This month’s book review is a little different to our normal books that focus on military equipment and collecting. The Black community in Britain and it’s role in wartime has largely been forgotten and indeed is often thought not to exist, as seen by the outcry over there being a black soldier depicted in the Dunkirk scenes of the film Atonement. In reality however, there was estimated to be anywhere between 8000 and 40,000 black men, women and children living in the United Kingdom and more came to the islands form the colonies to support the war efforts. Whilst most of these people lived quiet lives, working and living in their communities, other black people were already hugely popular public figures such as Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson the singer and Ras Prince Monolulu a racing tipster. With the growing interest in black history a number of books have been published on the subject of the black British experience of the war and one of the most recent is ‘Under Fire, Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45’ by established historian of black and gay history Stephen Bourne.
The story of black Britain that emerges across the book is one far more complex than is ever given credit for in the popular narrative of the war from all sides of the political spectrum. Racism existed in some aspects of life and the frustrations and anger this created are palpable at times, but equally there were many people who never experienced this and felt welcomed because there was a feeling of everyone working together against a common foe. The contrast between the British attitude to race and that of the white American soldiers who came is very clear, with most white British soldiers and civilians falling in on the side of the black British and American troops against what they saw as unfair and discriminatory practices by some of the white US service personnel. Away from the questions of race however, what comes across most is how similar the experiences of black men and women was to their white counterparts, the same fears of bombing, difficulties with rationing and loneliness of separation come through and race is always somewhat secondary. There are a wealth of great stories here, including that of Ulric Cross who joined the RAF and served in Bomber Command reaching the rank of Squadron Leader. He was the most decorated black serviceman of the war being awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.
Bourne’s approach is to look at vignettes of life in wartime for black men and women in the UK with snippets of their lives and experiences and this is both the book’s strength and its weakness. The stories give the book a wonderful, personal immediacy and the real people come across very well, however it is like a tasting buffet and whilst each story is fantastic, they are so tantalising that you want to find out more about the lives of the people populating the book. Happily the bibliography is full and detailed so there are plenty of books on there to follow up and expand upon the snippets in this book.
The book is an excellent introduction to the subject of Britain’s black community during wartime and is a highly enjoyable read. The author has a snappy writing style and the use of first hand accounts ensures that this is far from dry academic account, indeed it is easy to lose yourself in the book and then realise that an hour whilst you have been absorbed reading. Whilst politics must inevitably encroach on the book due to its subject matter, it is treated with sensitivity and avoids being a polemic. Highly recommended and well worth picking up a copy. Available on Amazon here.