During the war, Abergavenny was taken over by foreign troops as the ‘Gateway to Wales’ became a garrison town and home to troops of all nationalities and cultures.

From 1943 onwards Belgians, Poles, Indians, and an estimated 100,000 American troops helped transform Abergavenny into a town its forefathers would barely recognise.

Strange faces, strange uniforms, and strange-looking vehicles buzzing around everywhere turned the sleepy market town into a hub of colour, chaos, and a new kind of cool.

Over two million American soldiers and airmen arrived in Britain before D-Day. The Yanks arrived in Abergavenny in cool-looking jeeps and even cooler uniforms. With pockets stuffed full of forbidden fruit such as candy, nylons, lipstick, gum, and an accent as broad as the Atlantic, they certainly made an impression, and it has to be said, created a lucrative black market in the process.

The swagger and larger-than-life attitude of many of the GIs was like Jimmy Cagney had walked straight through the Coliseum’s silver screen and onto the streets of Abergavenny.

Truth be told, he nearly did. The Hollywood heartthrob was briefly stationed a neighbouring Gilwern on his UK tour of American military bases.

James Cagney
(ames Cagney, who was briefly in Gilwern during the war: Public Domain )

Many households in Abergavenny were asked to welcome the Americans into their homes and extend some good old-fashioned Welsh hospitality.

The chief need was for American troops who had 48 hours leave but nowhere to go.

Writing in his weekly column for the Chronicle, entitled ’Sugar Loaf Musings’, Gobannium wrote,

“Americans do not understand British reserve and insularity. It is their national characteristic to be more free and open-handed. British boys who have gone to America have testified as to the manner in which Americans have thrown their homes open to them and given them a really marvellous time. One Abergavenny mother who has been touched by the reception given her son in America felt she must do something to return the hospitality, and said ‘I would be willing to put up six Americans.’ It is rather pathetic to see Americans walking aimlessly about with nowhere particular to go and nothing to do. They would greatly appreciate being invited into someone’s home for an hour or two in the evening to have a chat. They want to get to know the people of the country, and it is up to Britishers to do a bit of propaganda and give our ‘cousins’ from across the water a good impression of us to go back with when they return because it is important for the future that we should not be so isolated as in the past.”

(Two worlds collide! British and American troops meet up during a break in the fighting: Public Domain )

These brash newcomers were often described as “over-paid, over-sexed, and over-here.” And there’s more than just a smattering of truth to the statement. By the end of the war, there were over 70,000 GI brides in Britain. Now that’s a lot of bang for anybody’s buck!

Sergeant Palmer Sorensen was one such man who returned to Abergavenny after the war to marry a local girl called Miss Kathleen Evans.

Sorenson was part of the 99th Infantry Battalion, based in Glanusk Park. The 99th was a unit that was trained as ski troops in the USA and consisted mostly of Norwegians and Americans with Norwegian ancestors.

A veteran of the 99th Infantry Battalion’s ‘D’ Company named John W. Kelly remembers his time in the local area and fondly recalls, “The men were very disappointed when they first saw Glanusk Park Camp. The Company was assigned ten Nisson huts in the lower right-hand corner of the camp. Officers and office personnel lived in the castle and this was also the company and Battalion headquarters.

“The mud was from six inches to a foot or more deep and the huts had recently been used to house sheep. Drainage was the first problem tackled and the huts had to be thoroughly cleaned out and washed. Stoves also had to be located and set up.

“The first night was a dreary one, but the next few days saw a great change in Glanusk Camp. Everyone set to work with a will, and soon the huts had shelves and small lockers built in, tables and washstands built, and an atmosphere of home could be felt when a radio or two was turned up.

“Training started and inspections went on as usual. Class "B" passes were issued and the battalion furnished transportation to the fair town of Abergavenny.

“Abergavenny to us seemed a quaint little Welsh town nestled in a beautiful valley. The people were very friendly, and since we were the only large unit stationed near there most of the time, the town was pretty well taken over by the 99th.

“Two hospitals were near the town and some of the boys from the company found the nurses very interesting. The dances at the town hall were very good and the crowds grew larger each week. Music was usually furnished by GI bands, but the city boasted a good civilian band and soon they were playing all of the American hit tunes.

“Bicycles were the chief means of transportation in Britain at that time, and each evening after retreat the road to Abergavenny was filled with 99ers pushing their bikes for all they were worth to get into town and drink their first few Scotches of the evening.

“Many of the soldiers had girl-friends, but these ‘dates’ were forced to wait until the pubs had all been visited and the scotch finished up.

“The boys would then pick up their dates and beer would be the stimulant for the balance of the evening. Some of the girlfriends became wise and would wait at one of the first pubs.

“This halted the soldier's progress and he was unable to move very fast from one pub to the next, resulting in his whiskey ration being very short for that evening.

“In the other direction from camp was the little village of Llangynidr. The people of this small parish were the very spirit of democracy, and the men who visited at their homes and attended social gatherings all agree that these simple village folk did more to establish good relationships between American and British peoples than years of statesmanship could have done.

“Overall the local people did their very best to make our stay in Wales more pleasant, and we owe them a world of tribute.”

(The Norwegians at Glanusk Park: Public Domain )

The 99th called Glanusk Park their home. For the Tank Corps, it was Cwrt-y-Gollen. At Llanover there was the Engineering Corps and at Gilwern there was a newly built 279th Station Hospital.

Housing some of the most skilled surgeons of that era and 450 soldiers and nurses of the US Army Medical Department, the Station Hospital was equipped to deal with instances of men being wounded in battle. Cases involving amputation and skin grafts were all treated at the 279th. Many of the Normandy casualties were returned to Gilwern within 48 to receive treatment.

American Bob Rivers, who would meet his future wife Betty whilst stationed in Gilwern, explained that as a railway town with a short distance to the coast, the Abergavenny area was an ideal location for the Station Hospital.

“We had a fleet of ambulances waiting at the Abergavenny Junction which took a circular route. They went from the junction to Crickhowell and then along the back road to Gilwern whilst other ambulances would be making the trip from the hospital to the Junction so that it did not interfere with other traffic too much.

“It would take up to 12 hours to empty a train which could contain up to 400 stretcher and walking cases. The hospital had some 52 wards and four operating theatres, so we could carry out any operation which was required.”

Just outside Gilwern, there was a camp for the Indian Army Horse Mounted Brigade, and the soldiers, who were remembered by locals as being extremely polite and friendly would often pass through the streets each morning on exercise.

Watching the Indian troops carry out their antics in Bailey Park was a popular pastime with many locals, including Don Davies.

“We used to watch the Indian troops ‘peg sticking’ in Bailey Park. The officers rode little ponies and they would have lances. They would charge down the park and try to pick up pegs with their lances. The ones who picked up the most pegs won the competition. We used to cheer them on but we did wonder what they would do in the war to attack the Germans.”

Many Abergavenny natives recall with fondness their introduction to such exotic foodstuff like chapattis, courtesy of the Indian troops.

The Indians were keen to integrate and help out in the local community. Particularly in Govilon. As Betty Rivers recalls, “Certain Indians who had trades like mechanics or blacksmiths were lent out to different people in the village. My father had a mechanic and a blacksmith helped the blacksmith in the village shop.”

Gilwern was also the scene of a terrible accident when one of the American lorries failed to negotiate the bend on the canal bridge properly and a young girl called Rona Palmer Preece had her legs badly crushed in the incident.

Rosa’s parents were Francis and Maude Preece and her father was a miner in the Rose Heyworth Colliery.

After having a leg amputated and a long convalescence, she made a full recovery. She married John Palmer, who was superintendent of Brynmawr Swimming Baths. They moved to Swansea where they brought up their two girls.

Rosa’s daughter Jayne Phelps explained, “My mother’s loving, supportive family, together with her strong, Christian faith have contributed to the fact that she has never borne any bitterness about her accident.

There was another serious incident on Blackrock Hill, Clydach involving an American army truck. Unfortunately this time, four GIs lost their lives.

Another terrible accident occurred in Llanvetherine when a sports tank, which is pretty much the bottom of a tank but with a canvas on top went flying over a hedge one Sunday morning.

Local man Ray Prosser recalls, “Well, of course, when they tipped up and you’ve got the weight of the tank on top, the black Americans inside weren’t left for much.”

Glanusk Park
(The mansion at Glanusk before it was demolished in 1952 due to fire damage sustained during the war :Public Domain )

The 1940s were free of the tawdry taint of Facebook, Twitter, and the hellish monotony of 24-hour news cycles. Most people relied on good old-fashioned print newspapers to keep them abreast of current affairs and the war situation.

A point poignantly exemplified by the tale of newspaper boy Glyn Lewis and the news-hungry Americans.

Working for Shaws the newsagents, located on the Brecon Road, Glyn’s delivery route was the King’s Street and Queen’s Street area. Glyn explained, “I would start in King’s Street and then up past the Fairfield where the car park is now and then carry on from there. But on this morning, either June 6 or 7, 1944, they’d just announced that D-Day was taking place and of course, it was all the headlines that day.

“Well, the car park was full of Americans waiting to go on the second wave. As soon as they saw me coming it was one almighty clamor for papers, but I said ‘No, no, you can’t have one. They’re all ordered. In old money, each paper cost about a half penny or a penny, but they began offering me a lot more than that for them. Needless to say, I succumbed to temptation and sold the lot! I did make quite a few pounds.”

When Glyn returned to the shop he informed them of what he had done and they curtly replied he would have to pay for every single copy. Which he promptly did, before pocketing the difference and getting the sack for his troubles.

Finally, one American soldier based at Llanover recalled how his unit was traveling to Sennybridge one day for a spot of artillery practice when the driver took a right turn rather than left at the Hardwick. Before they knew what was what they had ended up in lovely Southampton en route to Utah Beach.

For the American troops stationed in the Abergavenny area before the build-up to D-Day, it would be their last chance to enjoy themselves like young men should, before they faced the bullets, bombs, and in all too many cases, death, on the beaches of Normandy.

Let’s hope they enjoyed their stay here.