Image: Part of the Imperial War Museum Film Frames Collection. West Indies Calling – © IWM IWM FLM 3842
By Dr. Heather Norris Nicholson – KLTV Contributor
For centuries people of African Caribbean heritage have contributed to the defence and security of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. Musicians of African and Caribbean heritage are now well-documented from the Tudor period, but a remarkable continuous history of regular involvement in regimental life – including soldiers, drummers and trumpeters – is newly emerging from meticulous research into army records that give personal details long before modern census-taking began.
Prior to the First World War, African Caribbean soldiers had been serving with the West India Regiment – an infantry unit in the regular British Army – since 1795.
When the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was set up in 1915, over 16,000 men from the Caribbean served in different locations during the First World War.
Among them also was the Tottenham football player Walter Tull (whose father was from Barbados) who became the first-ever dual heritage African Caribbean officer in the British Army, and the first to lead white soldiers into battle. He fought in Italy in 1917-1918, was cited for gallantry and killed in action in northern France in 1918. William Robinson Clarke, Britain’s first Black pilot, flew biplanes over the western front in 1917 and received many campaign medals.
Over 15,000 men and women from the Caribbean also volunteered during the Second World, particularly as aircrew and ground staff with the RAF. They worked in combatant and non-fighting roles and also in many other auxiliary and key roles with other forces. They were posted to many locations including the Western Front, Italy, Palestine, East Africa, Cameroon and Togo.
Well-respected and welcomed for their contribution to the fight against fascism, when peacetime returned, many found themselves no longer wanted and obliged to return to the Caribbean.
A surviving document from the BBC’s Written Archives reveals a broadcast from London to the Caribbean in April 1948. The script begins, “The Colonial Office have announced that the last big draft of airmen for repatriation will sail from Tilbury on May 8th on the Empire Windrush.”
The broadcast describes how 500 “ordinary airmen” on board had recently completed a variety of vocational training courses and were apparently eager to return to their homes and families. They were among the last of the West Indian service men and women recruited during World War II to return to the Caribbean.
Yet, within a few weeks, some ex-service personnel travelled to Britain for fresh opportunities to help the ‘Motherland’, on boats including the Empire Windrush, unaware that their return as civvies would be greatly needed but less welcome.
Part of a still neglected wartime contribution dovetails with other narratives that do not do justice to the longer history of Caribbean links with Britain over many centuries in times of peacetime and war.