Marika Sherwood Got It Wrong

By Warburton, Mike | New African, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Marika Sherwood Got It Wrong


Warburton, Mike, New African


Mike Warburton writes from Freetown, Sierra Leone, taking issue with Marika Sherwood's letter (NA Jan 2014) that disputed certain aspects of Clayton Goodwin's article on black people who fought in World War II.

Having read Marika Sherwood's letter in your January edition, I am afraid I shan't be rushing BO Waterstones to buy her new book the next time I am in London. I am absolutely sure that there were numerous instances of discrimination against black people by the Empire in World War II, but many of the examples she chooses betray a lack of knowledge of how and why the war was conducted in the way that it was.

As a student of all aspects of World War II, whose relatives were involved in some of the most important events, I would like to comment on a few of the most obvious errors in her letter, as follows:

The Merchant Navy was in fact a reserved occupation in World War II, and seamen of all Empire nationalities would have been discouraged from leaving it to join the forces because they were valuable where they were as experienced hands, although the Naval Reservists among them would have been called up anyway.

Lest anyone think that the Merchant Navy was a non-military sinecure, it was in fact the most dangerous of all wartime services, with a greater proportion of casualties than any other branch of the services, due to the slim chances of surviving submarine and air attacks. As a result, merchant seamen were highly regarded by the wartime public.

However it is worth noting that, until the middle of the war, all merchant seamen were subject to immediate stoppage of salary if their ship was lost, and until then, unlike in the Royal Navy, there were no arrangements to repatriate survivors to their home ports.

Ms Sherwood's example of the absence of recruitment for the Caribbean Regiment until 1944 is probably explained by the fact that there was no land or air threat to the Caribbean from the Axis Powers at any time during the war. so it doubtless made sense to keep locally-recruited troops there for security, rather than, say, use the Caribbean Regiment on the Western Desert and bring an English regiment to cover the Caribbean.

In 1918, when the Caribbean Regiment are supposed to have mutinied rather than clean Italian prisoners' toilets, Italy was in fact on the same side as Britain and France, so it is hard to see how any Empire troops would have been used as custodians of Italian prisoners in any capacity.

Ms Sherwood's suggestion that the African Caribbean troops were kept at home because the British government did not want them to point their guns at whites is unworthy. The white German soldiers they would have pointed their guns at were already well-known for their industrial-scale atrocities and posed a real threat of invasion to the UK, and of course non-white troops were widely employed in France in World War I.

However, it would not have made military sense to take, say, the Royal West African Frontier Force {RWAFF) from Sierra Leone to reinforce the faltering Anglo-French Norwegian campaign of 1940. This would be doubly so after the fall of France when Guinea came under the control of the Vichy French, a potentially hostile power.

It was clearly much better militarily to deploy the RWAFF later in the 14th Army in Burma, where their familiarity with tropical weather and jungle terrain gave them an advantage over many white troops (and where their still-celehrared victories at Arakan and Myohaung occurred).

The number of men recruited from the Caribbean as pilots and navigators in the RAF was indeed small, but these specialisations were always massively oversubscribed by applicants of all countries in World War II. The RAF also had a substantial input of trained pilots from the Free French, the Poles, Czechs, Belgians, U.S. Eagle Squadrons, etc.

Many more Caribbean men (and some Africans) became wireless operators or air gunners (the role was sometimes combined) as did many more British men. …

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