It was the Friday of another Longest Week and I was ploughing through the mud at the swampy finale to the War & Peace Show’s life at the Beltring Hop Farm when I saw a man in uniform who really caught my eye. Amidst the thousands donned in all shades of khaki, DPM and grey was a chap wearing RAF blue. I rushed over to him and asked to take his photo and he was pleasantly surprised. I am so glad I made the effort and the photo needs no further comment, does it?
We have here an entertaining and rewarding book that advances the story of the men who left Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean to serve in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. This is one of those neglected facets of history which often places the men as one dimensional footnotes in bigger stories and it is high time we had more books like this one plugging the knowledge gap and setting a few things straight.
Of course, a book like this cannot ignore the paradox that so many men volunteered to fight for freedom in the war while not actually enjoying the benefits of it as colonial subjects of Britain’s empire. It also has to take on the realities of racism, subtle or overt, that clearly existed in those days and, if we are honest, have far from vanished today. I find it very hard getting my head round what would motivate a young man to leave home to fight in a war that we could say is not his. Thankfully the author quotes examples of men who did just that and we learn that they were inspired to fight against Nazi Germany because they could differentiate between the evil of the Third Reich on the one hand and the generally benign nature of British rule on the other. I will not stand here and defend colonialism, we live with the negative impacts of it’s legacy every day in some form or another. Almost all the former British territories in the Caribbean are fully independent states today and it is fascinating to know how the war fits in with their outlook on colonial times.
Racism is a tougher one to handle, because the author wants to tell you about the men who served, and not enter into a long missive about the horrible nature of it. He treads a careful path and I think he has done well. It made sense to compare the experience of Caribbean men in the service of the British to the segregated men and women serving in the forces of the United States at that time, hence the comparison with the fabled Tuskagee Airmen. I have in mind a revealing photo of a party of black US Army nurses arriving in sunny Glasgow in 1943 being filmed for home news consumption to make the desired point to a domestic audience while several white men look on with what appears to be utter contempt.
The heroes of this book do meet racism in many forms and strengths at stages along their personal journeys but the author balances this with how well they were received and the friendships they developed with the white comrades they shared the war with. The popular modern political catchphrase all in it together genuinely rings true in this case. But none of these positives should invite any sense of naivety.
The book diverts a little with a look at the less happy experience of men from West Africa, because the author explains the link with that part of the world back in the West Indies was very strong due to the iniquities of the past when slavery was rife. I can see the point to this, but feel it is the subject of another book and is something of a digression here.
I can’t help but feel the book has been aimed more at the Caribbean market as it does with an audience with greater access to the wider story of the conflict. It would appear some or all has been published previously and the way notes on the general history of the war are added implies that the author is reaching out to a home audience who are probably very detached from the events of World War 2. The people of the Caribbean have every reason to be proud of the wonderful men in this book. Their contributions and achievements are every bit as important and valuable to all of us as any established hero of the war. I admire them immensely.
So, what we have is a solid history introducing some wonderful characters. It manages to tackle the thorny stuff but doesn’t get distracted or swamped by it. For this we have to credit the author and I hope he continues with more histories of the Caribbean experience of World War Two. He finds time to describe how dangerous the region was for shipping. My late father-in-law served in the Merchant Navy and spent a good while transporting bauxite from Trinidad through the U-Boat infested waters of those most idyllic looking but dangerous seas. This is just one aspect a genuine local interpretation would make most interesting. I am sure there are many others.
The airmen in this book are a top class bunch who went through a lot to serve King and Empire, or whatever else they were fighting for. The sun may have well and truly set, but a warm glow illuminates a group you can and should hold to your hearts. Great stuff.
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
CARIBBEAN VOLUNTEERS AT WAR
The Forgotten Story of the RAF’s ‘Tuskagee Airmen’
By Mark Johnson
Pen & Sword Aviation
ISBN: 978 1 78346 291 9