Wed, May 3 1995 – Guardian
Black Soldiers in WW2
In the early years of the second world war, Britain made frequent requests for help from its colonies. One man to respond was Billy Strachan. Like most Jamaicans at the time he regarded Britain as his homeland, and enlisting it seemed a natural option.
“I went to the British Army camp in Jamaica to ask about being sent to Britain to join the R.A.F, but I was laughed at and told to find my own way there”.
“I then went to the Jamaica Fruits Shipping company, which had some boats coming from Britain four of the middle class white people fleeing from the war, and persuaded them to let me have a passage back for £15. I didn’t have £15, so I sold my bicycle and saxophone to raise the fair”.
On arrival in Britain Strachan had no idea how to enlist, and so he headed off to the Air Ministry in London.
“I hadn’t heard about the recruiting stations and the guards thought I was taking the Mickey when I said I wanted to join up. Luckily, a Hooray Henry, Officer type, overheard us and said: “oh you’re from Jamaica, one of our colonial friends. Welcome. I did geography at university and I’ve always been impressed by you West Africans.” Thanks to his supreme ignorance I was dragged in, and was eventually sent to the RAF unit in Euston for a medical.”
Caribbean Pilots in WW2
Billy Strachan went on to serve both as an Air Gunner and pilot for Bomber Command and was a member of the only crew of 99 Bomber Squadron to finish a tour of 30 trips alive.
Once the war ended many black servicemen felt that their efforts were one appreciated.
“It was as if it was okay but was to be over here while there was an emergency, but in 1945 we weren’t wanted any more,”
says Laurent Philpotts, Public Relations Officer for the West Indian ex-servicemen and women’s association.
After I was demobbed in Nottingham a Padre said to me: “When are you going home?” I was shocked; if a Padre could say that, what must everyone else to be thinking?”
Black Ex-Servicemen feel neglected
50 years on, nothing much has changed. Black ex-servicemen still feel neglected by the military establishment and believe they are not afforded the same privileges and facilities as veterans from the white Commonwealth countries. Last year they felt snubbed at not being included in the D-Day Commemorations, and it has only been through last-minute interventions from leading black figures, such as Bernie Grant, that has ensured invitations for the V.E.Day have been extended to the Gov. Gen. of Jamaica and the president of Trinidad.
The old black British soldiers have not been so lucky. Earlier this year and the West Indian ex-servicemen and women’s association was sent some forms inviting its members to apply for seating at the VE day commemorative events, but none has been successful. Unsurprisingly, the Association has decided to hold its own commemorative program. Since the vast majority of black and Asian veterans were fighting in the “Forgotten” war in Burma, Malaya and Africa, and most accounts of the war have been written from a Eurocentric perspective by white historians, there has been an inbuilt tendency to discount the contribution in their literature.
Yet, even in those books which focus on the campaigns in which black and Asian troops were involved, there has been a predisposition to be a little better role. Colonel Ismail Khan who served with the Indian Army in Malaya has particularly strong feelings about this.
“There is always the sense that the Indian troops weren’t quite as good as the British, and the writers have tended to easy to ignore their efforts or to contend them by attacking their fighting spirit or exaggerating the desertions.”
For those children whose grandparents ER either dead or living overseas, the opportunities for learning even an oral history are extremely limited. Many black and Asian ex-servicemen now recognise that they have a responsibility to write their own history.
One institution firmly behind such moves is the Imperial War Museum. Anita Ballin: the museums’ education officer, says:
“There is material on the black war effort here at the moment, but you have to look pretty hard to find it, and many people have asked for more information.” In response to such requests the museum has assembled in multimedia resource pack entitled to gather for use in schools and which will also be available through public libraries. Ballin hopes that it is just the first step. “In time I would like the Museum to stage either a special exhibition or for more material to be included in the permanent displays.”
Such efforts are more than welcome, but the black and Asian ex-servicemen realise that it will take a great deal more to shift the underlying attitudes.
During the war, and black people were still a comparatively rare sight in this country, the racism they encountered was minimal, but that soon changed in the post-war years. While the rest of Britain set about building a country fit for heroes, black people found that the country for which they had fought was denying them access to equal jobs and accommodation. “It seems as if no sooner had one ended and then another began,” says Laurent Phillpotts. “But just like the last war, it’s a battle we are slowly winning.”
Related Articles on this site
Black soldiers in the British Armed Forces – John Ellis
Africans in Wartime Propaganda – Part 1
Imperial War Museum – Online Collection – Jamaican
Imperial War Museum – Online collection – African Soldiers
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