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29 August 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 5:49am

How the Second World War made Britain multicultural

The stories of the thousands who came to Britain from the colonies and the occupied nations of Europe during World War II have often been marginalised and forgotten.

By David Olusoga

The word immigration and the phrase postwar are commonly paired. Those who study black history often talk of the existence of a “Windrush Myth”, a widely held notion that the presence of non-white people in Britain began in the summer of 1948, when that famous ship docked at Tilbury in Essex. To counter this, historians point to the long history of black and Asian people living in Britain, stretching back for many centuries. Yet when reaching for this deeper history, what is sometimes overlooked is a brief but remarkable era of diversity and encounter that, in 1948, was a recent national memory. For some of those on board the Windrush, many of whom were veterans of the Second World War returning (rather than emigrating) to Britain, it was personal experience.

The study of the Second World War is not without its own myths. Perhaps the most persistent – in this country at least – is the belief that between the fall of France and the launch of Hitler’s war against the USSR, Britain “stood alone” against the might of the Nazi war machine. It is an idea that is repeated more often than it is scrutinised and has become an element within the dominant popular image of Britain at war – that of an “Island Race” defiantly defending its realm while managing to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. This notion of Britain alone has been wheeled out regularly over the past couple of years and presented as evidence for the existence of a form of British exceptionalism that is said to distinguish us from our European neighbours.

As numerous historians have demonstrated, Britain’s solitude, even through the “Darkest Hour” of 1940-41, was far from complete. Rather than “alone”, Britain stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people from across the largest empire the world had ever seen. Churchill’s government made great efforts to portray the conflict as an “allies’ war”; not just global but also pan-European, an existential struggle against fascist tyranny in which Britain was not only the key player but an island sanctuary, the refuge and the training ground for peoples whose homelands had fallen to the enemy.

Just how disconnected the myth of solitude has become from this complex reality is revealed in panoramic detail and compelling human colour on the pages of Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain, by the historian Wendy Webster.

The picture she paints is fresh and exhilarating, in part because the stories and the voices she has exhumed from the archives have for so long been marginalised and forgotten. The only foreign force stationed in Britain during the war whose presence and relations with the British people has become part of the standard narrative is the “overpaid and oversexed” GIs of the US army. Their story has largely overshadowed the memory of the thousands who came from the colonies and the occupied nations of Europe.

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This is part of a trend. We in Britain seem to have a habit for forgetting the contributions our allies have made to the conflicts that define us. As we enter the final months of the four-year-long festival of remembrance that has marked the centenary of the First World War, it is striking how little we have heard about the struggles and sacrifices of the French, our key allies. The anniversary of the Battle of Verdun – arguably the most terrible conflagration of the war – passed with hardly a mention on this side of the Channel.

Mixing It is not simply a corrective, dutifully listing the role played by people from the empire and the continent in the war and their presence in Britain. It is more compelling than that, recounting how this disparate collection of refugees, soldiers and PoWs mixed and interacted with the British people.

Pre-war Britain was far from ethnically or racially homogeneous. There were black, Asian and Chinese communities, but they tended to be clustered in the port cities and the capital. The exigencies of total war meant that the remote village pubs of rural Somerset became the favoured hang-outs of African-American GIs and that men from British Honduras (modern Belize) found themselves working as lumberjacks in remote parts of Scotland, living alongside people who had never seen black men. They were joined by thousands of refugees from across occupied Europe who fled to Britain’s shores in the wake of the German forces and used their temporary sanctuary to train and prepare for the task of liberating their homelands.

Wartime Britain was home to several governments in exile and the barracks and training ground for various displaced armies. The Belgians, Dutch and a force of Jewish Austrians trained in remote camps in the valleys of Wales. The Polish and Norwegians built their barracks in Scotland.

The incredible array of different military uniforms that can be been seen on the streets of wartime London in the rare reels of colour film that were shot during the war hint at the diversity that Webster explores. The list of languages in which the BBC was broadcasting by 1945 testifies to the same internationalism. The level of interaction and diversity was just as remarkable within the armed forces. The RAF’s 145 Squadron consisted of men drawn from Belgium, Australia, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad, Poland, South Africa and Britain. They lived, fought and in some cases died together, under the same colours.

What makes Mixing It both highly readable and, on multiple pages, genuinely heartrending is the space the author dedicates to personal testimonies: everything from the accounts of the Mass Observation monitoring organisation, to private letters and memoirs. Webster also makes use of interviews carried out with veterans and civilians to widen the range of experiences, nationalities and backgrounds she is able to marshal. There’s space devoted to the tragic poems of a German émigré, the letters of a West Indian airman who was killed over Germany and correspondence from both commonwealth and European servicemen grumbling about the British weather and food.

With so many remarkable sources Webster is able to contrast the wartime experiences of individuals and nationalities, and plot how, over the course of the conflict, the attitudes of the British public shifted. She reveals how, when the prospect of a German invasion seemed very real in 1940, there was a great surge of hostility towards all foreigners, something that had been one of the persistent features of the home front during the First World War. There were anti-Italian riots in 1940 just as there had been anti-German riots in 1914.

By 1943 the mood had changed so radically that both the US army and the British cabinet became concerned that the fondness with which the British people, in particular women, treated the 140,000 African-American GIs stationed in the country was creating dangerous tensions between the allies. The pressures on British women to manage their relations with foreign servicemen, of whatever race, was the focus of endless discussion and controversy. Ultimately, a form of what Webster calls “sexual patriotism” was demanded of women – the avoidance of sexual relationships with men who were not native-born Britons.

During the years of economic unreality between 1941 and 1945, during which the nation spent heavily on American credit, all sacrifices and expenses could be justified. In that atmosphere there had been little sense of outsiders as competitors for jobs and homes. Hardly had the dancing and the drinking of VE Day come to an end, however, when the welcoming inclusiveness of the war years began to evaporate.

Almost overnight, allies became aliens and the mood darkened. Clement Attlee’s postwar government refused to guarantee rights of settlement for European men who had served in the British forces. Even citizens of the empire, people with British passports but the wrong skin colour, were discouraged from staying. West Indians who had served in the RAF and then returned on the Windrush and other ships noted the coldness of their reception. Behind the scenes the government was busily devising schemes and coming up with ruses aimed at discouraging “coloured migration”. Perhaps the most shameful betrayal of men who had served Britain during the war was a round-up of Chinese sailors, who were secretly repatriated en masse. 

The return of anti-alien sentiment in 1945 was one of the reasons the government rebranded the Polish, Ukrainian and Baltic migrants recruited from the displaced persons camps of eastern Europe as “European Voluntary Workers”. Although their labour was desperately needed, and for racial reasons they were favoured over West Indian, African and Indian citizens of the empire, their arrival had to be managed and justified to sections of the public who, tired of rationing and austerity, were hostile to foreigners.

The government, the unions and the public were largely united in their view that even those who had served Britain during the war should now return home. But in the aftermath of a war that had redrawn the political borders of Europe, for many there was no home to which they could safely return. To the frustration of Winston Churchill, some of the hostility towards those who had little choice but to stay was directed at Poles, the people whose nation Britain had ostensibly gone to war to defend, and which now lay behind the Iron Curtain. The accounts of the enmity and insults directed at them, the emergence of a “Poles go home” campaign and “England for the English” graffiti, makes Webster’s book all the more poignant and timely. 

David Olusoga is the author of “Black and British: a Forgotten History” (Pan) and was a presenter of the BBC’s “Civilisations”

Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain
Wendy Webster
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £25.49

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This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic