West Indies Regiment

Black History Month: The Vital Part African & Caribbean Troops Played In The World Wars

West Indies Regiment

As October is Black History Month in the UK, Forces News takes a look at the contribution that black soldiers have made to the British military. 

This year has already been a positive one in terms of celebrating these achievements; back in June the first memorial to the contributions of African and Carribean servicemen and women was unveiled in Brixton.

Black soldiers served in both World Wars in the British military and fighting for the allies, with many paying their own passage from the Caribbean to serve for their “mother country” as it was then known.

Such were the numbers in which they signed up that “The British West Indies Regiment” was created in 1916, with the first battalion formed in Seaford, East Sussex.

By the end of the war 11 battalions comprising more than 15,000 soldiers - 66% of whom came from Jamaica - had seen action.

The unit was an outstanding one, with servicemen receiving 81 medals for bravery, and 49 mentioned in despatches.

55,000 men from Africa were also recruited for military service, hailing from Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

While African troops did not serve on the European battlefields, they fought in the Middle East and Africa.

It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed with 166 receiving awards for bravery.

Paul Reid, Director of the Black Cultural Archives said at the time of the unveiling:

“The histories of World Wars often overlook the significant contributions made by African and Caribbean soldiers.

“However, today we can proudly mark the recognition of their bravery and sacrifice to the struggles of independence.”

We take a look at the stories of some of those brave men and women who gave their service in defence of the nation.

Eugene Bullard 

In 1994 Eugene Bullard, one of the few black pilots in the First World War, was posthumously commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force.

However, Bullard never fought for the US. After running away from the States and making his way to Europe, Bullard settled in Paris and joined the French Foreign Legion.

Following that, despite his colour at a time when racial discrimination formed social policy, Bullard was allowed to join the Aéronautique Militaire, and he received his wings in 1917.

During his lifetime Bullard was given 15 honours by the French government, including being made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Allan was typical of the men and women from the Caribbean who answered the call.

"I can remember when I wake up in the morning and I would thank God that I'm still alive because with a minesweeper you can get blown up at any moment."

Countries in the Caribbean and Africa were greatly affected during the world wars, sending manpower, materials and money to aid the war effort.

However, as time has passed some of the veterans now feel that their contribution to the war effort has faded into the background, and in some cases completely ignored.

Allan Wilmot
Allan Wilmot

The National Army Museum has tried to set the record straight, and a new programme hopes to shed light on the contribution of overseas soldiers. Dr Peter Johnston said:

"80% of the army that fights in Burma is not white, so drawn from Africa, drawn from India [and other places], which is an amazing contribution."

Baroness Flather, an Asian peer, has also campaigned for those efforts to be remembered and pushed for a permanent reminder. 

Dulcie and David

Abiodun Oguntoye and Ethel Adunola Oguntoye (née King)

In August 1942, at the age of 19, Dulcie King joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. There, she served for two years as an equipment assistant.

After Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Flight Sergeant King was posted as an education instructor to RAF Bicester, near Oxford.

David Oguntoye was a school supervisor in Nigeria when, in 1942, he volunteered for the RAF. After arriving in England in 1943, he was selected to train as a navigator.

Following the war, Flight Sergeant Oguntoye was posted to Bicester as a welfare officer for the Caribbean airmen stationed there.

And in the summer of 1946, just a year after the war ended, he met Duclie and they fell in love.

This sparked disapproval in many friends and colleagues, who didn’t like the fact that Duclie had chosen a black boyfriend.

Such was their disdain that, on one occasion, David was attacked by a group of airman.

However, the couple continued to be seen together, marrying on 16 November 1946.

In 1964, David was selected as a Court President while Dulcie became first a Magistrate and, in 1976, a High Court Judge.

David died in June 1997, but Dulcie lives in Nigeria where she is a tribal chief and ‘benevolent matriarch’ to her late husband’s family.

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