During the Second World War, black volunteers from across the British Empire enthusiastically joined the armed forces and played their part in fighting Nazi Germany and its allies. In the air, sea and on land, they risked their lives, but little attention is ever given to the thousands of black British, Caribbean, American and African servicemen and women who supported the British war efforts from 1939–45.
After Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces. From 1914 black Britons volunteered at recruitment centres and were joined by West Indian colonials. They travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ at their own expense to take part in the fight against the Germans.
Soon after the war began, soldiers were recruited from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies. They helped to defend the borders of their countries which adjoined German territories and played an important role in the campaigns to remove the Germans from Africa. Throughout the war, 60,000 black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units.
Britain recruited approx.. 600,000 African men to fight against the Axis powers, from the Italians in the Horn of Africa to Vichy French forces in Madagascar to the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
The Caribbean Regiment (also known as the Carib Regiment) was formed in April 1944 of 1,200 volunteers. It was a unit of the British Army during World War II. The regiment went overseas in July 1944 and saw service in the Middle East and Italy.
There had been resistance to form the regiment, but those who made their own way to the UK were able to enlist. Almost 10,000 West Indians travelled to Britain and joined the army.
Traditionally, African Americans have been removed or understated in the narratives of World War II, particularly the D-Day invasion at Normandy. The collective story from military historians has been that “the only black soldiers to land on D-Day had lent their muscle to labor units and other support work.”
But this is not the case at all as the following excerpt shows from Linda Hervieux’s book ‘Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War.’
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the all African-American 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion “landed on the beaches of France with orders to man a curtain of armed balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft.” Under heavy enemy fire, the men of the 320th desperately tried to stay alive and get their balloons up in the air. The work of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion allowed Allied soldiers to storm the beaches and seize the much-needed D-Day victory that turned the tide of World War II in the Allies’ favor.
Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War. A journalist and photographer by trade, Hervieux crafts a detailed, vivid narrative of the role the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion played in World War II.
An army unit known as the “Six Triple Eight” had a specific mission in World War II: to sort and clear a two-year backlog of mail for Americans stationed in Europe. Between the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Red Cross and uniformed civilian specialists, that amounted to seven million people waiting for mail.
And the responsibility to deliver all of it fell on the shoulders of 855 African-American women.
From February 1945 to March 1946, the women of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion distributed mail in warehouses in England and France. Because of a shortage of resources and manpower, letters and packages had been accumulating in warehouses for months.
Part of the Women’s Army Corps, known as WACs, the 6888 had a motto, “No mail, low morale.” But these women did far more than distribute letters and packages. As the largest contingent of black women to ever serve overseas, they dispelled stereotypes and represented a change in racial and gender roles in the military.
The death toll for black merchant seamen during World War Two was high. Thousands perished, while others died serving with the Royal Air Force and the Army.
Away from the frontline, life also presented challenges. Many servicemen struggled to adapt to Britain's cold climate and had to fend off racial prejudice. Despite their countless sacrifices, some veterans feel their war time experiences have been forgotten and have spent their lifetimes fighting for equality.
Caribbean Voices evolved out of the BBC’s first programme for Caribbean listeners, Calling the West Indies, launched in 1939 to give West Indian soldiers in the British army an opportunity to connect with family at home during the Second World War by reading letters on air to family at home in the Caribbean. Jamaican writer and activist Una Marson was hired in 1941 to work on the original programme, and by the following year she had become the West Indies producer, turning the programme, renamed Caribbean Voices, into a forum where Caribbean writing was broadcast.
Want to read more? Here are some informative anc captivating books by author By Stephen Bourne.
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SOURCES: History.com, The Root, Caribbean archives, BBC archive, The History Press, Military History of African Americans,