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Shrivenham American University

Of the three Army universities in Europe, Shrivenham was both the most similar to a domestic US college campus and the nearest in character to a military encampment.

Army University Center No 1 in Shrivenham, England – soon renamed Shrivenham American University – opened with an enrolment of 3,641 students, including 28 women. A further 4,154 students would attend the second of its eight-week terms.

They enjoyed all the facilities of a US campus, including a beer tavern, soda fountain and American football gridiron. Before long, there was even a coat of arms and school song.

However, military discipline persisted: reveille was sounded on an air-raid siren at 6.15 on weekdays; uniforms were worn and superiors saluted; and after absenteeism began to creep up, skipping classes became punishable by court-martial. Nevertheless, students were given great freedom to travel. Special buses were laid on to Oxford and Swindon, and weekend passes were easily available.

SAU attracted much British interest. Academics came to see the pioneering university; BBC radio’s Brains Trust panel performed on campus, as did the comedienne Joyce Grenfell; and the weekly GI dances attracted so much interest from local girls that the queue for tickets at Oxford’s American Red Cross jammed the town centre. Life model for the art class was a 13-year-old Diana Fluck – later to become the Rank Studios movie starlet Diana Dors.

Oxford University helped set up SAU, offering its staff use of the Bodleian Library. However, it suffered from severe shortages, and its own library was a particular problem. Books had to be obtained on reverse lend-lease, on loan from the Library of Congress, and from private goodwill – including that of a Swindon postman, who donated 1,000 volumes.

SAU was short of tutors, too, particularly in modern languages; but a suggestion that PoWs who serviced the campus should teach German was rejected. In other respects, though, SAU was more advanced than the universities of its host nation.

There was a state-of-the-art language laboratory, proudly shown off to all visiting academics and dignitaries. In 1945, SAU’s journalism course was the only one offered at a university anywhere on British soil, and would remain so until 1970. Likewise, the campus radio station, AFN-SAU, predated Hertfordshire’s Crush Radio – usually considered Britain’s first student broadcaster – by some 15 years.

The student paper, the Shrivenham Post – produced on newsprint requisitioned from Germany – was remarkably competent, thanks to some of America’s top journalism tutors. Its mix of campus and world news, light features, pin-ups and sport made it a livelier read than any UK local paper.

The standard of the soldier-students shocked the civilian and military academic staff. And SAU’s internationalist ethos and innovative teaching methods (particularly the use of informal discussion) greatly impressed British visitors. The New Statesman led calls for SAU to remain open after two terms, perhaps with the UK forces taking a half-share – and for Britain to develop a comparable institution.

That this never happened makes the short life of Shrivenham American University a unique curio in British academic history, and one that warrants more investigation than it has yet been afforded.

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