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Opinion: Why WW2 commemorations need to recognise the Black contribution

Why were the manifold contributions of the colonies not recognised in the many VE Day celebrations of 2020, asks Marika Sherwood. Writing for HistoryExtra, she explores the contributions of Black Britons, and people from Africa, India and the West Indies, during the Second World War…

West Indian recruits lift logs in training at a WW2 air base
Published: November 4, 2021 at 10:12 am
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When war was close to breaking out in Europe in 1938, Army Order 89 restricted entry into the British Army to men of “pure European descent”. The RAF and the Navy also restricted entry: “non-Europeans” could continue to be used as “cooks or as an ‘Officer’s Steward’” at the Africa, East Indies and China stations, but not in the UK.


Major national Black organisations, such as the League of Coloured Peoples, campaigned against this racial discrimination. Eventually – perhaps recognising that as France had fallen to the Germans, and more troops would be needed – the government announced a change: “For the period of the war, British subjects from the colonies… including those not wholly of European descent, are to be on the same footing as British subjects from the United Kingdom as regards eligibility in the Armed Forces, including the Royal Air Force”.

But during the war, Britain did not use its colonial troops to fight in Europe. While France had no problem with its Black regiments pointing their guns at Europeans, Britain could not tolerate this: “It would be unwise to use them in Europe,” General Cunningham advised the Colonial Office in July 1941.

But could Britain have won the war – even in Europe – without all the contributions from the colonies? And is not wanting to recognise this another reason for this omission? We must look closely at the range of contributions from the colonies, and by Black Britons that helped Britain achieve victory in Europe and elsewhere, and value and remember them.

Black Britons and the British Military

Despite the change in regulations, the Royal Navy continued to exclude Blacks and racial discrimination was rife. A few “served as locally engaged personnel”, according to the Ministry of Defence, but the Daily Herald reported on 17 May 1944 that on a British warship an officer had told recruits: “I want your standards to conform as near as possible to those of our American allies. In the States Negroes are separated from the white men. The American regards the Negro as a child and not equal to the white race. Please conform to that idea.”

Some Black Britons still attempted to enlist. Newspaper accounts show that some were rejected. The Daily Herald reported on 11 January 1940 that GE Price, “the Edinburgh-born son of a West Indian” was turned down by the Navy, then the RAF, then the army. On 6 February the same paper noted that another Edinburgh-born man, R Spiers, the son of a Sierra Leonean, was turned down by the RAF.

Other services maintained policies of racial discrimination: the Voluntary Aid Detachment did not remove its colour bar until the end of 1941, while the Women’s Land Army retained its bar. The WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) accepted one Black woman: Lilian Bader, who became a leading aircraftwoman and earned the rank of Corporal.

Other services maintained policies of racial discrimination

There was a shortage of medical staff in the military. Two West Indian doctors were almost immediately accepted by the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and Christine Moody – daughter of Dr Harold Moody, the president of the League of Coloured Peoples – is among the long list of women accepted by the RAMC in the London Gazette Supplement of 24 March 1942. However, racial discrimination existed even in the medical profession. The League of Coloured Peoples complained to the War Office about a colour bar in the Military Nursing Service in 1943, and News Chronicle reported on 16 May 1945 about a Birmingham hospital, which “when it discovered that a newly appointed medical officer was a Black man, did not permit him to commence work”; he was “given notice and one month’s salary”.

The RAF accepted 400 men from the West Indies to be trained as pilots, navigators, flight engineers, bomb aimers, wireless operators or air gunners. They earned 103 decorations. It was subsequently decided that West Indians could also fill ground crew shortages, so about 4,000 arrived in 1944 and another 1,500 in 1945.

We do not know how many ‘Black Brits’ served during the war. According to the historian Stephen Bourne: “’Ethnicity’ was not recorded in the UK in the armed services in WW1 or WW2, so there is no way of ever knowing. Photographic evidence exists of integrated battalions, regiments, ships, RAF etc, but no accurate numbers.”

Contributions from the colonies

Britain’s war efforts owed a huge amount to contributions from her colonies in the Caribbean and in Africa, and from India.

Some men paid their own way to the ‘mother country’ to join up and were accepted by the RAF. Emanuel Peter John Adeniyi Thomas, who came from Lagos in 1942, became the first Black African to qualify as a pilot and the first to be commissioned as an officer; by 1944 he had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He died in an accidental air crash in 1945 and is buried in Bath Cemetery.

Trinidadian Ulric Cross became the most decorated West Indian pilot. He rose to the rank of Squadron Leader and was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and the DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal). Cy Grant from British Guiana, who was trained as a navigator, recounted his experiences in A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: WW2 experiences of a former RAF Navigator and POW (2006). He argued that “the reversal of RAF racial policies in the recruitment of non-Europeans obviously owed more to expediency than to any genuine change in attitudes that had prevailed for centuries and are still with us today”.

Britain’s war efforts owed a huge amount to contributions from her colonies

Initially, Britain refused to recruit in her Caribbean colonies. Yet by the end of 1942 all local forces were placed under Imperial Command with its headquarters in Jamaica. Recruitment could now begin. Some 1,200 men were recruited for service overseas, as the First Caribbean Regiment, and sent for training to the USA. It was not till June 1944 that they were shipped to Europe. Though trained to fight, they were put on garrison duty in conquered Italy, and then in Egypt.

There was also much discussion between the Colonial Office and the War Office about raising women for Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – could/should Black women be accepted? Eventually about 300 served in the Caribbean, 2-300 white women in the United States, and about 100 were sent to the UK in late 1943. In the photograph of 23 of these women in Ben Bousquet & Colin Douglas’ book West Indian Women at War (1991), I can only see three dark-faced women.

West Indian ATS volunteers being served tea at the Colonial Office in London
West Indian ATS volunteers being served tea at the Colonial Office in London, c1944. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Caribbean colonies played other important roles. German Prisoners of War were shipped out to Jamaica to be interned at the Up Park Camp, guarded by Pioneer Corps. Meanwhile, the UK granted the USA permission to establish bases on six Caribbean islands, to help guard the Panama Canal and thousands were employed building and maintaining US military/naval bases.

The African contribution was also highly significant. Unfortunately, accurate data has not been kept for either the fighting troops or the ‘pioneers’, ie labour corps. Historian David Killingray gives the total number as just over a million. About 120,000 served – and fought – in Ceylon, India and Burma. Peter Clarke found that around 240,000 soldiers were raised in Britain’s west African colonies and that many more thousands were used as ‘carriers’ for the regiments. Ashley Jackson wrote that “by the end of the war 323,483 men had served in East Africa’s armed forces”. The officers were all ‘white’ British until Ghanaian Seth Anthony was sent to be trained as an officer at Sandhurst in 1941; he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1942. Only two other Africans were sent for officer training during the war.

According to Clarke, “West Africa played an important strategic role in World War II by providing staging bases for British, American and other Allied soldiers and their supplies and equipment en route to the Middle and Far East”. Ashley Jackson writes that around 25,000 men were employed by the Royal Navy for construction work and to support Freetown as a “convoy assembly port and major operational naval base”. And thousands more laboured to construct and maintain the US military/naval bases along the coast.

According to Jackson, “40 airfields and flying boat bases and landing grounds were developed in British West Africa… The RAF recruited 10,000 West Africans for ground duties … and in East Africa a section of the all-white Kenya Regiment was converted into the Kenya Auxiliary Air Unit … employed on communications, reconnaissance and training tasks, and for anti-submarine patrols.” He also noted that “Southern Rhodesia prepared over 8000 men for service in the RAF”.

West Africa played an important strategic role in World War II by providing staging bases for British, American and other Allied soldiers

In London, Black organisations held several protest meetings against the flogging of African troops as ‘punishment’ for ‘misbehaviour’. There were some supportive MPs, but the government resisted. On 24 October 1944, the Secretary of State for War announced that “it would be unwise to abolish corporal punishment” against African troops. But they did not give up the fight: flogging was finally banned in 1946.

How little African troops were paid was recognised a couple of years ago, in an article in The Guardian on 13 February 2019: “The half million black African soldiers… were paid up to three times less than their white counterparts, a newly unearthed document has revealed…. Once a soldier was demobilised, Britain paid him a lump sum known as a war gratuity, calibrating the exact amount to the racial hierarchy enshrined in its African empire.” The paper had reported on 3 September 2006 that this ‘gratuity’ was £10.

On 10 April 1945 the Prime Minister reported on ‘War casualties’ in Parliament: “Colonies: 5,044 killed, 14,014 missing 4,840 wounded, 6,754 prisoners of war [including service internees].”

Listen: Lucy Bland discusses the childhood experiences of babies fathered by African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the Second World War, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Financial and other aid

Britain – the ‘Mother County’ – received enormous financial contributions from her colonies – at her ‘request’. In its November 1940 Newsletter the League of Coloured Peoples reported that Africa had sent £910,102, Ceylon £693,121 and the West Indies £1,228,000. A hundred cases of ‘clothing and blankets’ had also been sent by West Indians and “Jamaica has provided eight planes and aims at a whole squadron”. By the end of 1943, the contributions amounted to £10.7 million in interest free loans and £14 million in very low interest-bearing loans. According to historians Humphrey Metzgen and John Graham, the “Monetary Donations during the Second World War” from the West Indian colonies was just over £2 million; from Africa, £21.9 million.

Dominican Edward Scobie served in the RAF during the war, and wrote a very important book, Black Britannia: A History of Blacks in Britain, published in the USA(!) in 1972. He reports that “by the end of September 1943, the British West Indies had mailed to the United Kingdom over four thousand parcels of surgical and hospital supplies, comforts, clothes, honey and preserves”.

By 1943–4, India’s defence expenditure was 81 per cent of its total budget. It had to pay all the costs of its military. Some of the very wealthy were very generous: for example, the Nawab of Bhopal bought a whole squadron of Spitfires for the RAF. The Maharajah of Mysore sent £45,000 and the Nizam of Hyderabad sent £100,000 for the manufacture of bombers/fighter planes.


Materials from the colonies

It wasn’t only money that arrived from the colonies. Here are some examples of the goods exported: from Trinidad, almost 90,000 gallons of oil; 2.3 million tons of bauxite from the Gold Coast (today Ghana) and British Guiana; 24,000 tons of rubber from the Gold Coast and Nigeria; 46,000 tons of tin from Nigeria; 131,756 ‘head of cattle’ from Tanganyika; almost 13,000 tons of wheat from Kenya; 1,353,000 tons of manganese from India. In 1943 88 per cent of the world’s total production of cobalt, 96 per cent of diamonds, 50 per cent of gold and 22 per cent of tin came from Africa. And much more: “African production was absolutely essential for the Allied war effort…. A wide range of African metallic and non-metallic ores played a vital – and in some cases indispensable – role in the Allied victory,” argued Raymond Dumett in his article, ‘African Strategic Minerals’. (Journal of African History, #26, 1985)

Raw materials were vital for the Allies. To ensure the required level of production, in some colonies Compulsory Service Bills and Conscription Ordinances were introduced from 1941 onwards. The ‘conscripts’ were paid next to nothing by the private companies producing minerals, etc for the war. It has been estimated that possibly as many as 200,000 mine workers in Nigeria had been conscripted. When questioned by the League of Coloured Peoples, the Secretary of State for the Colonies advised that “forced labour was necessary as not enough volunteered”. The Kenyan government estimated that not more than 2,000 conscripts a month can “be found for all undertakings”. According to the journal West Africa, by the end of November 1944 Kenya had conscripted 26,032 workers. By the end of the war there were also 84,500 conscripted workers in Tanganyika. Overall, historians state that it is impossible to discover the actual numbers – or rates of pay.

Quite a number of these conscripted workers absconded. This is hardly surprising, given their working conditions. Historian AE Ekoko argues that working in the mines was “a period of veritable imprisonment, of unwelcome servitude… neo-slavery conditions of poor housing, poor feeding, meagre wages and exhaustion”.

There was opposition to conscription almost everywhere: for example, in August 1941 in Winneba (Gold Coast) the police fired on protesters, killing six people.

Naturally the Axis powers wanted to prevent all these raw materials reaching the Allies, and so local troops were raised and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves formed in most of the colonies – to ensure their dispatch and safety while sailing around the coast. For example, Ashley Jackson reports that “Kenya’s Naval Force rose from 109 to nearly 800 men.…[They] performed mine sweeping patrol and escort duties off the East African coast… and transported imperial troops in coastal areas.”

To ship all these materials to the UK, the numbers of merchant vessels had to be increased. The Germans, of course, tried to sink them. Though records vary, there seem to have been about 15,000 seamen from the colonies working on merchant ships, of whom 5,000 perished.

Though colonial seamen they did the same work as their white counterparts, they were paid much less, and also received less living space and food. They also received a much lower ‘war allowance’ than white crew.

Workers were, of course, also crucial for war production within the colonies. For example, in India about 5 million women and men worked in war industries, including the production of uniforms, tents, ammunition, et al.

Imported Black workers in the UK

There was a very serious manpower shortage in Britain and the possibility of importing workers from the Caribbean was discussed by the government again and again. As the Colonial Secretary explained, “Anything we can do to give the West Indies a part in the war effort is of the utmost political value locally.” Most did not want to import Black workers. However, the propaganda about love of the Mother Country was so ubiquitous in the colonies that many volunteered to work for their ‘Mother’. To prevent any possible disturbances, it was finally decided that some had to be recruited.

In February 1941, 117 Jamaicans were imported to work at the Royal Ordnance factories, mainly in Lancashire. The total number in these factories rose to 520. As not enough landlords accepted Black tenants, the government set up segregated hostels for them. Some were also set up for ‘coloured’ seamen. The Ministry of Labour also found that “some firms either flatly refused to take on coloured men or put endless delays in their way hoping to make them seek work elsewhere”.

Britain also needed workers in the timber industry – i.e. to help cut down trees. So experienced forestry workers were recruited in the colony of British Honduras (today Belize). Though offered very low wages, many applied. During the winter of 1941, 545 men from the tropics arrived in Scotland, without being given any warm clothing! Another 331 arrived in November 1942. The Colonial Office’s Welfare Officer, JL Keith visited a camp and found it to be “dirty and sordid… a sea of mud”. The Colonial Office admitted that the living and working conditions and the huts provided for the men were “inadequate”.

Information on many instances of racial discrimination can be found in the files of the Home Office at the National Archives. Even some newspapers reported on these. For example, the Bristol Evening World wrote on 23 July 1942 that “coloured troops were refused entry” although white troops were allowed to enter a church for a whist drive there. The Minister for Information admitted publicly in September 1942 that “it is in fact true that there is still some colour prejudice in this country”. Yet, there was no improvement. On 23 November 1945, The Times reported that “two Sikh soldiers, both VC holders” were refused admission to a restaurant in London.

One such event became headline news and the subject of parliamentary questioning. When Trinidad-born Learie Constantine arrived at the hotel in London where he had booked a room, The Times reported that he was told “we won't have niggers in this hotel”. Constantine was a Ministry of Labour welfare officer, responsible for West Indians employed in English factories in the North-West. In his autobiography he states that he arrived at the hotel with his “superior officer from the Ministry of Labour” and confirms what was said by the “manageress… I could multiply these stories of personal slights indefinitely… an unpleasant part of daily life in Britain for anyone of my colour.”

In his Some Experiences of an African Air-Raid Warden, Nigeria-born EI Ekpenyon related that “some shelterers told others to go back to their own countries and some tried to practise segregation”. That there was racial discrimination in some Labour Exchanges, and elsewhere, is reported in the League of Coloured Peoples’ newsletters.

Some MPs worked with the Black organisations and raised questions about various forms of discrimination. Constantine’s treatment was taken up in Parliament on 22 and 23 September 1943.


Marika Sherwood is a historian and author specialising in issues regarding slavery, colonialism and the history of Black peoples in the UK.


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