Black Blood, Black Sweat and World Wars: Britain’s forgotten War Heroes by Audrey Simmons

Sierra Leone forces

As Black History Month, October 2018, draws to a close, our minds start to move on to the next big event in the Black calendar, Armistice day. You may not think of Remembrance Sunday as a day for Black people, but it is, or at least it should be.  11 November, or the Sunday nearest to it, is a day when Britain, which has gone through the horrors of WW1 and WW2, remembers and commemorates those that fought and died under the British flag as British soldiers. Having spent October celebrating Black achievement, we seem to run out of steam when it comes to remembering the men and women from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian sub-continent who fought along-side the British and Americans, in the RAF and in the Navy, in these bloody horrific wars.

My name is Audrey Simmons, I was born and educated in Britain, but it was up to my family to tell me that Caribbean people fought in the war, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe them. I was told nothing about it in school.  The films I watched didn’t show any Black people fighting.  There wasn’t any discussion around this on TV, so I grew up believing that the world wars were between Britain, Germany and the US. As a young Black Britain, I could tell you about the Blitz, rationing, D-Day and the battle of the Somme, but no-one mentioned that Black people were there too. As we Battle with Brexit and the hate crime that is spreading throughout our nation with the rise of the Alt-right, I can’t help but wonder whether if the sacrifices that Black and Asian peoples made was common knowledge, would that go some way to give context to why Black people came to Britain after the war?  Would it show that it was in response to Britain’s need for labour?  That British people, white working-class people being the ones that are most likely to shouting at Black people in the streets, telling us that ‘they didn’t fight in two world wars to have their country taken over by foreigners’, or words to that effect, not realising that our ancestors didn’t fight in those same wars to have their children verbally and physically attacked in the streets because ordinary Brits don’t know that the sacrifice was equal.

On the 20th October 2018 I had the pleasure of spending the evening at the Southbank centre with Akala, the celebrated rapper and political activist and the British Historian David Olusoga.  These two Black heavyweights took us through some of the missing history of Britain.  They talked about how the British Government paid for Polish soldiers to come to Britain, together with Italians, yes that’s right Italian soldiers, the ones that fought alongside Hitler.  When the British people took umbrage to their arrival, the Labour government took out full-page ads in newspapers, explaining why they were here and to ask the British people to treat them kindly, and before you ask, no the same actions were not taken for the Black Soldiers that fought as British citizens and came to settle here in Britain, who faced the worst hostility.  So, when the Teddy boys were beating up people like my father and stabling his friends with switch-blades, there was silence from the British government.

Tony Warner, from Black history walks, has for several years been teaching and informing anyone who will listen about the brave men and women that fought as British citizens, under the British flag, who were from Africa, the US and the Caribbean.  I will not repeat large chunks of Tony’s presentation, but I would urge you to take the opportunity to participate in his talk, it was enlightening and informative.  He talked of RAF fighter pilots, from Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad.  He spoke about African-American platoons and their bravery.  The 2.5 million Indians (before the partition of India in 1947) from all religious backgrounds that were vital to the campaign.  The African/French soldiers that liberated France, but not allowed to be in any of the photographs of the liberation.  What came through in both of these talks is the prejudice, the fear, the suppression of the Black contribution was and is, still rife.  If you go to the imperial war museum, as I have, you will not see one item about any Black soldiers until Black History month, then their stories are displayed as if the museum is doing Black people a favour by including them in the history of the battle of Britain, or showing just how liberal they are for including the Black soldier’s story for 31 days, then on the 1st Nov they will disappear and once again this history will disappear, as it if never happened.

As 11th  November nears, I have heard Black people saying that they won’t wear a poppy, I have struggled with this, because even knowing the vital role that Black people played in the fight for freedom against fascism and the destruction of Nazism, even though I know that Black people fought  in the American war of independence on the side of the British, and fought alongside Nelson, the poppy is portrayed as a symbol that represented White British service men and women. There is once again no mention of Black people in relation to this iconic symbol. There is the Black poppy that has be developed in separate recognition of Black service men and women.

It has taken 80 to 100 years to get a monument erected to commemorate the Black men and women who fought and died on the world’s battlefields.  This didn’t happen through the Ministry of Defence; the money was raised by the West Indian Association of Service personnel and is displayed in Brixton outside the Black Cultural Archives building. Even in this liberated time there is still a lack of support and recognition for the efforts of Black people, who left their homes, families and countries to fight alongside everyone else across the world.

Recognition would cost Britain nothing. To say thank you to Black service men and women, for giving their skills, and their lives in the pursuit of freedom for all, would take away nothing from the others from Britain, the US and the rest of the commonwealth that made the same sacrifice, but it is still something that Britain finds so hard to acknowledge. The absence of these facts and lack of grounding for our young people, could be a contributing factor in the disenfranchisement that our young people feel.  It is by no means the only factor, but I know how disconcerting it is hear people still telling you to go home and that this is their country, even though this is my country too. This again is played out with the recent Windrush scandal, where British citizenship was removed from those that came over as children from British colonies.  As David Olusoga pointed out ‘to treat the Windrush generation and their children as immigrants is absurd as they were British and were never immigrants but citizens’.

Black people have continuously supported Britain, with our labour, our skill and our lives, yet for some reason, it has made no impact.  Our contributions to history are missing, deleted and omitted. As Armistice day draws near, please take the time to remember ALL of those that made the ultimate sacrifice, if we in the Black community don’t, then I’m afraid that no one else will.


To give you some facts re Black people who fought in the WW2

10,000 Caribbean soldiers were in the RAF and the Navy

55,000 men From the British African colonies, (Forces network, BHM article) the French recruited from their colonies and so did the Dutch

Links of interest:  Forces network Britain forgotten war heroes Southbank Centre


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