British West Indies Regiment – Remembrance Day 2020 Military Awards plus film HERO.

By Joy Sigaud

As more and more information comes to light about the sheer number of African and Caribbean soldiers who fought and served in World War 2, not least to  mention African-American soldiers it is not surprising that the desire to erect further monuments is gaining momentum as the few remaining with us to this day join the struggle for proportionate official recognition. Here are just a few of those who fought.

Learie Constantine MBE who became Britain’s first Black peer, with a Black Community Centre set up in his honour in North West London is just one of those.   Mostly remembered as a cricketer, he worked tirelessly during the second world war looking after the interests of the West Indian munitions workers in factories throughout the nation.

Many African and West Indian nurses trained during the second world war to look after the war wounded, a speciality sector Princess* Ademola from Abeokuta Nigeria was one of those nurses. Many nurses who trained during World War 2 became members of the founding staff of the great NHS formed in the post war era.

Ulric Cross served in the RAF with the bomber command and eventually became squadron leader. In June 1945 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, already holding the Distinguished Flying Cross that had been awarded the year before. He is  thought to be the most decorated West Indian of World War 2. Originally from Trinidad, he was regarded in his day as the model for the Black character, having completed 80 missions over Germany and occupied Europe. See the film  HERO showing as part of the Windrush Caribbean Film Festival  on 7th November.

Wilford Leslie Allen joined the RAF and was a wireless operator. He returned to Jamaica after the war and continued his life as an ordinary civilian never returning to the UK but speaking fondly and with pride of his memories for the rest of his life.

Johnny Smythe was a Sierra Leonean pilot who spent 2 years in the Stalag Luft 1 prison camp. He  joined the RAF in 1940 answering the call from Britain who needed pilots. After training he  successfully navigated an impressive 26 air raid bombings over Germany. Johnny Smythe’s illustrious career did not end with the war. He was appointed to travel out with the SS Windrush in 1948 as the senior officer in charge of the soldiers returning to their home countries and was in charge of the well being of the first set of Windrush migrants who came from Jamaica and Barbados to Tilbury Docks on that historic voyage.

Charles Leroy Thomas an African American and United States Army major  was posthumously awarded, in 1997,  the Medal of Honour for his actions in France during World War 2 alongside six other Black Americans. The six  Rutherford brothers whose story came to light in 2019  (written by Joy Sigaud for Black History Month US feature) were acknowledged in Rutherford with a day of celebrations in the small New Jersey town in May 2019.

These are just a handful who represent so many from all walks of life. Some going on to have distinguished careers, others returning to the UK after the war to make new lives for themselves here and others who simply continued with the lives as before, all the richer and wiser for their experiences.

The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), formed in 1915 served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa with many battalions deployed to Egypt and Palestine. They were also pivotal in 1918 following the British capture of Jerusalem (1917) in clearing out enemy posts by advancing 5km into enemy territory under heavy fire. Lance Corporal Sampson and Private Spence were awarded the Military Medal for bravery as a result.

BWIR soldier receiving the Military Medal in 1917 Courtesy Library of Congress

The BWIR received many awards including:

5 Distinguished Service Orders

19  Military Crosses

11 Military Crosses with Bar

18 Distinguished Conduct Medals

49 Mentions in Despatches.

Norman Manley the future prime minister of Jamaica was decorated with the Military Medal.

From Jamaica alone, 14 members of the  well-known St Elizabeth Nembhard family proudly registered and fought in the two World Wars.

So many stories yet to be told and so many stories yet to unfold.

*Princess is not an uncommon given name in Nigeria