Daily Archives: 27 August, 2010

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950’s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press



Filed under Empire History, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

Fast jet flying club?: the perspective from across the pond

Last week I looked at the backgrounds of the UK Armed Forces chiefs of staff over the past 20 or so years, and what effect this might have on the outlook of their service.

The conclusion was, largely, that the RAF’s high command has been overwhelmingly been in the hands of former fighter pilots, while no officers with a background in the more humdrum fields of logistics or battlefield support have made it to the top of the tree.

By contast, Royal Navy and Army Chiefs of Staff seem to have had a more diverse background, both individually and in terms of the different people who have risen to the top of the pack.

But are these trends unique to the UK, or do they transcend national barriers? As a bit of a comparison, I thought I would take a look at the equivalent commands in the US. The findings are pretty interesting to say the least.

US Air Force

The US Air Force’s career structure is uncannily similar to that of the RAF – Fighter pilots are very much the top dogs. Apparently Norton Schwartz’s appointment as Chief of Staff was made deliberately to buck the trend, as the Secretary of Defence was keen to have someone other than a Fighter Pilot in command. The main difference with the RAF is that senior officers in the US Air Force have the opportunity of more ‘star’ commands before reaching Chief of Staff level, whether they be functional home commands of the command of air components in joint combat commands.

Norton Schwartz – Airlift (mainly C-130), US Transportation Command

Michael Moseley – Fighters (F-15 Eagle), Central Command Air Forces

John Jumper – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), Airlift (C-7 Caribou), US Air Forces Europe, Central Command Air Forces

Michael Ryan – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), US Air Forces Europe

Ronald Fogleman – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre), US Transportation Command, Deputy Commander Korea

Merrill McPeak – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre, F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom), Southern Command Air Forces

Michael Dugan – Fighters (F-100 Super Sabre), Attack (A-1 Skyraider), US Air Forces Europe

Larry Welch – Fighters (F-4 Phantom), Strategic Air Command

Charles Gabriel – Fighters (F-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabre), US Air Forces Europe

Lew Allen – Bombers (B-29 Superfortress, B-36 Peacemaker), Air Force Systems Command

US Navy

US Navy Chiefs of Staff have a broadly diverse experience base. Most have commanded a number of ships, and the modern trend is for former Destroyer and Cruiser Captains. For a Navy based on the power of the supercarrier, very few have actually commanded a carrier, although some have commanded Carrier Battle Groups. During the Cold War aviators and submariners were in a prominent position.

Gary Roughead – Destroyer (USS Barry), Cruiser (USS Port Royal), George Washington Carrier Battle Group, US Pacific Fleet

Michael Mullen – Tanker (USS Noxubee), Destroyer (USS Goldsborough), Cruiser (USS Yorktown), George Washington Carrier Battle Group, US Second Fleet

Vern Clark – Gunboat (USS Grand Rapids), Destroyer (USS Spruance), Destroyer Squadrons, Carl Vinson Carrier Battle Group, US Second Fleet, US Atlantic Fleet

Jay Johnson – Naval Fighters (F8- Crusader, F-14 Tomcat), Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group, US Second Fleet

Jeremy Boorda – Minesweeper (USS Parrot), Frigate (USS Farragut), Saratoga Battle Group, US Naval Forces Europe

Frank Kelso – Submarines (USS Finback, USS Bluefish), US Sixth Fleet, US Atlantic Command

Carlisle Trost – Submarines, US Seventh Fleet, US Atlantic Fleet

James Watkins – Destroyers, Cruisers, Submarines, Sixth Fleet, Pacific Fleet

Thomas Hayward – Naval Fighters, Aircraft Carrier (USS America), US Seventh Fleet, US Pacific Fleet

James Holloway – Naval Fighters (F-9 Panther), Attack (A-4 Skyhawks), Aircraft Carrier (USS Enterprise), US Seventh Fleet

US Army

US Army Generals also come from a broad experience base, both as individuals and as a group. Unlike the British Army, where an officer stays within his Regiment until reaching ‘star’ rank, in the US Army it is not unknown for officers to transfer frequently, and hence gain experience in more than one arm. As in the British Army, it is not unknown for an infantryman to command an Armoured Division, for example. It is also noticeable that more US Generals appear to have Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault qualifications, even if they have not served in the relevant units. Commanders in Vietnam usually became Chief of Staff of the Army, probably due to the profile and experience that the war in South East Asia gave them.

George Casey – Rangers/Mechanized Infantry, 1st Armoured Division, Multi-National Force Iraq

Peter Schoomaker – Armoured Cavalry/Special Forces, Delta Force, US Special Operations Command

Eric Shinseki – Infantry/Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Seventh US Army

Gordon Sullivan – Armour, 1st Infantry Division, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations and Plans)

Carl Vuono – Artillery, 8th Infantry Division, Training and Doctrine Command

John Wickham – Infantry/Airborne, 101st Airborne Division, US Forces Korea

Edward Meyer – Armoured Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations and Plans)

Bernard Rogers – Infantry, 5th Infantry (Mechanized) Division, US Army Forces Command

Frederick Weyand – Artillery/Intelligence, 25th Infantry Division, II Field Force (Vietnam), Military Assistance Command (Vietnam), US Army Pacific

Creighton Abrams – Armour, 3rd Armoured Division, V Corps, Military Assistance Command (Vietnam).


Filed under Army, defence, Navy, Uncategorized