Stephen Bourne has thirty years’ experience writing about black British history, his best-known work being ‘Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community and the Great War’.
Here, he discusses his latest book, ‘Under Fire’, which concerns the lives of black servicemen and women, as well as those doing important work on the home front (‘front-liners’), during World War 2.
Article by Stephen Bourne
When I am asked why I became interested in history I give a simple answer: I was influenced by the older women in my family. It was the 1970s, I was a teenager, and I spent a lot of time listening to my working-class grandmother and great-aunts who had all lived through the Second World War and still remembered it vividly.
They would describe in detail the terrors of nightly air-raids on London, and food rationing, but overall, they kept their sense of humour throughout.
I was especially intrigued by their memories of life on the home front.
One of the older women amongst them was Aunt Esther, a black Londoner who had been adopted into the family by my white great grandmother in 1941, during the London Blitz. It is because of her that my interest in history came to include the experiences of black citizens during the period, and helping to document this later became a big part of my work.
Like many, Aunt Esther’s wartime experience had been eventful, but she was not atypical in this regard. And as I began to talk to more black people who had been alive during the war, it became clear that a lot of history books and documentaries seldom include much, if anything, on the contribution of people like my aunt to Britain’s war effort.
In spite of racism, black people from across the British Empire, from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, came forward to help fight the Axis powers.
For those already in Britain, like Aunt Esther, black citizens were under fire along with the rest of the population.
Many volunteered to be civilian defence workers, such as firewatchers, air-raid wardens, firemen, stretcher-bearers, first aid workers and mobile canteen personnel.
Additional factory workers, foresters and nurses were also recruited from across the Empire, including from Africa and the Caribbean. The efforts of these people were crucial to the home front.
Then there were the Armed Forces, and many black servicemen helped bolster numbers in the RAF, the Army and the Royal Navy.
The black British experience was, in many ways, better than that of black American servicemen.
There are stories of white British people finding the hard line on racial segregation in the American military to be shocking.
Social lives, and, during the war, the services, were not racially divided in Britain.
A prominent example of a literal clash between these two cultures was the 1943 Battle of Bamber Bridge. This occurred when American military policemen got into a dispute in a pub with a black American serviceman.
British people took his side of the argument against the MPs. The dispute eventually led to a street fight, and later a gun battle.
The author Anthony Burgess had spent time in the village of Bamber Bridge during the war and reported that when US military authorities requested pub landlords enact a US-style colour bar, they went along with it. Their signs read:
“Black Troops Only.”
And yet, Britain of course had not always been a place of complete racial equality either.
Colour bars had existed in the British Armed Forces before the war, though this was lifted in 1939. (See the link below for more on this within the RAF, and on Britain’s comparatively progressive attitude to black service personnel during World War 2).
It may seem strange then, given past injustices and military segregation that had existed right up until the war, that black people would aid a country which had not, and did not, always treat them with equality.
Yet, the need to win the war, and to avoid Nazi victory and occupation, outweighed these concerns.
Sam King, a Jamaican who joined the Royal Air Force in 1944, said:
“I don’t think the British Empire was perfect, but it was better than Nazi Germany.”
There was also hope that, after the war, the British Empire would be dismantled and independence would come.
In all of my books, I have included first-hand testimonies of the people who made up this history. I do not come from an academic background and so academic theory and jargon are not part of my approach to recording and writing history. Instead, I use a number of first-hand testimonies to help to give an insight, in the case of Under Fire, into what the war was like for many black people living in or serving with Britain.
I was not always able to get first-hand testimonies myself, so for anyone I was unable to speak to directly, I instead searched the public domain for prior interviews they may have done. This often meant going through various archives (i.e. the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives, the BBC) to find the testimonies.
Having stitched together all those I could find in archives with interviews I conducted myself, I ended up with a wide range of testimonies. These came from evacuees, those who experienced the London Blitz and flying bombs, who were in the Royal Air Force, were prisoners of war, in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and those with memories of VE Day.
I have also included interviews with black elders from my community who willingly described life on the home front in the colonies at that time.
Among the many servicemen and women who are featured in Under Fire is the Trinidadian Ulric Cross (1917 - 2013), who served as an officer in the RAF.
He later explained that he enlisted because he was ‘young, adventurous and idealistic’.
Until 1941, many black 'colonials' from West Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered for the RAF were still being rejected (the colour bar had gone, but not all the prejudices had). However, after the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF realised they had to move with the times.
In 1941, with 250 other Trinidadians, Cross was accepted into the RAF and made the journey to Britain.
Of that group, 52 were killed in action.
Ulric Cross was one of those lucky enough to survive. Furthermore, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DSC) and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) - two of the RAF’s highest honours - for his fine service.
He said of his time in the Royal Air Force:
“I felt I was doing the right thing in trying to stop Hitler. I never felt I was going to the aid of the mother country. Some people did but I would say the majority of us didn’t. Reasons differ, but certainly, for myself, you’re young, this was a tremendous adventure and you were doing it for the right reasons.”
The book also features testimonies from many others. Lilian Bader (1918 - 2015), for instance, was a British-born servicewoman who I had the pleasure of befriending in the early 1990s. She was born in Liverpool to a Barbadian seaman who served in the First World War and his British-born wife.
Lilian found employment in domestic service but, when the war broke out, she was determined to support the war effort.
Resilient, resourceful and patriotic, Lilian succeeded in enlisting with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941 and was sent to York. She found herself to be:
“ … the only coloured person in this sea of white faces but somebody told me I looked smart in my uniform which cheered me no end.”
She trained as an instrument repairer, one of the new trades open to women.
In the WAAF, Lilian worked hard, passed her exams and became a First-Class Airwoman, and in December 1941, a Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW.) Soon afterwards, she was promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal.
Through an ex-landlady in Yorkshire, Lilian made contact with a young British-born mixed-race soldier called Ramsay Bader. He was a tank driver serving with 147 (Essex Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. The two exchanged letters and photographs and Lilian immediately felt attracted to Ramsay. She said:
“Even in the ugly khaki battle dress, he looked like an officer.”
Lilian and Ramsay were married in Hull in 1943 and Lilian’s chances of further promotion in the WAAF were curtailed when she discovered she was expecting a baby.
The following year was a particularly trying time for the couple, since Ramsey was one of the thousands of soldiers engaged in the June 6 D-Day landings. Lilian was most anxious and prayed that her husband would survive, which he thankfully did.
Dr Harold Moody (1882 - 1947) was undoubtedly the most important black community leader in Britain during the war.
Born in Jamaica, he had made south London his home during the Edwardian period (1901 – 1914) and by the 1930s he had become more than just a popular family doctor. He was also an ambassador for Britain’s black community and an important figurehead who – with his organisation, the League of Coloured Peoples – campaigned to improve the situation of black people in Britain, especially during the war.
The League’s influence as a pressure group, under Dr Moody’s leadership, intensified during the war. Thousands of black workers and military personnel came to Britain from colonies in West Africa and the Caribbean to support the war effort, and this increased the workload of Dr Moody and the League. On the other hand, it also gave him and the organisation greater purpose and influence.
And finally, Aunt Esther’s wartime activities involved dangerous work on the home front. She was one of the ‘mobile women’ who risked their lives by volunteering to be fire-watchers – in her case, on the roof of the Brompton Hospital where she was employed as a ward cleaner. If an incendiary bomb landed on the hospital, she would put out the flames.
Aunt Esther passed away in 1994 at the age of 81, but she was proud of the part she played in the British war effort, and for what black people of her generation did for the ‘mother country’ during those difficult, challenging and dangerous times.
Their contribution has not been forgotten and I am thrilled to have played a part in keeping their stories alive.
For more, pick up a copy of Stephen Bourne’s book ‘Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime 1939 – 45’ from History Press. It can be purchased here.
And click here for our report on the RAF Museum’s exhibit ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’, which looked at the involvement of black service personnel in the Royal Air Force during both world wars. (Unfortunately, the exhibit is now closed, but an online version can be found here).