Book review… West Indians in the Second World War

Colonialism, enthusiasm and racism converge in these three books − Caribbean Wars Untold: A Salute to the British West Indies; A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: World War Two Experiences of a West Indian Officer in the RAF and,  British Other Ranks: Memories of John R. Miggins, A Caribbean Veteran of World War II. Separately and together, they create highly readable narratives of West Indian participation in the two World Wars that so badly wounded humanity during the 20th century.

The main theatres of the wars were far away in Europe, Africa and Asia. Despite the distance, however, the people of the West Indies – one of the most intensely colonized regions on earth – felt committed to support Great Britain and its allies on both occasions. They flocked to enlist in military forces in droves but their enthusiasm was often misplaced and their efforts requited with rejection and racism. In the end, their experiences reflected a mixture of satisfaction over their participation in these historic events and frustration at having been regarded as less than equal to combatants of European birth.

The wars were significant for several reasons beyond merely sending soldiers overseas to participate in the quarrels of other nations. They marked a rise in consciousness of West Indians who participated. Eventually, they marked also the germination of the desire of the populace to change the status of the colonies and the start of the movement for self-determination and independence.

These books, although not the first of the genre, have appeared nearly seventy years after the start of the Second World War. They go a far way towards filling an information void and correcting the lack of knowledge about the West Indian experience, although not far enough. They all set as their objective the intention to tell the story of West Indian involvement which, hitherto, has been ‘untold.’

The binary themes of these books are West Indian enthusiasm and British official racism. For reasons which the books explain frankly, it was not surprising that recognition of the contributions of the West Indians – the ‘invisible veterans’ − has generally been scant. Official ceremonies and commemorative events sponsored by the victorious allies and the flurry of books, movies, music and other expressions of popular culture and other have hardly acknowledged the debt to the Caribbean.

Caribbean Wars Untold: A Salute to the British West Indies sets out to survey warfare in the region’s entire 500-year history, perhaps over-ambitiously. Much of the story of the post-European irruption into the Caribbean has been told more competently and taught in high schools by academic historians over the last 50 years. Several specialised texts – Bryan Dyde’s The Empty Sleeve: The Story of the West India Regiments of the British Army and Roger Norman Bailey’s The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age, for example – have been published.

This book, therefore, does not add to or improve on such scholarship and offers no fresh insights into warfare up to the 19th century. When it starts to assess the ‘Impact of the First and Second World Wars,’ however, it enters into more familiar territory and a clearer picture of regional and global geopolitics begins to emerge.

Metzgen and Graham restate the now well-known fact that, in the First World War, “Non-white soldiers saw little combat and in the main were assigned to the task of carrying ammunition. Although they were in uniform and had military training, they were treated by the authorities as labour units…” The Second World War started with a similar mindset and an unwillingness to welcome West Indians: “Whitehall informed colonial governments that they should dissuade members of their communities from volunteering for military service and, instead, encourage them to remain in their peacetime jobs to increase the output of local resources.”

Metzgen and Graham show, however, that as the German military successes early in the Second World War devoured British lives, official policies changed. West Indian foresters were recruited from British Honduras to cut timber albeit uncomfortably and in unsuitable clothing in Scotland and Wales for the war effort. West Indian women who at first had been discouraged from entering the Auxiliary Territorial Service were admitted. West Indian men, similarly, who had initially been rejected for recruitment into the supposedly élite Royal Air Force were also admitted and even sought as the air war known as the ‘Battle of Britain’ depleted the ranks of “the few.”

Many infantry soldiers, mobilised first in the North Caribbean Force headquartered in Jamaica and the South Caribbean Force headquartered in Trinidad, were organised into the 1st battalion of the Caribbean Regiment. Official policies, unfortunately, had changed much faster than personal attitudes. The book notes, in sum: “The Caribbean experience of wartime service had been a largely negative one, just as it had been for the previous generation in the Great War – a story of undervalued loyalty, unwanted assistance and frustrated enthusiasm.”

Metzgen and Graham also devote three chapters to ‘The War at Sea’ which involved attacks by German U-Boats and responses by the USA and UK to protect the shipping lanes for the valuable bauxite and petroleum supplies. This form of warfare involving the establishment of US bases and the influx of military personnel had everything to do with Allied needs within the Caribbean maritime environment. Expectedly, the colonies were either sitting ducks or frightened onlookers to this deadly clash of the big navies.

Cy Grant’s – A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: World War Two Experiences of a West Indian Officer in the RAF – would be particularly interesting to local readers. It is valuable both for its human interest and as an authentic, first-person testimony of the best-known Guyanese prisoner-of-war. Born in Beterverwagting Village, East Coast Demerara, of mixed parentage, the swarthy Grant was photographed for a Nazi propaganda newspaper after he was captured. Described as Ein mitgleid der Royal Air Force von unbestimmbarer rasse, translated as ‘a member of the Royal Air Force of indeterminate race,’ those words were to become the title of this readable book.

Grant sets out to make the public aware of the “historic contribution made by West Indian and West African aircrew in World War 2.” He cites a long list of officers, including Squadron Leader Ulric Cross of Trinidad, and Flying Officers Cecil Miller of Guyana and Errol Barrow of Barbados to prove his point that West Indians were not inferior to persons of British birth.

The presence of West Indians, especially as officers, was remarkable because the original Air Force (Constitution) Act restricted entry into the Royal Air Force to “men of pure European descent” except under exceptional circumstances. As a result of the loss of thousands of aircrew in the early months of the Second World War, however, persons of colour from the Caribbean and elsewhere were allowed entry.

Unlike Metzgen and Graham who attempted to paint a broad, strategic picture of warfare, Grant’s semi-biographical − A Member of the RAF − is highly personal. It has been embroidered with his own poetry and propounds his own strong opinions about peace, race and his place in the world. Largely because Grant was able to maintain a journal of his imprisonment that was supplemented by his own research and that of others after the War, it makes engaging reading.

Grant participated in only three combat missions before the Lancaster bomber of which he was navigator was shot down. He survived and was imprisoned for two years until liberated by the USSR’s Red Army.

Like Grant’s, Miggins’s book − British Other Ranks − is, essentially, a personal memoir. Born in Den Amstel Village, West Coast Demerara, Miggins was motivated to write his memoirs for his “grandchildren and for generations to come” and claims that he was driven to volunteer for the war because of two events. First was Italy’s war of aggression against Ethiopia in 1935 and second was German disrespect for the African-American athlete Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Even though a mere teenager, he was angered and, when the opportunity came, he cheerfully enlisted in the british Guiana Battalion in December 1943.

Miggins’s narrative traces his voyage first to Trinidad where the South Caribbean Force concentrated, then to Jamaica where the North Caribbean Force concentrated and then further on to Virginia, USA. The two forces amalgamated as the 1st Battalion, Caribbean Regiment and crossed the Atlantic to land in Salerno, Italy.

As with Grant, Miggins selected the title of his book as the result of a racial incident. As West Indians had succeeded in shedding or suppressing their inter-island hostility by the time the Caribbean Regiment reached Egypt, they came into conflict with South African soldiers who were also deployed there. The military authorities were reluctant to refer to the soldiers from the Caribbean as ‘Africans’ yet, calling them ‘English’ was unthinkable. The solution was to call them ‘British other ranks.’

This folksy little book contains a trove of anecdotal trivia at which present-day readers may marvel − his first weekly pay-cheque in Trindad was for the grand sum of BWI $5.04 cents of which he sent half to his mother; his first pay in Italy was 250 lira, made up of three currency notes which he never spent but kept as mementos – for example. It is also contains a 15-page album of photographs and copies of documents including the author’s Certificate of Service and Certificate of Discharge from the British Guiana Battalion.

For the public at large, but especially for military veterans and historians who are interested in the Second World War, these three books − Caribbean Wars Untold: A Salute to the British West Indies; A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: World War Two Experiences of a West Indian Officer in the RAF and, British Other Ranks: Memories of John R. Miggins, A Caribbean Veteran of World War II – are educational  and entertaining chronicles.

These books do not pretend to be objective history. Their objective is to foster pride. Their value lies in their ability to explore emotions and events and to appeal to the region’s home readership to recognize the contribution of the Caribbean people to the Allied war effort. In so doing, they have made their case convincingly.

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