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VE Day and the British empire

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As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Dr Neil Fleming, Principal Lecturer in Modern History, explores the importance and impact of the British empire in bringing about that victory, and its relevance to modern multicultural Britain.

The cancellation of public commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day has given its message of triumph over adversity a special resonance during the present global health crisis. There is, however, another parallel to be drawn. The former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has warned governments against treating the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘national issue.’ Likewise, historians challenge the still popular image of plucky little Britain standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany. Just as the UK’s scientific response to COVID-19 is part of a global effort, so too was its wartime mobilisation in 1939-45. Even before the USSR and USA entered the war in 1941, Britain was supported from the outset by its global empire. People and resources were marshalled on a huge scale and across the world.

The imperial dimension of the Second World War is largely forgotten today. The fact that the empire no longer exists is an obvious explanation. The reluctance of schools and museums to tackle the subject is another. There is wariness too of doing anything that has the potential to glorify or excuse imperialism; this has certainly served as a restraint on public commemoration in many former colonies.

However well-meaning, ‘imperial amnesia’ has had unintended consequences. In the 1960s, opponents of non-white immigration to the UK claimed that the Welfare State was meant to reward the nation’s wartime sacrifice, and that it was therefore unfair that South Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants also benefitted. As historians demonstrate, the significant expansion of welfare after 1945 was not a ‘reward’ but a means of addressing the urgent need for post-war reconstruction. It was also a direct response to the intractable economic and social problems that had scarred communities across the UK in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rather than late comers, imperial networks of employment and trade meant that non-white communities had been present in Britain for several centuries. They were often subjected to racism, such as the infamous 1919 ‘race riots’, but their established presence in the country meant that they were an integral part of the UK’s war effort in 1939-45. Moreover, almost as many non-white men as white men volunteered to serve in the ‘British’ armed services during the war. By far the largest contingent came from British India (present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), though Africans and West Indians also enlisted in significant numbers.

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Indeed, in the wake of the recent ‘Windrush scandal’, it is worth recalling that many of those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948 were Jamaican ex-servicemen. As such, they had already experienced living in wartime Britain and they were not alone. Lesser known examples include the hundreds of Caribbean workers in British munitions factories, and the almost thousand-strong workforce of Honduran foresters stationed across Scotland.

It is also important to recall the wartime role of Muslims, especially as Britain’s Muslim community is today the target of extreme right-wing groups that have appropriated iconic imagery associated with the Second World War. As Muslim leaders have asked, why is it not better known that over a million Muslims volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the British empire, just as an equally large number had served in the First World War?

Wartime mobilisation involved far more than recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen. Civilian work was vitally important, in agriculture, industry and transport, and women and men were mobilised across the empire to keep the wheels of production turning. Canada’s role in the Atlantic convoys is still remembered in Britain, but almost completely forgotten is the presence on board many British-registered ships of large numbers of South Asian and African sailors.

In relaying all of this it is important not to replace one myth with another. It is true that the British empire was more cohesive in its response to the war than some had previously predicted. But there were still tensions between Britain and the self-governing ‘dominions’—Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—over wartime strategy and organisation. More significantly, the image of a united front was undermined by nationalist opposition to participation in the conflict. The Indian National Congress chose to boycott the war effort despite being sympathetic to its aims. It was frustrated that Indian politicians had not been consulted by the British before putting their country’s vast resources on a war footing, despite years of reassurances that India was moving towards self-government. Ireland (excepting Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK), had become a dominion in 1922, and during the 1939-45 ‘Emergency’ it determinedly demonstrated its sovereignty by remaining neutral.

These examples of nationalist opposition were not completely effective. 43,000 Irish citizens joined the British forces, including deserters from the Irish army, and many Irish women and men moved to Britain to perform civilian war work. In the case of India, a staggering 2¼ million men served in the armed forces, playing a crucial strategic role in South Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The motives of volunteer recruits and war workers varied, from the need to escape poverty to seeking a new life. But not everyone was a volunteer. In Nigeria and Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), the colonial authorities were so determined to extract certain resources that they used techniques of forced labour.

As this suggests, racism remained a marked feature of the British empire despite waging a war against the Nazis. There was nevertheless some progress. The ‘colour bar’ preventing non-white men serving as commissioned officers was removed in October 1939. Non-white participation in legislatures was advanced in Nigeria, the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and British Guiana (present day Guyana). In 1944 Jamaica was granted a House of Representatives elected on a universal franchise. Still, these latter developments should not disguise the fact that the British were determined to remain in control of the pace of constitutional reform; that they were willing, during the war and for almost two decades after it, to use coercion in resisting those actively challenging their authority.

That determination reminds us that the Second World War did not herald the end of the British empire, at least not immediately. The independence granted to India and Pakistan in 1947 was part of a process of constitutional reform dating back to 1919. The displacement of Britain during the war by the United States, especially in the Caribbean and Pacific, reflected the shifting balance of global power, but it did not eliminate completely Britain’s influence in either region.

‘Imperial amnesia’ is understandable given that empire went hand in hand with racism, violence, and oppression. Equally, a determination to avoid repeating Europe’s destructive wars has encouraged precious habits of reconciliation and cooperation among former foes. Yet, it has meant that Victory in Europe Day looms larger in the British imagination than Victory over Japan Day, despite most of those fighting in the service of King George VI having to carry on until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. If this preference for VE Day over VJ Day is unlikely to change, let us hope that Britain’s multicultural society can at least remember that Asian, African, and Caribbean men and women contributed to the victory marked annually on 8 May.

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