The month of November is unique in Britain because amongst the flood of Christmas advertising that seems to commence earlier each year, we also tend to see many people wearing a poppy. The poppy has been used as a symbol of remembrance for military personnel since 1921, originally inspired by the world-renowned war poem “In Flanders Fields.”
The Facts and Figures
WWII was the deadliest conflict the world has ever known with over 60 million military and civilian deaths at the hands of war violence. This violence included massacres, deliberate genocide, strategic bombing and the first use of nuclear weapons in history, which led to Japanese surrender and marking the end of the war.
When the count is expanded to include deaths that were caused by war-related famine and disease, the total casualty figure balloons to a stomach-churning estimate of 80 million people, which was around 4% of the world’s population at that time. If that war was to have taken place today, that would be equal to 280million deaths. Aside from death, there also would have been an unknown number of people, partners, families and communities who suffered the psychological effects of war. The trauma of loss, violence and life-changing injury would no doubt have left a collective wound on the psyches of tens of millions more.
In Britain, the way we remember the war is often through lessons in school, visiting museums, the annual Poppy Appeal, TV specials and newspaper articles. But there is a gaping hole in the national state school curriculum in regards to how the war is taught, and the silence is deafening.
I studied History at GCSE level and it was undoubtedly my favourite subject, just ahead of biology. But one thing I can remember very vividly, and something that I am only realising in retrospect, is the complete omission of the contribution of black and brown volunteers, combative and non-combative, from my learning experience. Literally millions of black and brown citizens left their homelands to fight for Britain and other Allied powers, and yet not once was this mentioned throughout my time studying history at school.
While it’s sad that so many were willing to risk a brutal death, disease and disfiguration for countries that colonised theirs, the complex nature of the relationship between the colonised and the colonisers is such that allows this to happen – and something that cannot be given the discussion it deserves in this article. But what is wholeheartedly infuriating, though perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, is that that our national curriculum doesn’t honour them with the same amount of respect as the European soldiers we learn about. Not only does it not honour them – it doesn’t even mention them.
They made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live comfortably today, right now, and yet they don’t even make it as a footnote in our history texts. Why is this omission of history allowed to occur? Why doesn’t our national curriculum pay homage to them just like it does for the others?
This may not be the case in every school, and it goes without saying that people with a deeper, personal interest in history will probably have already been aware of the black contribution to the war. But for it to be omitted from the national curriculum is a profound injustice as it continues the disparity in remembrance. If it wasn’t for the contribution of black and brown soldiers, the war may well have gone a different way. And considering we are reminded year on year to respect the veterans who fought for our freedoms, it’s a deep hypocrisy for such a huge chunk of them to be looked over.
Though there are some conflicting reports on numbers, it can be said with relevant certainty that around 16,000 West Indians (people from the Caribbean islands) volunteered for service alongside the British during the WWII. They served in all areas of the war effort – the service branches such as cooks and drivers, the Navy, the Royal Air Force and as on-foot land soldiers.
Of these 16,000 volunteers, around 100 were women – eighty of which opted to serve in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) while the other twenty served in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Additionally, upwards of 40,000 West Indians opted to join the various branches of the civilian war effort in the United States, which was situated closer to them.
According to anecdotal evidence, many Caribbean men and women who volunteered did so enthusiastically. Most jumped at the chance to help what was then considered as their “motherland”, and saw it as an honour to fight for king and country. But it wasn’t always that easy.
Even though the need for extra help was glaringly obvious, rampant racist attitudes against black people in Britain meant that the Government and Army officials were unwilling to let them enlist. Black men and women who volunteered to serve were often turned away, with Winston Churchill even sending telegrams to the High Commission suggesting they find some ‘administrative means’ to reject black volunteers. However, eventually, the sheer need for manpower meant that Britain began calling on its black populations both at home and throughout the Commonwealth.
Victor Brown: A Personal Account
Victor Brown is just one example – a 96 year old Jamaican man who fought with the British Merchant Navy, joining at aged just 16. In 1942, he was one of only two black men serving on an oil tanker in the North Atlantic when it was torpedoed by the Nazis. He is credited with saving several lives on board and still remembers the incident vividly. During a reunion with his ex-crewmate Winston Murphy in 2015 for a BBC documentary, he recalled going out to the deck and being able to see the periscope of a Nazi submarine out of the water.
Sensing the danger, he used an axe to cut down a lifeboat, and cleared the vessel. “If we’d have left it, the ship would have eventually dragged the lifeboat down with it,” he said. Winston Murphy, the only other black member of the 42-strong crew, was among the survivors. Over seventy years on he said he has never forgotten his friend’s quick thinking. “Had he not chopped that rope we would never have got clear of that boat,” he added.
According to the BBC, more than 1 million African troops fought for the Allies all over the world, taking part in campaigns in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, Italy and the Far East. They hailed from all over the African continent, including but not limited to: Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Somalia and Tanzania. Profoundly, this campaign has been quoted as being the largest single movement of African men overseas since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Around 90,000 West African soldiers fought in Burma (now Myanmar, which borders Thailand) against the Japanese, helping Britain to emerge victorious. Like their West Indian counterparts, they served as foot soldiers, in the service branches, in the seas with the Navy and in the air with the RAF.
Johnny Smythe: A Personal Account
Johnny Smythe was born in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Johnny volunteered to help in the war effort and joined the RAF. After studying to become a navigator, he was posted to a bomber squadron. He was a successful navigator, but on his 28th mission in November 1943 his luck ran dry and his plane was bombarded at 16,000ft by German fighters. In an account archived in the Imperial War Museum, he recalls:
“They raked the fuselage and there were flames everywhere. Then the searchlights caught us. I was hit by shrapnel. Pieces came from underneath, piercing my abdomen, going through my side. Another came through my seat and into my groin. I heard the pilot ordering us to bail out.”
Johnny parachuted to the ground and hid in a barn, where he was found by the Germans.
“Men in uniform came into the barn where I was hiding behind some straw. Then they opened up, raking the place with automatic fire. I decided to give in. The Germans couldn’t believe their eyes. I’m sure that’s what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man – and an officer at that – was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing.”
He was then sent to a prisoner-of-war camp for officers in Pomerania where he helped on the escape committee, but couldn’t break himself out: “I don’t think a six-foot-five black man would’ve got very far in Pomerania, somehow.”
But miraculously, the Russians freed Johnny in 1945, and he recalled a Russian Army Officer embracing him and giving him vodka, adding: “I was fêted because I was black.”
Over 2.5 million black men and women registered for the U.S. draft while almost 1 million black Americans were actively serving in the U.S. Army, helping fight for the Allies. African American troops were still faced with inhumane treatment even while serving their country – not only was there segregation at home, but it also existed within the forces.
About 78% were in the service branches acting as cooks, drivers and janitors because of the racist stereotype that black people were lazy and incompetent. And despite early protests that black nurses treating white soldiers would not be appropriate, the War Department relented, and the first group of African-American nurses in the Army Nurse Corps arrived in England in 1944.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the commonly held racist beliefs in the U.S., most African-American soldiers fought within all-black units – one such unit being the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Their first assignment was on Utah and Omaha beaches on the D-Day invasion of 1944. The role of these brave soldiers was to deploy and maintain a curtain of explosive barrage balloons that were dangerous to enemy aircraft, thus deterring them from attacking the beaches effectively.
Waverly Woodson, Jr.: A Personal Account
Waverly Bernard “Woody” Woodson, Jr., left his studies at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in his second year and enlisted in the US Army on December 15, 1942. When he finished training, he was sent for training as a medic in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. He was one of five medics aboard a Landing Craft Tank (LCT) that left England on June 5, 1944.
In an account from his widow Joann, the LCT hit a mine and then was blasted by a shell, killing scores of men. Shrapnel sliced open Woodson’s buttocks and inner thigh. He was patched up and followed a tank onto Omaha Beach, where he worked through his pain and saved many lives. She tells:“He pulled out bullets, patched gaping wounds, and dispensed blood plasma. He amputated a right foot. When he thought he could do no more, he resuscitated four drowning men. Thirty hours after he set his boots on Omaha Beach, (he) collapsed.” In a news release dated August 28, 1944, the Army recounted Woodson’s heroics, noting he “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery on D-Day.” The black press hailed him as “No. 1 Invasion Hero.”
Despite the incredible bravery of Waverly Woodson and other soldiers like him, no black soldiers received the highest-ranking Medal of Honour during or immediately after the war. This was highlighted by a Shaw University study concluding that racial discrimination and prejudice was the reason behind this. As a result, then-President Bill Clinton awarded seven African American veterans the Medal in 1997. Sadly, Waverly Woodson was not one of the seven, of whom only one person was still alive to actually receive the Medal.
The research that has been conducted for this article, and the stories pulled, are a tiny number amongst the millions of war stories that other black men and women would have had to tell. It’s imperative that we keep these stories and narratives alive even after the subjects themselves have passed on.
Black people across the world played a huge part in winning the war and allowing us to live the life we know today but yet have gone largely unrecognised throughout our classroom history texts. The classroom is often many children’s first port of call in learning about the war, and it’s important for them to get as full and rich a picture as possible.
Whether you are black, white or otherwise, we must recognise the sacrifices that all soldiers made for us. But black soldiers made a unique sacrifice in that they risked their lives in the face of rampant racism from the very countries they fought to protect. It is therefore not important we remember them – it is imperative.
So, this Poppy Season, give an extra few moments to spare a thought for those selfless black heroes.
Written by Siana Byfield