Hiding in plain sight: homosexual men in the armed forces during the Second World War
Stephen Bourne reveals some of the varied experiences of homosexual men who served in the armed forces during the Second World War
In 1942, the heroic Battle of Britain pilot Flight Lieutenant Ian Gleed published a memoir called Arise to Conquer. It proved to be a remarkably honest account of his exploits, given the restrictions imposed on him by wartime censorship and propaganda: twice he bailed out of blazing Spitfires, and twice King George VI congratulated him. Gleed loved the RAF, and for his bravery he received the DSO and DFC. But in 1943, he would make the ultimate sacrifice when his Spitfire was shot down over Tunisia.
With the publication of his memoir, Gleed’s ‘confirmed bachelor’ status caused concern for the publisher of his memoir, so he agreed to create a fictional girlfriend called Pam. She was a surprise to his family and friends, but Gleed explained to them that she didn’t exist and that he put her in because “readers like a touch of romance”. What his family probably never knew was that Gleed was homosexual, and that he could not be open about his sexuality and talk about his boyfriends.
It was not until the 1990s, when one of his lovers, Christopher Gotch, was interviewed for BBC television, that the truth came out. When Gotch was posted to Gleed’s RAF station, he found himself the object of Gleed’s affections: “He gave me a kiss which took me by surprise but, being a product of a public school, it wasn’t exactly strange. So we started having sex together.” Gotch explained that no one ever talked about same-sex relationships because they were against the law. In the armed services they were court-martial offences and servicemen could be kicked out if discovered. It was widely believed that homosexuality would destroy morale, something Gotch decried as “a load of rubbish”.
Another wartime myth concerned the inability of homosexual men to show bravery under fire. Conscripted in 1941 at the age of 20, Dudley Cave joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He later recalled a conversation he overheard between two of his comrades. One referred to him as a “nancy boy” while the other protested that Dudley couldn’t be because he was “terribly brave in action”. Dudley understood that in their minds he could not be brave and homosexual, that the two were incompatible.
Bravery was not the preserve of fighting men because others in the services had to keep a stiff upper lip when they were confronted by the horrors of war. Alec Purdie discovered this after he joined the army. When he received his call-up papers, his gay friends told him he didn’t have to join up. “Tell ‘em you’re queer!” they said, but Alec didn’t want to avoid conscription: “I was determined to do my duty.” Little did he know he was going to spend half his army career in a dress and high-heels.
Homosexuality in PoW camps
Wearing ‘lashes and slap’, he joined a troupe of army entertainers that brought a smile to troops serving in remote parts of India, “because it was too dangerous for civilians and women”. Alec also went to many field hospitals where he entertained “these lovely boys who had had terrible things done to them and were trying to clap and laugh at me. It was too awful.”
The unpublished memoir of JH Witte offers some revealing insights into homosexuality in a prisoner of war camp in Italy. A heterosexual, Witte describes the love affairs of the “boy friends” and their “girl friends” (female impersonators who entertained in shows in the PoW camp’s theatre). He also mentions a corporal in the Military Police who was “violently” in love with one of the “actresses”. When they went missing during roll call, the Italian guards who found them snuggled under a blanket put them together into solitary for a week. Witte testifies that homosexual liaisons existed between all kinds of prisoners in the camp, and took many forms, from parcel sharing, holding hands and heavy petting to full-on sexual relationships.
A corporal in the Military Police was “violently” in love with one of the “actresses”. When they went missing during roll call, the Italian guards who found them snuggled under a blanket put them together into solitary for a week
After his rejection by the army on the grounds that he was “suffering from sexual perversion”, Quentin Crisp enjoyed the war years, especially when the United States entered the conflict and began to flood Britain with handsome GIs. Crisp described this exciting arrival in his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant (1968): “Labelled ‘with love from Uncle Sam’ and packaged in uniforms so tight that in them their owners could fight for nothing but their honour, these ‘bundles for Britain’ leaned against the lamp-posts of Shaftesbury Avenue or lolled on the steps of thin-lipped statues of dead English statesmen.”
Parading the streets of London in the black out, and enjoying brief encounters with the Yanks, Crisp commented: “Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few.”
During the Second World War, the popular entertainer Noel Coward wanted to do his bit, and sought official war work, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted that Coward could do more for the war effort by entertaining the troops: “Go and sing to them when the guns are firing – that’s your job!” Coward proved to be a popular figure with the troops, and in 1942 he made – and starred in – the patriotic film drama In Which We Serve, inspired by the exploits of his close friend Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Returning to 'normal' after WW2
Though it remained a criminal offence until the 1960s, for the most part homosexuality was unofficially tolerated in the armed services for the duration of the war. For some heterosexual servicemen, homosexual sex was considered preferable to going to brothels and catching a sexually transmitted disease. Some gay men could be open and were protected by their comrades; others were considered good for morale and became ‘mascots’. One British soldier repressed his homosexuality and left letters from a fictitious son lying about his barracks. Others, who were found out, were court-martialled, imprisoned and thrown out of the services.
At the end of the war, the British public wanted to get back to ‘normal’, so women were expected to return to the kitchen, black recruits were expected to return to west Africa and the West Indies, and homosexual men found themselves subjected to the draconian law that would see them in prison, even if they had helped to win the war. In 1945, the Public Morality Council officer noted: “Police are again conducting a campaign against those engaged in this deplorable offence.”
Shortly before he died in 1999, Dudley Cave reflected: “They used us when it suited them, and then victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied.”
In Love, Sex and War: Changing Values 1939–45, published in 1985, John Costello says that the military experience of gays and lesbians in the Second World War “chipped away some of the old taboos”. He added that servicemen living in close proximity were made aware that men who chose to have sexual relationships with other men were not suffering from sexual perversion, nor were they cowards.
“Many thousands of homosexuals discovered a new consciousness of their collective identity,” wrote Costello, but it would take until 1967 for the law to change, when the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting male adults over the age of 21. This did not apply to the armed services where the ban remained in place until the Labour government lifted it in January 2000.
This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Stephen Bourne is a social historian specialising in black culture and the author of Under Fire – Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45 (The History Press)