black soldier was shot in the back while trying to grab the gun out of the holster of an unconscious M.P. who had been knocked out by a rock. Two others were shot while hurling projectiles.
The black soldiers retreated with their wounded back to camp, where they started wild rumors that white M.P.s were on a rampage. A mob of 100 to 200 black soldiers gathered at the main gate. Their NCOs either refused or were unable to impose discipline. At midnight, a group of M.P.s arrived at camp in a Jeep equipped with a machine gun, which inflamed the mob. The commanding officer ordered the M.P.s to leave but the sight of the machine gun had already resulted in a panic. The black soldiers raided the armory, and some took their arms into town. One black private, William Crossland, died in the confused gunfire overnight, the night’s only fatality. Weapons were collected the next morning.