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  • Ben Bazley

The Untold Role of the British Empire in WWII

On the 8th May, 75 years ago, Germany signed a surrender agreement marking the end of the European theatre of the Second World War. Millions headed to the streets to celebrate ‘Victory in Europe’ Day. Whilst it is often portrayed as a glorious victory for the British forces, Britain’s actions in World War Two were considerably darker than most people realise. From engineering a famine to illegally using corporal punishment, the actions taken by the British armed forces were perhaps not as glorious as the victory is often portrayed.

In September 1939, the German army occupied Poland (a free, democratic state), creating conflict in Europe. However, the British declaration of war on Germany was an act fraught with racist undertones. Colonies (whose sovereignty was denied by the British) were forced to go to war to protect a distant nation’s freedom, whilst self-governing white dominions were given the choice of joining the conflict - with the Irish Free State remaining neutral for the war. Although colonial armies were officially made up of ‘volunteers’, underhand tactics were used to attract new recruits. In some parts of Africa, British officials placed massive amounts of pressure on village chiefs and elders to fulfil man quotas. When they were fulfilled, the officials did not ask any questions.

British policy resulted in the exploitation of entire nations. Puppet colonial governments gave the British government aid and low (or no) interest loans, when many basic services in the colonies - such as schools and healthcare - were woefully inadequate. Overall, £50 million was donated or loaned to the British government; yet resources were continuously extracted from colonies - with India’s famous Bengal Famine in 1943 being a result of racist British policy. Grain was continuously exported out of India to either Greece or Britain, an action which saw people in famine-stricken areas resorting to eating leaves and grass, killing their own starving children in an act of mercy, or taking their own lives. Meanwhile the British remained happy with a grain stockpile of around 20 million tonnes. Overall, decisions made by Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet led to the deaths of 3 million Indians.

Whilst Britain fought for European sovereignty, she actively suppressed independence movements within her empire. Any resistance to British rule was violently stomped out; In India, Gandhi’s peaceful ‘Quit India’ independence movement was met by British suppression, with over 100,000 arrests and public floggings commonplace. The violence did not stop there, with dozens of protesters killed every week.

Black and ethnic minority soldiers in the armed forces were constantly abused by higher ranking officers. Whilst officially outlawed in the British Army, corporal punishment was still used by white officers. People of colour were subject to beatings and public floggings for the smallest indiscretion, for example West African troops were caned for gambling on board a ship heading to East Africa in 1940. Officers did not stick to one style of punishment (one officer forced Ghanaian soldiers to carry heavy barbed wire on their heads) and often had no justification for the punishment, with many officers striking their soldiers in moments of frustration and anger.

Racism was not just reflected in the actions of individuals, it was institutionalised in the British military. British soldiers were paid much higher wages than those from the Commonwealth, and people of colour were prevented from progressing far up the ranks. A person of colour rarely became a commissioned officer (the British Navy had no black or minority ethnic commissioned officers) meaning that the highest rank that could be achieved was Sergeant-Major. Once in this role, a black or minority ethnic Sergeant-Major would earn just half of what the lowest ranking white soldier earnt. If they became a commissioned officer, they would only ever command troops who were of the same ethnicity. When soldiers left the British Army, the ‘war gratuity’ paid was also influenced by skin colour; white soldiers could earn up to three times the amount of gratuity paid to a black or minority ethnic soldier who had served for the same length of time at the same rank. Sometimes, war gratuity was not paid at all.

When the war ended, official celebrations were organised across Britain. No such celebrations were organised in the colonies. This sentiment is echoed today as the plight of the colonial soldier is often overshadowed by the efforts of British soldiers. It is estimated that half of all Commonwealth soldiers live in extreme poverty. On such an important anniversary, it is time that we give Commonwealth soldiers the respect they deserve and begin paying reparations to the colonies we exploited.

Image - Flickr (汾水烟波)

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