Prior to the First World War, West Indian soldiers had been serving with the West India Regiment – an infantry unit in the regular British Army – since 1795. Following the outbreak of war, many West Indians volunteered to serve. This willingness stemmed from loyalty to the British Empire. Some hoped that their support in the war would bring political reform at home in the West Indies. In 1915, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was created and over 16,000 men from the West Indies served as part of this in the First World War. They were posted to many locations including the Western Front, Italy, Palestine, East Africa, Cameroon and Togo.
During the Second World War thousands of men and women from the Caribbean were recruited into the British war effort. Over five thousand served with the Royal Air Force on ground and aircrew duties. Thousands more were employed in the Merchant Navy and in civilian war work where volunteers helped ease the manpower situation. Women from the Caribbean also played their part in the tasks of defence: serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.
Caribbean Participants in the First World War
Approximately 15,600 men of the British West Indies Regiment served with the Allied forces at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Jamaica contributed two-thirds of these volunteers, while others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Grenada, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent. Nearly 5,000 more subsequently volunteered to join up. Over 1,200 of these soldiers were killed or died, while more than 2,500 were wounded. In total, 86 metals were won for gallantry on the battlefield and 49 men were mentioned in dispatches.
After the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, West Indian men made numerous unsuccessful attempts to join the British Army. By April 1915 due to the heavy loss of men and after an intervention by King George V, West Indians were allowed to take part in the war and, by October that year the new British West Indies Regiment was formed. Regimental Head Quarters was at Up Park Camp, Jamaica. The Regiment served on all major battle fronts but was only used as Labour battalions in Europe because, Army rules at that time forbid black troops from fighting alongside whites in Europe while fighting a European enemy. Two battlions of the British West Indies Regiment fought alongside the Australian Light Horse in Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq), defeating the seventh Turkish Army.
Winston Churchill Millington
Winston Churchill Millington was born in Barbados in 1893. In 1897 he moved to Trinidad with his father, who was a teacher. In 1911 Millington started working at a secondary school in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad. He was one of the first to volunteer for B Company in Trinidad, which along with soldiers from Guyana, Trinidad, St Vincent, St Lucia, Barbados, Jamaica, the Bahamas and British Honduras would form the British West Indies Regiment. In December 1916 they sailed from England to Alexandria, in Egypt, on their way to fight in the Palestine Campaign.
The Palestine Campaign was far away from the main conflicts of the First World War in Europe. However, the battle here against the Turks was a vicious affair because, according to Winston Millington, "the Turks were ferocious fighters." It was not long before the machine-gun crews of the West Indian regiment were tested out. They were sent into action against a large body of Turkish soldiers and showed great coolness and self-discipline under fire.
The commanding officer of 162 Machine-gun Company praised the work of the West Indian gunners: "The men (in the machine-gun section) worked exceedingly well ... showing keen interest in their work, cheerfulness, coolness under fire and the ability to carry it out under difficulties."
General Allenby also highlighted the machine-gun crews' outstanding achievements. He wrote to the Governors of Jamaica and the other British West Indian colonies: "I have great pleasure in informing you of the excellent conduct of the machine-gun section of the BWIR during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle fire, and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operation."
In these battles a number of soldiers distinguished themselves through their bravery. One of them was Winston Millington. When the Turks attacked, the rest of his gun crew were killed by enemy fire, but Winston continued to fire his gun for several minutes. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallantry and coolness in action.
Barbadian George Blackman, the last Caribbean soldier to have served in the British army on the western front during the First World War died in March 2003 at the age of 105.
Caribbean Participants in the Second World War
The British colonies in the West Indies were under direct threat by German submarines, who were hunting for oil tankers and bauxite carriers making their way from the Caribbean to the USA and the UK. On the islands, the available manpower was taken up guarding the ports and POW camps, as well as providing the labour for the increased production of primary produce necessitated by the war. Protests by West Indians at the lack of recruitment for service abroad, however, and the need for labour in Britain and for RAF personnel, resulted in the enlistment of men for RAF ground-duty training in 1941. West Indians were also recruited to fill certain skill shortages to aid the war effort.
Approximately 16,000 West Indians volunteered for service alongside the British during the Second World War. Around 6,000 West Indians served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, in roles from fighter pilots to bomb aimers, air gunners to ground staff and administration. Of these, well over a 100 were women who were posted overseas - 80 chose the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WWAF) for their contribution, while around 30 joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
Thousands of West Indian seamen made their contributions in one of the Second World War’s most dangerous services, the Merchant Navy - one-third of all merchant seamen were to die during the war.
One thousand volunteers for army service were formed into the Caribbean Regiment, which went overseas in 1944 and saw service in the Middle East and Italy. In addition, West Indians served in the Royal Engineers as highly skilled technicians.
Upwards of 40,000 West Indians opted to join the various branches of the civilian war effort in the United States.
A total of 236 Caribbean volunteers were killed or reported missing during the Second World War; 265 were wounded. Caribbean Air Force personnel received 103 decorations.
William Arthur Watkin Strachan
Pilots of the Madras Squadron. Group including Sgt. (later Flt. Lt.) Billy Strachan (extreme left). Billy’s plane was named Vizagapatam after the town in India which paid for it.
William Arthur Watkin Strachan was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 16 April 1921. He left school in December 1939, four months after the Second World War began. His ambition was to get to England, join the RAF and learn to fly.
With £2.10 in his pocket and a suitcase containing one change of clothes Billy Strachan arrived in England on a wet Saturday in March 1940. After 12 weeks of basic military training, he trained to be a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and became a Sergeant. In 1941 he joined a squadron of Wellington bombers, which made nightly raids over heavily defended German industrial cities.
When Billy had survived 30 operations, he was entitled to a job on the ground. But when asked what he wanted to do, he replied at once: "Retrain as a pilot!" Billy learned so fast that he was allowed to fly solo after only seven hours’ training. He loved playing tricks, joyriding and paying unauthorised visits to friends on airfields all over England. He had several narrow escapes.
"I suppose we had the over-confidence of youth. We never thought it would happen to us. As a crew, we did everything together. At the end of a raid we came back, had parties, checked up to see who were lost and heartlessly said things like: "Oh, I’ll have his girlfriend, or his bike, if he isn’t coming back."
At Cranwell Billy had his first batman, a man who had been batman to King George VI. Billy described him as a ‘real smooth Jeeves type’:
In 1942, Billy Strachan became a bomber pilot. Pilot Officer Strachan was famous for his hair-raising but clever way of escaping German fighters. "The trick," he explained, "was to wait until the enemy was right on your tail and, at the last minute, cut the engine, sending your lumbering Lancaster into a plunging dive, letting the fighter overshoot harmlessly above."
Billy Strachan gained two more promotions to become Flying Officer and then Flight Lieutenant. But on his fifteenth trip as a bomber pilot his nerve snapped:
"I remember so clearly. I was carrying a 12,000 pound (6,000 kilogram) bomb destined for some German shipping. We were stationed in Lincolnshire and our flight path was over Lincoln Cathedral. It was a foggy night, with visibility about 100 yards (90 metres). I asked my engineer, who stood beside me, to make sure we were on course to get over the top of the cathedral tower. He replied: "We’ve just passed it." I looked out and suddenly realised that it was just beyond our wingtips, to the side. This was the last straw. It was sheer luck. I hadn’t seen it at all - and I was the pilot! There and then my nerve went. I knew I simply couldn’t go on - that this was the end of me as a pilot! I flew to a special ‘hole’ we had in the North Sea, which no allied shipping ever went near, and dropped my ‘big one’. Then I flew back to the airfield."
Nicknamed "The Black Hornet" by his squadron, Ulric Cross is thought to be the most decorated Caribbean airman of the Second World War.
Cross, who was born on May 1, 1917, worked for the Trinidad Guardian, before spending four years at a solicitor’s office. He was employed by the Railways when he joined the RAF in the UK.
He once said: “The world was drowning in fascism and America was not yet in the war. So I decided to do something about it and volunteered to fight in the RAF.”
Cross was known to be a fearless pilot and was involved in a number of high profile daytime attacks on France and Germany. On 18 August 1943, he took part in a raid against Berlin, which acted as a diversion to a full attack on Germany. His aircraft was damaged and he was forced to crash land on an airfield in Norfolk, where his plane stopped short of a quarry’s edge.
After the war he moved into a number of high profile positions, including a post at the BBC in London. In 1958 he went to Africa to practice law and in 1967 he became High Court judge in Tanzania and chaired the Permanent Labour Tribunal. In 1971 he returned to Trinidad where he served as judge of the High Court and, from 1979, of the Court of Appeal.
His contribution to the Law Reform Commission of Trinidad was recognised by the country’s Prime Minister, who said: “Some of his judgments changed the landscape of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Cross also served as a High Commissioner in London and took on ambassador roles to Germany and France.
Ulric Cross died on 4 October 2013, aged 96. He is survived by a son and two daughters.
Constance Goodridge Mark, BEM (Connie Mark)
Constance Goodridge Mark, nee McDonald, was another example of displayed loyalty typical of Caribbean women in WW2, wanting to serve Britain in its hour of need.
Connie Mark was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Her white grandfather had been a Macdonald from Scotland, her black grandmother a descendant of slaves. She joined up in 1943, and worked in hospitals as a member of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service).
"Like England, Jamaica is an island. We depended on boats bringing things in. So if you are short of oil because the boat coming in was torpedoed, then the whole island has no oil. Many country parts of Jamaica in those days didn’t have electricity. So you had a bottle, you filled it up with paraffin and you put the cork in. You turned the bottle over, the paraffin soaked the cork, you lit the cork, and that was your light for eating, for doing homework or anything. I can tell you, a lot of people got their eyebrows singed! Oh, yes!"
She joined the British Army in 1943, serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, The Womens royal Army Corps working She later became the Senior Medical Secretary in the Royal Army Medical corps, Where she served for 10 years, working in the North Caribbean.
Many years later she took part in the “Their Past your Future” Campaign run by the Imperial War Museum.
Connie had felt that the contribution of ‘West Indians’ in WW2 was being ignored. She decided to do something to try to educate people about the contributions of Black people in the Second World War. Recounting a story about an Age Concern Meeting, she had taken some photographs of West Indian ex-servicewomen.
West Indies at War - Part 1 (produced by Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)
West Indies at War - Part 2 (produced by Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)
West Indies at War - Part 3 (produced by Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)
West Indies at War - Part 4 (produced by Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)
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