Caribbean participants in the Second World War
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Out of a population of 14 million in the Caribbean colonies of the British Commonwealth, about 16,000 West Indians volunteered for service alongside the British during the Second World War. Of these, well over a 100 were women who were posted overseas - 80 chose the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) for their contribution, while around 30 joined the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service).
© Imperial War Museum
 
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.

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.

236 Caribbean volunteers were killed or reported missing during the Second World War; 265 were wounded.

Caribbean air force personnel received 103 decorations.
 
Their Own Stories
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Connie Mark (née Macdonald), Auxiliary Territorial Service (Jamaica)
 
Connie Mark, BEM, was brought up 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).

‘I was given a decent Methodist upbringing. We were British! England was our mother country. We were brought up to respect the Royal Family. I used to collect pictures of Margaret and Elizabeth, you know? I adored them. It was the British influence. We didn’t grow up with any Jamaican thing - we grew up as British.'

‘[During the war] there was a mood of fear in Jamaica - they put the fear of God in us. We were definitely positively told that the Germans wanted us because we were a stepping stone to the coast of America. So we were on our tenterhooks all the time.'
 

Connie Mark
‘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!'
 
‘Down in Kingston town, at a place they call Parade, they had two lists put up - a list of men reported missing and a list of men reported dead. And that list would go on and on - sometimes you’d go and you’d see the name of your cousin; you’d go back a few days later and see your friend’s brother reported dead.'
 
‘So we damn well knew there was a war on. And that’s why I joined up in the ATS and went into the British Military Hospital at Kingston.’
 
Billy Strachan (Jamaica): RAF
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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. Billy Strachan
© Imperial War Museum

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 twelve 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’:
 
"I was a little coloured boy from the Caribbean and I instinctively called him ‘Sir’ ". "No, Sir," he hastily corrected, "It is I who call you ‘Sir’."
 
Asked how he dealt with racial remarks and prejudice in the war, Billy answered:
 
"It was there, all right. But my own experience, together with that of most of my colleagues, showed that whenever one [black person] arrived anywhere, he was always welcomed and treated well. Two, they coped with. It was when three or more came that racism really got sharp. When you arrived anywhere as a black man you were treated like a teddy bear. You were loved and fêted. I know that some of us fared badly. But I had no problems in that respect."
 
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."