Britain: Divided by race, united in war

Britain: Divided by race, united in war
  • PublishedDecember 3, 2013

They came – they saw – and together they conquered. Twice within the last hundred years in the two world wars, whose centenary and 75th anniversary respectively are about to be celebrated in 2014, the people of Britain and their former colonies came together to protect the values they shared against a greater tyranny. And twice afterwards, they came together to forge the peace. Yet, as Clayton Goodwin reports here, many commentators continue to classify them by the one characteristic that divides them, their race.

Although the conflicts that broke out in 1914 and again in 1939 were truly world wars, in that hardly any part of the globe and any community was left untouched, the story of all the communities that participated in them has been only rarely told. Each country concentrates naturally on the part played by its own people.

In Britain, from where this piece is written, the public are only now becoming aware of the role played in that struggle by those who were not from the majority indigenous population. For example, the contribution of Walter Tull, the first non-white commissioned officer in the British Army ever to lead troops into battle, winner of the Military Cross, and a professional footballer, who was killed in the First World War, has been granted its due recognition at last.

Poignantly, Ulric Cross, one of the most distinguished of the Caribbean servicemen in the Second World War, will not be here to share in the celebrations as he died full of years (96) and honours in October 2013 as this article was being prepared.

Cross voiced the conviction of his generation by recalling that he felt called from his work with the Trinidad Railways to join in the fray because “the world was drowning in fascism and America was not yet in the war. So I decided to do something about it and volunteered to fight in the RAF”. That “something” brought him to the air battles over Berlin, the capital of Germany, and the Ruhr, in which he was a navigator with the pathfinder force, and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his “fine example of keenness and devotion to duty” with “exceptional navigation ability”.

The recently-released film, Divided by Race, United in War and Peace, relates how all communities in the UK came together in the common purpose of resisting and overcoming a common enemy, and shows it through personal experience and recollection.

Because there are now no survivors from the First World War – and even those from the Second are veteran – the story focusses on the latter conflict. The statistics are impressive – for which Stephen Bourne’s book, The Motherland Calls – Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women 1939-45, should be credited.

Some 16,000 volunteers are estimated to have rallied to that call, several thousands in the merchant navy keeping open the dangerous supply routes: five thousand Caribbean sailors were killed by enemy submarines (including the father of the greatest cricketer, Garry Sobers).

Another 6,000 served with the RAF, the majority as ground staff, but in excess of three hundred were in aircrew. Of them, Cy Grant, who came from the then British Guiana (now Guyana), the future singer actor and writer, was a commissioned officer and navigator. After being shot down over The Netherlands in 1943, Grant was held for the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp not far from Berlin. In light of the Nazis’ racial policy, his position was particularly parlous. His confused captors described him as being “of indeterminate race”.

There were also substantial recruits to “back-up” occupations such as administration and nursing, and collections were made for funds for the provision of ambulances, particularly in the first war, and aircraft.

Yet there are those, including myself, who contend that the British Empire for which these men and women sacrificed so much, was less a legal entity than an expression of mind. Britain did not build an empire as such, an imperial entity, in the manner of, say, the Romans but had a series of bilateral relationships with a cluster of the colonies.

Queen Victoria was apparently quite happy to be just a queen, as her predecessors had been kings, without seeking an imperial diadem until her daughter married the Crown Prince of Germany and in due time would become empress.

Victoria could not be allowed to be outranked in her own family. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, by his own admission a flatterer, sought to bring her an empire. He found it with the passing of the last Mughal Emperor who had already blotted his copy-book with the British by his attitude to the rising of the Indian soldiers in 1857.  Disraeli appropriated the imperial throne for his sovereign. The ruler of the United Kingdom became Emperor/Empress of India, not of a British Empire. It was hardly necessary. Victoria’s daughter’s husband died of throat cancer after a reign of only a few weeks and she quickly became an ex-empress.

The concept of empire, however, was a useful tool in consolidating support for the monarchy, as was shown in the presentation of Victoria’s own golden jubilee and diamond jubilee celebrations.

It served also as a rallying-call in time of war. People across the world, unrelated by geography or culture, were given a set of common values and a common purpose.

In that generation even left-wing radicals from the colonies, including the Trinidad-born writer/philosopher C.L.R. James, a Marxist and a protagonist of “black/African consciousness” (he authored the landmark book, The Black Jacobins, on the slave uprising in San Domingo or present-day Haiti), valued the principles postulated by the Empire.

It had a powerful attraction, too, for those thousands from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who answered the call to the military colours. Marcus Garvey encouraged his Jamaican countrymen to volunteer to fight in the First World War in order to prove their loyalty to the king and ensure that they would be treated as equals. He was to be disappointed in the latter assumption.

During/after the second war, so many West Indians called their children Winston, after the British prime minister, that it is now considered to me the definitive West Indian name. It was such people, and the white people with whom they co-operated, not the politicians and administrators, who framed a cohesive entity with the shared aims and values which they turned into a reality.

Marc Wadsworth, journalist and political activist, is the project manager and film producer of Divided by Race, United in War and Peace. He made his name nationally some three decades ago by campaigning for black sections within the Labour Party. Wadsworth achieved a master’s degree in Contemporary British History at King’s College, London, and is also the editor of The-Latest.Com website through which the film was made.

He is justly proud of living in Brockley, Southeast London, a “stone’s throw” from the erstwhile surgery of Dr Harold Moody, the pioneer general medical practitioner in the “black” British community who established the groundbreaking League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

The film is less polemical than may have been expected from his earlier work and, in my opinion, the more effective for that. It is indeed an effective, human and powerful story from a production team that reflects a range of cultures, background and experience. 

Divided by Race, United in War and Peace draws substantially on the recollections of members of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel. Wadsworth’s own father, George “Busha” Rowe, served in the Second World War after joining the RAF in Jamaica with Laurent Philpotts, who is seen often as the public spokesman for the servicemen.

The Association is working to establish a museum at its building in Clapham, Southwest London, regarded already as its spiritual home, to honour in perpetuity the memory and military contributions made by men and women of Caribbean heritage in support of the British Crown over the last 250 years.
The first public reaction to the film has been highly favourable. In spite of arriving well on time for the viewing at a cinema in Brixton in Southwest London, the area associated most often with Jamaican immigration in the late 1940s, I found a “house full” notice displayed at the door and gained admission only because a former model and beauty queen, Beverley Heath, insisted on me taking her ticket as she had seen the film already.

The film, which has been shown also in South Africa, deserves the wider attention it is seeking, especially with its relevance in 2014. The tale is told by more than just those servicemen from the Caribbean. One of the oldest interviewed, if not the oldest, is the nonagenarian Noel Davis, who joined the RAF in Sierra Leone and whose experience, qualifications and “Oxford English” enabled him to become a successful engineer.

Davis served in Sudan in assembling and testing Lancaster bombers and Spitfires. He was one of many Africans fighting with the Allies on all fronts, not least in liberating Ethiopia from the grip of the Italian invaders. Their story is related in – among other sources – the book, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War, by David Killingray.

Another interviewee is Allan Wilmot, who left Jamaica to serve in the Royal Navy for two years in 1941. From there he moved to the RAF’s air-sea rescue unit, which he did not leave until after the war was over.

Wilmot was a founding member of the successful Southlanders vocal group, the first black group to achieve popular success in the UK. His nephew is the entertainer Gary Wilmot.

Allan’s compatriot, Neil Flanigan, the president of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel, is still involved in community activities. He was in the Bomber Command ground crew specialising in instrument repair, including that of the squadron which sent men to the ill-fated Arnhem mission in 1944. The operation was featured in the film, A Bridge Too Far.

Divided by Race, United in War and Peace goes further than most studies in this field by blending the stories of the African and Caribbean former servicemen with those of their English contemporaries and colleagues.

The latter, drawn from both the inner city and the provinces, explain their initial lack of knowledge of “non-white” communities with their preconceived ideas of countries in Africa and the Caribbean and their inhabitants, their own differing attitudes, the adjustment of working together, and, after the war, how they viewed community developments in post-war society. 

The new Caribbean arrivals, too, were shocked to find that the UK did not measure up to all that they had expected to find. They were particularly astounded that not all white people were rich, with many being labourers or unemployed and living in what were quite often primitive housing and social conditions.

Everybody interviewed found that their opinions were moulded positively by their wartime experience. In spite of the tensions of warfare, relations between white residents and their new black neighbours – a good number of whom married local women – were generally good, as they fought together for a common cause.

Problems occurred later, however, after the influx of American GIs following their country joining the war in 1941. They brought with them their established practice of racial discrimination. Thus, West Indian and African servicemen returning to the UK after the war to help build the peace, found the earlier harmony had been soured.

Sam King, who arrived in Scotland from joining the RAF in Jamaica, was shocked by the scale of devastation caused by the enemy bombing. His recollection carried over into the post-war decades in which he was involved fully in local politics.

His career culminated in him becoming mayor of Southwark borough in South London, the first black holder of that post. Sam argued that the offensive “No coloureds, No Irish, No dogs” notices which immigrants of African and Asian heritage found on accommodation did the community a great service by forcing them to acquire their own houses which are now a valuable financial and social asset.

From a later generation Vince McBean, chairman of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel, was a member of the Royal Green Jackets light infantry that served in Germany, Canada, and Northern Ireland. He did not see any conflict in his cultural or national loyalties and was proud to display four flags in his house – they are those of Jamaica where he was born, the UK in which he now lives, (relating to) Africa as his heritage homeland, and the European Union in which contemporary British life is now conducted.

Too many of the previous tensions returned once the warfare had ended. “United in Peace” is the second part of the story. Was that union as true as that which had been forged in conflict? As far as the story relates to the UK, I think that it was. The country was then on its knees. Houses, offices, and factories were bombed out; the transport system was disrupted; and the people’s self-esteem was low.

The incoming government of Clement Attlee, probably the UK’s most effective and greatest prime minister, had launched the most ambitious and comprehensive programme of social and industrial reform, including the setting up, against the staunch opposition of vested interests, of the world’s first fully national health service.

Twelve years later, another prime minister, Harold Macmillan, felt sufficiently confident of himself and of his audience to tell the country that “most of our people have never had it so good”. One community alone could not have achieved that task – it needed teamwork.

The trouble caused by Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in stirring up resentment and dissension, especially at the time of the disturbances at Notting Hill in the late 1960s, is well known. Mosley was a formidable orator and an experienced politician who, when previously in the Labour Party, had been tipped as a likely future prime minister.

Yet for all that distress, the publicity he achieved and the fear he inspired, his party could not win a single parliamentary seat. That failure was at odds with the results achieved by similar rightwing movements elsewhere in Europe, which was going through the same post-war trauma. Those English ex-servicemen interviewed in this film suggested that their wartime experience of working with non-white colleagues had played a large part in them, and the majority of their compatriots, rejecting Sir Oswald’s strident siren’s call.

They also expressed their strongly adverse feelings about the (mis)use of their wartime experiences in the rightwing British National Party propaganda.

A good number of ex-servicemen used their skills and experience gained in wartime for the benefit of Africa and the Caribbean as well as for the UK. That was true of none more than for Dudley Thompson, the celebrated lawyer, politician and Pan-Africanist who passed away at the beginning of last year.

Ulric Cross, too, with whom this story started, left the service with the rank of squadron-leader after 80 operations over enemy territory. He studied Law at Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in 1949. After several years in law and lecturing in his home-island and four years with the BBC in London, he became successively, senior crown counsel in Ghana and lecturer at the Ghana School of Law; senior crown counsel and attorney general in Cameroon, whose government appointed him to its Order of Merit and Order of Valour; and then Dean of the Law School in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

He followed several years as a judge of the High Court in Trinidad by becoming high commissioner in the UK. Two years before his death, Ulric received the Order of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, his nation’s highest award. Quite a man – and he wasn’t alone!  

On Remembrance Sunday – 10 November this year – representatives of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel and their colleagues joined with thousands of other veterans from Commonwealth nations in all walks of life in their annual march-past at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, Central London. It would be the last time they did so before the anniversaries of the outbreak of the world wars were commemorated.  

In 2014, these celebrations will be marked by the usual pageantry which, according to the British mantra, “we do very well”, and by protestations of peace, almost as surely as politicians prepare for further interventions elsewhere in the world.

There is a place for pageantry, provided that it is not the only, or primary, form of celebration. The world wars were times of sacrifice, heroism, death and lost dreams. The British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, has argued, controversially, against received wisdom, that they were not fought to make the world a better place but to prevent it from becoming a worse place. There is much merit in his view.

When the account is added up and all the problems, inconsistencies, and injustices of today are taken into consideration, the present world for all its imperfections is a much better place than it would have become if the “other side” had prevailed. It is an achievement that should not be forgotten and well deserves recognition. According to the saying the “end justifies the means” – let us hope that here the “end does justice to the means”.

Written By
New African

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