Books interview with Wendy Webster: “In its finest hour, Britain’s population was multiethnic and multinational”

Wendy Webster talks to Matt Elton about her new history of the Second World War, which charts the contributions made by a diverse range of people to Britain's wartime effort

Wendy Webster. (Photo by Claire Wood/BBC)

This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Profile: Wendy Webster

Professor of modern cultural history at the University of Huddersfield, Webster’s previous books include Englishness and Empire 1939–1965 (Oxford University Press, 2005). Her new book is part of a larger project on Second World War immigration which also includes a permanent display at Imperial War Museum North.

You write that the history of Britain’s diversity during the Second World War has been undertold elsewhere. Why do you think that is?

Most British history has a national frame of reference. It’s often about ‘Britons’, which means that stories about people who came to Britain as migrants and refugees – and also as troops and war workers during the Second World War – tend to get sidelined.

There are a number of books about particular groups in Britain, from Belgians and Polish people to West Indians and Canadians. Indeed, one of the risks I took in writing this book is that it could have easily turned into a long list of nationalities! I owe a lot to those books, but mine is the first to trace the history of the overall diversity of the population of Britain during the war.

How did the war bring people to Britain, and in what way did the situation differ from the First World War?

People came as refugees, but rather fewer than in the First World War. That conflict had brought about a quarter of a million refugees just from Belgium, for instance, while the Home Office estimates that the total number of refugees in 1943 was around 150,000. They were much more diverse, however, because they came from almost every country that Germany occupied. There were also 78,000 refugees from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, who came before war was declared.

The number of troops and war workers, on the other hand, was far greater in the Second World War than in the First. Half a million Canadians disembarked in Britain, for instance, most of whom were troops, along with a significant number of nurses. Americans comprised the largest single group, and the most remembered, with nearly 3 million – mainly troops – disembarking in Britain between 1942 and 1945. And, by the end of the war, there were also half a million German and Italian prisoners of war held in Britain. So that gives us some sense of the kind of scale.

How did the British-born population react to these new arrivals?

There’s a lot of evidence you can find about attitudes, although of course they were very diverse – there was no one ‘British attitude’.

The most notable thing, perhaps, is that the attitudes changed as the war went on. In 1940, particularly when imminent invasion by Germany was expected, there was a lot of hostility to foreigners. There was the introduction of mass internment of enemy nationals, when Italy came into the war there were anti-Italian riots in many British towns and cities, and indeed foreigners of all nationalities were suspected of being spies and fifth columnists.

Towards the end of 1940, things began to shift towards much greater tolerance. People who came in uniforms, particularly, were made warmly welcome, but there was overall a much more tolerant atmosphere.

And while there was tension, there was a lot of close friendship, too, a lot of camaraderie in the armed forces across nationalities and ethnicities. Often they depended on each other for their lives, of course, which inevitably led to close bonds.

What kind of tensions were there between different national groups?

In particular, there were a lot of tensions between Americans and British. The Americans criticised the British for their atrocious coffee, their abominable food, their inexcusably old-fashioned country. Meanwhile, the British criticised Americans for being arrogant, for treating their black compatriots badly, for getting too much publicity in the D-Day landings, and for their relationships with British women.

How important is gender to this story?

One of the most significant gender divides in wartime was the way in which patriotism was displayed. For British men, their willingness to fight, kill and die for the country was a sign of their national allegiance. In contrast, British women weren’t allowed combat roles, so they couldn’t fight or kill. There’s a really interesting story about how women who worked on ack-ack batteries [anti-aircraft artillery] could do all the work on targeting but couldn’t actually fire.

So women couldn’t display their national allegiance in the same way as men, but the diversity of the wartime population threw an intense light on the sexual patriotism required from British women. Many were subject to criticism or hostility when they formed relationships outside of the national collective. Relationships with American men, both white and black, attracted a particularly high degree of concern and caused a great deal of tension – but any relationship with someone who wasn’t a native-born Briton could cause anxiety. This criticism suggested a view that men belonged to the nation through their willingness to sacrifice themselves, but women belonged to the nation’s men.

Did any factors particularly mark people out as ‘other’ in some way?

I’m very interested in the role of language. When there weren’t physical markers of difference – such as skin colour – language, speech and accents were important ways in which people were identified as different or ‘foreign’. There was a fair amount of hostility based around speech. For example, when one advocate of the mass internment of foreigners was interviewed in 1940, he defined those who should be interned as “all what don’t speak plain English”.

In other interviews in which British people were asked about their attitudes to foreigners, they often brought up the subject of language, saying that they were sick of foreigners “jabbering away”. But, of course, there were always contrasting views, with others saying that foreign voices and strange uniforms made the streets more interesting.

Did any stories of specific individuals particularly stand out for you?

Rudolph Dunbar’s story is really interesting but little known. He was originally from British Guiana, which is now Guyana, and had an extraordinary wartime career in Britain. He became the first black man to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1942, and also conducted the London Symphony and the National Philharmonic Orchestra several times. He worked at the Associated Negro Press throughout the war, which supplied news releases to many black publications in the United States, and also worked in the Ministry of Information as West Indian press officer.

Through all of these activities, he made a lot of connections in high places. In 1942, after he conducted a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Harold Macmillan – then undersecretary of state for the colonies – gave a lunch in his honour. The Colonial Office was very interested in Dunbar’s story and its propaganda value.

What does Dunbar’s story tell us about the experiences of people who came to Britain during the war more generally?

It shows that, in wartime, people could have careers that then closed down when the war was over. As I say, he was courted in high places: Brendan Bracken, the minister of information, wrote an article in the Sunday Express about the colour bar specifically because Dunbar had asked him to. But when the war was over, his services were no longer required and he died in Britain in obscurity in 1988.

If you look at West Indian volunteers who came to Britain during the war, there’s a very similar story there. Many were demobbed back home after the conflict, and those that returned to Britain felt they got a very different reception in peacetime. They weren’t regarded as allies any more, and were instead seen as just immigrants and not wanted in the same way.

And more broadly, what happened after the war to the people who’d come to Britain and attitudes towards them?

As with the West Indians, large numbers who had come to serve in the military forces were demobbed back home, and many people who had come as refugees and exiles returned to countries that were no longer under German occupation. Even so, Britain’s population continued to be more diverse in the aftermath of war than it had been prewar. Many postwar arrivals were generated by government schemes to try to combat an acute labour shortage in Britain. And not all departures were permanent, either: people returned for many reasons, including employment opportunities, but also because of attachments they had made in Britain during wartime – while others stayed on.

During the war, the British media very strongly acknowledged the idea of what I call an ‘allies war’, reliant on the contributions of a diverse range of national and ethnic groups. This vision faded quite rapidly, however, and the focus of media coverage shifted to the war fought by the British, their courage and resolve, their finest hour. There were similar shifts in the US and the Soviet Union towards stories focusing on national heroes and victories, and in Britain that shift meant that awareness of the diversity of the country’s wartime population was lost.

What’s particularly interesting here is ‘double forgetting’: groups that were forgotten not only in Britain but in their home countries as well. So Czechoslovakians and Poles who fought in the west went without honour in nations that became Soviet satellites in the aftermath of war, and the Irish who fought with the British were also forgotten in Ireland. These things changed in the late 20th century with the Cold War thaw and in the Irish peace process, when these groups were increasingly remembered in their own countries. But it remains an interesting example of memory, in a sense, having its own history.

Why is it important to understand this subject now, in 2018?

I want to recover this largely forgotten history of different groups’ contribution, and to offer a new way of seeing Britain at war. The Second World War is often seen in Britain as a symbol of past national greatness, and in some versions that greatness is set up against a story of postwar national decline associated with immigration and membership of the European Union. The story of the diverse population in Britain in the Second World War goes against that; in the current political climate I think it’s important to remember that, in its finest hour, the population in Britain was multiethnic and multinational.

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Mixing it: Diversity in World War Two Britain by Wendy Webster (Oxford University Press, £25, 336 pages).