Historical Appropriation: Black History Month and WWII

Owen writes about historical appropriation and the Air Force Memorial.

Owen Williams

Whilst exploring the local area to our university I came across the Air Forces Memorial on Coopers Hill Lane near Kingswood. Ordinarily I have found the gates to be shut.On this particular day, however, the gates were open revealing the impressive portico of the grade II listed memorial. 

The RAF memorial on Coopers Hill Lane

It is a beautiful building, the views over the Thames and London are incredible, you can even see Windsor castle. There’s a haunting element to its beauty, as the walls and columns are inscribed with the names of missing and dead men and women of the RAF, some of the twenty thousand who died in World War Two, with their names engraved in stone.

Specifically, this memorial not only commemorates British air force personnel, but those from the Commonwealth as a whole. Why is this particularly important? Because whilst walking around the memorial I stopped to look at the visitors book and saw a comment that appeared not to have understood the commemoration, using it as a platform to promote the problematic phrase ‘All Lives Matter.’

“All lives matter especially as they fought for our freedom” A comment left by a visitor to the memorial.

The men and women that fought in the Second World War fought to ensure that large parts of the world were not subjugated by a racist, fascist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and truly diabolical regime. They fought for our freedom absolutely, our freedom to protest, to enjoy the civil liberties that we hold so dear, and not be persecuted because of race and religion.

Now that point I made earlier about it being a memorial to commonwealth soldiers becomes relevant again because it wasn’t just British soldiers  that went to war against the Axis powers, it was the British Empire’s colonies too. In 1939, Britain held de facto if not de jure control over 25% of the world’s population. Men from India, Kenya, Nigeria, Barbados, Jamaica, Palestine, and Fiji to name a handful of the many nations that fought under the British flag.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/97/Together_Art.IWMPST3158.jpg/220px-Together_Art.IWMPST3158.jpg

’Together’ – defending the Empire you didn’t ask to be part of.

Men such as William Strachan from Kingston, Jamaica. Strachan served as a Radio Operator in a bomber crew, joining up in early 1940. British Airmen had to complete a tour of 30 missions, before being rotated out and given a posting in a training or conversion unit. Strachan completed his 30 missions; rather than accept the relative security of a training role, he applied to train as a pilot and flew a further 15 missions. To put this into perspective, the average number of missions completed by a member of bomber command was less than 12; throughout the war, bomber command suffered a 60% casualty rate.

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Strachan (far left) with the other members of his crew.

Like William Strachan, John Blair was also an RAF volunteer from the Caribbean, serving as a navigator in 102 Squadron based in Yorkshire. Again, like Strachan, he completed the incredible feat of surviving 30 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. Both Strachan and Blair stayed in the RAF after the Second World War. Many black servicemen and women chose to stay in the armed forces after the war. Poignantly, a third of the passengers on HMT Empire Windrush were RAF personnel returning from leave. 

Although they were fighting a war united, it was an unnerving experience for these men who had grown up on the islands of the Caribbean to suddenly find themselves billeted in small towns in the north of England. But Blair said in an interview after the war that of he and his fellow officers, “it soon became normal for them to walk into any pub full of strangers and within a few moments have someone walk over and say, ‘Please have a beer with me’.”

And it wasn’t just black British soldiers that were rightly celebrated in pubs, and this is perfectly demonstrated by the story of the village of Bamber Bridge. Bamber Bridge is a small village in Lancashire that you will probably have never heard of, although how it has managed to keep such a low profile when it boasts five different churches is beyond me. In 1943 the village was the home to the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment of the US army. Unlike the British army, its American counterpart was segregated and Black soldiers were not allowed to serve in combat roles but rather relegated to rear eulachon roles such as drivers and clerks.

Nevertheless, they were still brave men who were serving their country in a time of crisis. The citizens of Bamber Bridge recognized this because black soldiers were welcomed in all three of the village pubs . Now the officers of the 1511th who all happened to be white were not as friendly as the denizens of this Lancastrian village as they demanded that the pubs be segregated, and put up ‘whites-only’ signs in their windows. In response, the Lancastrians responded by putting up ‘blacks only’ signs up, siding with the black troops.One night in June, two white American Military Policemen tried to arrest a black soldier who was drinking at the Ye Old Hobb Inn. The locals were incensed by this, with one reportedly shouting at an MP “Why do you want to arrest them? They’re not doing anything or bothering anybody.” The sight of an angry and most likely drunk Lancastrian chastising them seemed to have forced the MPs to leave Ye Old Hobb Inn quite soon after.

he Old Hob Inn(early 1600s), in the Village of Bamber Bri… | Flickr

Ye Old Hobb Inn, Bamber Bridge, Lancashire.

 However, later on that night whilst walking back to base, the black soldiers were again hassled by a now larger group of MPs; a fight broke out and a black soldier, Private William Crossland was shot and killed. The Black soldiers of the 1511th, already enraged by the Detroit Race Riots earlier that month where more than twenty black civilians were killed by police officers after demonstrations went awry, armed themselves and headed to standoff against the MPs who killed Crossland; though not before warning the residents of Bamber Bridge to stay inside and stay safe.

A firefight between MPs and Black soldiers ensued, injuring five soldiers and two MPs, and the remaining soldiers were court-martialed. Despite this, the commander of the unit recognized that the cause of the incident was racial tension and the fault of racist white officers. General Ira Eakerused this as an opportunity to reform segregated units, removing all racist officers in charge. This worked, and the rate of incidents between white and black soldiers dropped massively.

The story of Bamber Bridge is undeniably important, and not just because of Black History Month. The story of a handful of Lancastrians siding with and defending black American servicemen does not for a second absolve this country for any of its racism. There is a sad level of irony that people like William Strachan, John Blair, and the men of the 1511th were treated as friends during the war but the subsequent Windrush generation was treated abhorrently by the government it fought so valiantly to protect. 

But that’s an issue too large to unpack with my dwindling word count. I’d instead like to focus on the lessons that can be drawn from the Battle of Bamber Bridge. This country loves to throw the term ‘blitz spirit’ around, the idea that when things get tough we band together, stick the kettle on, and soldier through. Boris Johnson loves this Churchillian rhetoric. And yet, in the current climate which seems to invoke all sorts of comparison to the Second World War, we don’t seem to want to band together. Rather, hateful phrases such as ‘All Lives Matter’ are dividing us further. . 75 years ago British people were ready to stand shoulder to shoulder, pint glass to pint glass with black soldiers to face a larger, more pressing threat. Are we not living in similar times? A global pandemic, irreversible climate change and political instability in more countries than there are coronavirus cases in Egham. Surely, if there was ever a time to stand united against the issues we face, it’s now.