The arrival of the Empire Windrush 60 years ago represents a defining moment in British history.
As the ship docked at Tilbury on the River Thames in June 1948 its West Indian passengers were greeted by a maelstrom of racism whipped up by the press and right wing politicians.
But for many of them this was not their first time in England.
The majority of passengers on the Windrush were servicemen and women returning to duty from leave. But the country they had left a short time before was now different.
They were no longer part of the “war effort” but were seen as a “threat to the British way of life”.
Over 10,000 West Indians volunteered to defend Britain against the Nazis during the Second World War. Among them was Donald Clarke. The RAF veteran was born in British Guyana. He enlisted during the war and served in the West Indies, then signed up for a further 12 years of service in 1948.
Donald was among the veterans who opened a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London marking the contribution made to the war from the West Indies.
He made the journey to Britain onboard the Windrush in 1948.
“I was surprised by the hostility we experienced as we arrived at Tilbury docks,” he told Socialist Worker. “And for someone who was in the RAF I was shocked, because as colonials we had volunteered to fight for England.”
Many people in the British empire took part in raising money to help the war effort – in addition to the extra taxes, raw materials and food that flowed from the colonies to support the war.
The total donated by the people in the colonies, in collections, loans and personal contributions, topped an amount equivalent to £6.1 billion today – a huge sacrifice in countries with searing levels of poverty where the vast majority of people earned less than the equivalent of £1 a day.
Some 15,000 black merchant seamen helped keep the vital supply routes open. The majority of them hauled coal on the older, slower ships. Over 5,000 perished at sea.
There were 520 workers from the West Indies working in munitions factories in Britain, and 800 forestry workers from British Honduras – now Belize – cutting timber in Scotland.
Probably one of the groups that has been the least recognised is the flying crews. Considered the elite of the armed forces, fighter pilots and bombing crews are always depicted as white and upper class.
There were, however, 400 black flying crews and 6,000 ground staff, serving on all fronts. These faces are missing from the raft of war films that appeared in the decades following the war.
The influx of black soldiers and workers during the war troubled sections of the establishment. Some British officers attempted to ban white women from mixing with the black soldiers.
The British Colonial Office at the time worried “what the future population of the nation would look like” – but kept its reservations secret until after the war was over.
The general racism, however, was harder to hide.
The arrival in Britain of 150,000 black US soldiers added to the moral panics about “racial mixing”.
Donald said, “The black Americans had a different experience from us. They all served together [the US army was racially segregated]. We were in mixed units.
“Many English people saw a black face and thought we came from Africa, or were black Americans.
We felt the British public were not very well informed about us.”
Many West Indians were targeted by white US soldiers from the South who were stationed in Britain. They often reacted with violence to finding “coloured limeys” mixing freely with white people in pubs.
In one case troops from the West Indies guarding prisoners of war in Egypt were attacked by white South African troops who objected to seeing black men carrying weapons.
The official line during the war was praise for the contribution “from the colonies”. But after the war ended the establishment became obsessed by racial mixing. The press ran stories highlighting the growing number of “piccaninnies” – a term of abuse describing children of mixed race.
Donald first met Doris at the end of the war. They were married in 1948 and settled in south London.
As a white woman, Doris was stunned by the levels of hostility and racism they faced.
She told Socialist Worker, “It was very hard for me, as most of my family were opposed to our marriage.
“In the end we remained friends with those who accepted Donald, and just ignored those who had a problem.”
Doris is still angry that the country that owed so much to the sacrifice of black soldiers could turn against them. But she was determined to resist the racist onslaught.
“We were young at the time, and felt it was two of us against the world,” she said.
Donald eventually bought himself out of the RAF and went to work for Royal Mail – one of the few jobs open to black men.
The racism became more pronounced in the 1960s, feeding the growth of the National Front – the forerunner of the Nazi BNP. By the late 1970s these attitudes began to change, Donald said.
“By then people got used to seeing black people, and most English people began to realise that all the things the press accused us of – that we would do ‘bad things’ – didn’t happen.
“Although I was often homesick, I have no regrets about making the journey. I tell young people today to stay committed to their dreams, don’t give up your goals.”
From War to Windrush is on at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 29 March 2009.
Go to » london.iwm.org.uk
Keep Smiling Through: Black Londoners on the Home Front 1939-1945 is on at the Cuming Museum, 151 Walworth Road, London. It runs until 1 November. Phone 020 7525 2332