Woken by air-raid sirens, saluting teachers: what soldiers learnt at wartime university

A new college set up for battle-hardy soldiers fresh from WWII was a remarkable if short-lived leap of faith

College days: Shrivenham American University in 1946
College days: Shrivenham American University in 1946 Credit: Getty Images

Thanks to social distancing and blended learning, this autumn’s freshers are facing a somewhat unusual life on campus. But for perspective, it’s worth looking back 75 years to Britain’s first post-war university – a place where students were woken by air-raid siren at 6.15, had to salute their lecturers, and could be hauled up before a court-martial for skipping classes. Welcome to Shrivenham American University.

Established shortly after VE-Day, the university was a bold experiment to help solve a tricky problem for the US Army. Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen remained in the UK after the end of the war in Europe. Keeping them out of trouble and easing their transition to civilian life became a priority, and President Roosevelt believed the answer lay in education.

While the most senior war leaders including General Eisenhower and  Field Marshals Alanbroke and Montgomery had already been awarded honorary degrees by Oxford at a dignified ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre, some GIs had the chance to take short courses at Oxford or Cambridge.

But the Army settled on a more radical idea: building a soldiers’ university from scratch, on the site of a dilapidated military college near Swindon. In 10 weeks flat, with the help of 800 German prisoners of war, the Shrivenham barracks were transformed into “US Army University Center No.1”. 

The first term began on August 1, 1945. The 3,641 students, selected by their units, included representatives of every state of the USA, from lowly private to lieutenant-colonel. In theory, the campus was co-educational and racially integrated, though there were just 92 black students and eight women. They could choose freely from 257 courses, from arts and engineering and to agriculture and languages. 

Study leave: Shrivenham was multi-racial from the start Credit: Getty Images

They were taught by a faculty that included 133 eminent academics plucked from campuses throughout the USA – a group described as “a Who’s Who in American Education” by a visiting professor and “those damned long-hairs” by the colonel overseeing their transport. Elmer T Peterson from the University of Iowa was among them. Addressing the students, he said: “Since the GI awaiting redeployment could not get to an American campus, a complete university has been brought to him. And this university has all the trappings of an institution back home.”

This was no exaggeration. SAU, as it became known, had facilities that put established colleges to shame. Science laboratories were well equipped, and the language lab with its ranks of headphones was proudly shown off to visiting VIPs. The Americans started the first-ever student radio station on British soil, and their journalism school would not be emulated in higher education until University College Cardiff started its own programme in 1970. 

For rest and recreation, SAU boasted a soda fountain and beer tavern, a theatre run by the drama department and a gridiron for American football. There was a coat of arms, a motto (“victoritas per scientiam”) and even a school song celebrating this university in the “rolling downs of England” with “walls too new for ivy”.

The soldiers proved eager learners, with 90% signing up for the maximum three courses, but sourcing supplies for them was a challenge. Time magazine reported that “Dr Douglas Whitaker, Stanford zoologist, created a minor Army supply problem by ordering 1,000 frogs” for dissection. Attempts to requisition a nude model for the art class caused a similar stir when the forms were received in Washington, DC. 

The Shrivenham Post, a weekly newspaper produced by the journalism students, presented a vivid picture of campus life with its mix of news, gossip, earnest political essays and khaki humour. Pin-up girls were a regular feature, including 13-year-old Diana Fluck – a “blonde, blue-eyed Swindon beauty queen” who would achieve fame after a name-change to Diana Dors.

The Shrivenham Post: the university's own weekly newspaper showed snippets from daily life Credit: Defence Academy of the UK

Nevertheless, there were ample reminders that this was not a civilian campus. Students with poor grades were sent back to their units, and when absenteeism rose, a memo threatened shirkers with court-martial. A tent city housed around 1,000 prisoners of war to service the campus. Off duty, they built a miniature replica of a German village, which was much admired by the GIs. 

Uniforms were worn, although Reveille – sounded at 6.15am sharp every weekday on the air-raid siren – was the only parade-ground formation. Students who forgot to salute superiors could expect a word from one of the white-helmeted military policemen prowling the grounds, until regulations were relaxed in the second term.  

The campus maintained a sharp distinction between officers and other ranks, with separate sections in dormitories, mess halls and even the cinema. A reporter from the New York Times found resentment on both sides that the weekly dances were similarly segregated, though enlisted men had one additional freedom: officers were not permitted to jitterbug. 

SAU did not escape the notice of local girls. Tickets to dances were greatly prized, and the Mayor of Oxford complained that the queue to obtain them at the town’s Red Cross Centre was obstructing traffic. By September, the Shrivenham Post reported that 25 men were going through the Army’s statutory 60-day cooling-off period to marry English women.

Shrivenham American University stayed open for just two terms, its closure hastened by the swift end of the war in Japan. By Christmas 1945, it had disappeared, despite a New Statesman commentator asking: “why shouldn’t our War Office take over a half-share and run it as an Anglo-American university?"

Today, the US Army campus in rural Oxfordshire is almost entirely forgotten. The site now houses the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, which maintains a small SAU archive, with a clutch of photographs and the final issue of the Shrivenham Post. This includes local tributes to the soon-to-be departing soldiers, such as one from a “misty-eyed, pretty lass” who may or may not have existed outside a mischievous student reporter’s imagination: “You Yanks are wonderful – and I shouldn’t be surprised if I die of boredom after you leave.”