The Motherland Calls: Britain's Black Servicemen & Women, 1939-45

The Motherland Calls: Britain's Black Servicemen & Women, 1939-45

by Stephen Bourne


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Very little attention has been given to the thousands of black British, Caribbean and West African service men and women who supported the British war effort from 1939–45. Black volunteers from across the British Empire enthusiastically joined the armed forces and played their part in fighting Nazi Germany and its allies. The Motherland Calls complements Stephen Bourne’s previous book Mother Country, which told the story of the contribution made by black British, Caribbean and West African citizens on the home front. Drawing on the author’s expert knowledge of the subject, and many years of original research, it reveals the brave men and women who volunteered to fight the forces of Nazism, such as Ulric Cross and Peter Thomas, who came from Trinidad and Nigeria respectively to join the RAF, or Jamaican Connie Mark, who served in the ATS. The Motherland Calls tells the story of some of the forgotten Britons whose contribution to the war effort has been overlooked until now.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752465852
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Bourne is a leading authority on black history, and has published 11 books on the subject, including A Ship and a Prayer, Black in the British Frame, and Speak of Me as I Am and Mother Country (THP, 2010). He lives in London and his website is

Read an Excerpt

The Motherland Calls

Britain's Black Servicemen & Women 1939â"45

By Stephen Bourne

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Stephen Bourne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9071-7



In the late 1930s the British Army's adjutant general, Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, had recommended to the Army Council that commissions for all the armed services should be reserved for British subjects of British parents of pure European descent. However, when it became law, the Colonial Office was given the job of accommodating black Britons and West Indians who wished to fight the Nazis when the war broke out. They wrote to the War Office to have the law changed. The War Office replied that it was considering this 'thorny problem', but British policy towards colonial volunteers remained equivocal. A Foreign Office memo dispatched to colonial governors stated: 'We must keep up the fiction of there being no colour bar. Only those with special qualifications are likely to be accepted.' Whitehall's reluctance to accept volunteers dated back to the First World War but, as the war escalated, Britain turned once more to its black subjects, including those in the Caribbean and other colonies, for support.

When the war broke out, Charles Arundel Moody, known as 'Joe', aged 22, qualified for basic training as an officer in the British Army. He had been educated at Alleyn's public school in Dulwich. The only black man to be commissioned as an officer in the British Army before then had been Walter Tull in 1917. Joe went to a recruiting office in Whitehall for an interview but was dismayed when he was turned away on the grounds that officers in the British Army had to be of 'pure European descent'. Joe had a Jamaican father and an English mother. However, Joe's father, Dr Harold Moody, was no ordinary Jamaican. Dr Moody had settled in Britain in the Edwardian era and by 1939 was a highly respected community leader. The League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), which he had founded in 1931, had quickly established itself as the most influential organisation campaigning for the rights of black people in pre-war Britain.

When Joe informed his father about his rejection from the army, an angry Dr Moody fought back. He contacted the Colonial Office and made an appointment with one of the undersecretaries. That meeting started the process which led to the Army Act being changed. Dr Moody and other members of the LCP joined forces with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and the West African Students' Union (WASU) to lobby the government. Consequently, on 19 October 1939 the Colonial Office issued the following statement: 'British subjects from the colonies and British protected persons in this country, including those who are not of European descent, are now eligible for emergency commissions in His Majesty's Forces.' But Dr Moody remained unsatisfied. 'We are thankful for this,' he said, but 'we do not want it only for the duration of the war. We want it for all time. If the principle is accepted now, surely it must be acceptable all the time.' Dr Moody and the LCP emphasised that they would not be satisfied by concessions in individual cases. He said:

May I make myself and the position of the League quite clear? We are not seeking for specialist treatment in every case. We are merely seeking to establish our spiritual, cultural and mental equality, as members of the British Empire, with every other member of the Empire and to embody the term 'British Citizen' with some meaning and some reality as far as we are concerned. We claim the right to that freedom, which is the cherished possession of every Englishman and that no discrimination whatsoever should be made against us, except on the grounds of character and qualification. We are proud of our heritage and do not want to be subjected to any experience, which will in any way tend to rob us of that pride or which will cast a slur thereupon.

Soon afterwards the army began to make exceptions. Commissions as lieutenants were granted to Dr Otto Wallen of Trinidad and Dr A. Marsh of Jamaica in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Joe Moody was admitted to an officers' training unit. A Colonial Office minute in December 1939 recorded:

Dr Moody's son is just off to Dunbar to join an officers training unit there – this does not ... amount to the definite grant of a commission, but it does mean that we have been able to secure a commission for Dr Moody's son in the unit as a special arrangement, since normally such units are now only recruited from men who have previously served for a period in the ranks.

Joe was sent to Dunbar in Scotland where he joined an officer-cadet training unit: 'I went through four months of intense training where, because I was literally a guinea pig, I had to be very careful and mind my p's and q's and really perform outstandingly. I didn't get thrown out so I guess they thought I could make it.' On the completion of his training, Joe was commissioned into the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment.

As the war intensified, and with inadequate manpower available, Britain turned to its colonies and appealed to both white and black colonial subjects to bolster military ranks. The need for black recruits became more urgent in 1940 after the Fall of France (and the loss of British troops at Dunkirk) and the Battle of Britain. There was uneasiness about recruiting black colonials because a feeling of nationalism had grown in the colonies in the 1930s; yet most colonial soldiers remained loyal to the mother country as they had done in the past, such as when they gave support during the First World War.

In 1942, on his way to a posting in Kenya, Joe stopped off in South Africa with five white officers:

We did a two-day trip up to Durban and I walked around Durban and we really didn't run into any serious problem there. One of the officers would always go in first and explain they had a coloured British officer with them. We only ran into problems when we got to the Durban Country Club. We went there for tea one afternoon and the Secretary of the Club said, 'This is a private Club and it is a little peculiar. If you want to have tea, come and have it in my rooms.' So we left the Club very rapidly and went somewhere else. From there the six of us went up to Kenya and of course arriving in Kenya put the cat among the pigeons because African soldiers in Kenya were not allowed to speak English. Officers had to learn Swahili. So there was I, a coloured officer. They didn't like this at all. So after a very short time they shipped me over to Madagascar to get me out of the way.

After two years in Madagascar and Egypt, Joe was posted to Italy to rejoin the Royal West Kent Regiment. When he arrived, a brigadier from headquarters came to see him. He told Joe that the Caribbean Regiment had arrived in Italy and they needed company commanders:

I told him I would prefer to go up to the line with my own regiment. We had two battalions in Italy at the time but his will prevailed and I ended up with the Caribbean Regiment. Naturally I threw in my lot with them and I became a Jamaican. We underwent training in Egypt. Very intense. They thought that the West Indians would be good as night soldiers. The regiment that I had left in England did go into action in Europe and I would have preferred to stay with them.

Joe became a major while he was serving in Egypt in 1945. At the end of the war he settled in Jamaica with B Company of the Caribbean Regiment. In 1947 his father died in London. Thousands of people paid their respects at Dr Moody's funeral which was held at the Camberwell Green Congregational Church. Professor David Killingray later explained that, during the war, by gradual pressure, Dr Moody and the LCP changed the attitude of government towards the recruitment of black servicemen and women, 'and to make them aware there is a question to be dealt with. The fact that they are dealt with much later perhaps owes something to Moody's pressure and his vision of a multi-racial Britain that he wanted.'

After the war Joe Moody remained in the army and became a colonel in 1961. He was awarded the OBE in 1966 as the first commanding officer (CO) of the Jamaican Territorial Army. In 1990 he reflected on his experiences of the war:

My personal feeling – when I got rejected [in 1939] – was one of great disappointment, but I obviously had been born in Britain and, as far as I was concerned, I was an Englishman. I had all the necessary qualifications and there was my country wanting young men to do a job. There I was, fit and well, being turned down, so I was disappointed, but I can tell you, I stuck out my chest when I was commissioned in the British Army. I was flying in the air. I was very proud that I represented the colonies as a pioneer.

Joe died on 11 January 2009 at the age of 91 in West Palm Beach, Florida.



Young Sid Graham dreamed of following in his father's footsteps and going to sea, and at the age of 15 he fulfilled his ambition and became a galley boy on the Nernta, a ship sailing to South America. From the 1930s to the 1950s Sid worked as a stoker on cargo boats operating from London. During the war Sid served as a merchant seaman (stoker) on Atlantic and Arctic convoys. It was dangerous work for it was the merchant seamen who suffered the most from the German U-boat attacks. By the end of 1940, 6,000 merchant seamen had been killed. In 1941 7,000 more lost their lives, and in 1942 8,000 perished. In total, more than 50,000 British merchant seamen died as a result of enemy action in the Second World War. Sid remembered: 'You was always on edge. You could never settle down. If you were sleeping you always got something on your mind – like torpedoes. But you knew what you had signed on for when you went on the ship.'

Sid Graham was born in Tidal Basin, Custom House, in London's East End in 1920. He was the son of Sidney 'Siddy' Graham, a seaman from Barbados, and his English wife, an East Ender called Emma. In an interview with the local historian Howard Bloch in 1993, Sid remembered that racism – or the 'colour bar' as it was then known – was an issue in Britain when he was growing up, except in his own community: 'Canning Town, Tidal Basin, and Custom House, they were cosmopolitan, everybody lived round here: Africans, West Indians, Japanese, Chinese. Everybody got on.'

At the beginning of 1942 Sid's worst fears were realised. He was crossing the Atlantic on a supply ship, the Scottish Star, when a German torpedo struck:

I was having a bath in a bucket and when we got torpedoed I went up in the air and hit my ribs on the washbasin ... busted 'em ... I got up on the companionway and that's when the submarine started to shell us. Wasn't going down quick enough for him. I was badly hit in the arm. I went in the lifeboat and we got away from the ship and the ship went down ... Luckily enough we were in the Caribbean, not in the cold, but we didn't know where we were going.

The shipwrecked crew had no idea where they were because their voyage was a 'special operation'. Sid survived for ten days in the lifeboat with twenty other crew members.

On the lifeboat drinking water was strictly rationed and sharks could be seen in the sea: 'They used to come and float around ... give you a look. And you'd make a noise and beat the sides of the boat with the oar and they'd float away. They can't stand noise we was told, so that's what we done. Happily it worked.'

In 2005, when The Newham Mag published a VE Day special edition to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war, they featured Sid and described his experiences on the lifeboat: 'They were tossed around the Atlantic Ocean, suffering from severe cold and sea-sickness and existing on meagre daily rations of four fluid ounces of water and a couple of dry biscuits. When the men were picked up by a fishing boat from Barbados, they realised they had drifted into the Caribbean.'

The fishing boat took Sid and the other survivors to Barbados. After landing, the local newspaper, Barbados Advocate, reported the story on its front page (28 February 1942), along with a photograph of the survivors who were named. The survivors were taken to the seaman's mission, but Sid and his colleagues were 'devastated' when their pay was stopped: 'in those days as soon as you got torpedoed on them ships your money was stopped right away ... Only thing they give us was our clothes ... we couldn't walk about naked, could we. It's hard to think what you been through and what you were doing ... and they treat you like that.'

Sid had never visited Barbados before but his father had come from the island and he had relatives there, although Sid had never met them. Eventually, Sid's Aunt Dorothy was located and she took him in. However, being wartime there was no way of letting his family know he was safe, and six months passed before a ship arrived to take him back to Britain. There were tears of joy when Sid was reunited with his parents and five younger siblings. 'My mother, God rest her soul, had been going crazy when I was away,' he later said.

While Sid had been in Barbados, his family had lost their London home in an air raid. They were rehoused, but Sid didn't know anything about it:

When I came home, I couldn't find them! So I went to the police station in Landsdowne Road to make enquiries, and I'm walking along with me suitcase, and my mother was scrubbing the step of the house opposite the police station. 'Siddy!' she shouted out to my Dad, 'Daddy! Sidney's here!' And they all came out to welcome me home. But afterwards the police thought I was a deserter and Mum done her nut. Then they came and took me to work on special operational jobs all through the rest of the war. I went to every invasion there was. I won all the medals, including the Burma Star, but I had to send ten shillings for every medal I won, but I gave them all to my children. Every time they did well at swimming my wife stitched the ribbons to their shorts!

In 1944 Sid took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy:

We had to tow the ships out and then the engineers sunk 'em to make a mobile harbour. People think I'm lying but the first thing that landed on Normandy beaches was thousands of dogs to set off the mines. I wouldn't lie coz I was there. And yet if they'd told people that, there would have been uproar, never mind about men being blown up! It's been kept quiet. As we was going in, the Germans were dive bombing us, and a big yankee ship came along beside us for protection and they got hit.

After the war ended in 1945, Sid continued to go to sea:

You really looked forward to coming home to see your wife and your children ... it's like being born again when you come home, everything's lovey-dovey. I'd be shovelling the coal in that furnace, couldn't put it in fast enough to get home, and I'd always bring them presents – bring them monkeys, canaries, parrots, dolls for the girls. They'd always expect something and they'd run up to me and hug me. When I left I used to kiss the kids, but I wouldn't let them see me to the door – just walk away, otherwise you'd get real melancholy. It's a terrible feeling when you're leaving, you feel downhearted.

Sid signed off after one of his daughters was born. He stayed home for a couple of years and then decided to go to sea again:

I was at sea when my son was born but my wife wasn't allowed to send me a telegram. Officers were privileged, and could receive telegrams from their wives when their children were born, but we were discriminated against. As you drop down in rank you don't get the privileges. We had to do all the donkey work to make the steam to make the ship move. And when you wasn't doing that, you mended something, you were always doing something. And when your watch had finished, you had to go and mend the winches and all that. You were never at rest, you were always doing something. It was a hard life, I tell yer. If a man was sick, you had to go down and do his work. I finished working on the ships about 1956. We had children, and I wasn't seeing them. The wife said it was no life for them, so I quit. I went and got a job in the dock and settled down. My family came first. All my sons and daughters have been good to me. I haven't got a dodgy one.


Excerpted from The Motherland Calls by Stephen Bourne. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Bourne. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note,
Part I: Britain,
1 'Joe' Moody: An Officer & an Englishman,
2 Sid Graham: The Call of the Sea,
3 Lilian & Ramsay Bader: Life in the Forces,
4 Amelia King & the Women's Land Army,
5 Musicians in Battledress,
Part II: Guyana & the Caribbean,
6 Cy Grant: Into the Wind,
7 Billy Strachan: A Passage to England,
8 Ulric Cross: A Fine Example,
9 Connie Mark: A Formidable Force,
10 Sam King: RAF to Windrush,
11 Norma Best & Nadia Cattouse: Lest We Forget,
12 Eddie Martin Noble & A Charmed Life,
13 Allan Wilmot: Making a Difference,
14 Baron Baker: A Founding Father,
15 Cassian Waight & the 'League of Nations',
Part III: Africa,
16 Peter Thomas: The First of the Few,
17 Johnny Smythe: A Veteran with Attitude,
18 Isaac Fadoyebo: The Burma Boy,
Part IV: African Americans,
19 'They'll bleed and suffer and die',
Postscript: In Memoriam,
Appendix I A Short History of the West Indian Ex-Services Association,
Appendix II 'From War to Windrush' (Imperial War Museum, London),
Appendix III Film, Television and Radio,
Appendix IV Extracts from the Wartime Newsletters of the League of Coloured Peoples,
Further Reading,
About the Author,

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