Fighting for king and empire: Britain’s Caribbean heroes


Roy Greenslade (The Guardian) writes about the unsung heroes of the Caribbean who fought for Britain against Hitler. These veterans will be highlighted in a television program that marks the 70th anniversary of VE day: Fighting for king and empire: Britain’s Caribbean heroes. The film reveals how thousands of men and women from the Caribbean volunteered to join the fight against Hitler. “From meager savings they paid their own passage to risk their lives,” but their contribution to World War II has largely been forgotten. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s commemoration of VE day, the film is being screened by BBC4 at 9:00pm on Wednesday, May 13.

Based on a small-budget documentary film, Divided by race – united in war and peace produced by the website, the programme is the result of a year-long collaboration between the website and BBC TV’s history department.

Some of the last surviving unsung heroes tell their extraordinary wartime stories: from torpedo attacks by German U-boats and the RAF’s blanket bombing of Germany to the culture shock of Britain’s freezing winters and war-torn landscape.

The film, which was co-produced by The-Latest’s Marc Wadsworth and Deborah Hobson, also exposes that a colour bar was enforced by the British military until political opposition to it forced a change of policy.

After the war, the veterans faced a lifelong challenge to be treated as equals by the British government and the British people. Many who returned to the Caribbean discovered that jobs were scarce and came back to Britain to help rebuild its devastated cities.

They settled down with jobs and homes, got married and began to integrate. Now mostly in their 80s and 90s – the oldest is 104 – these pioneers from the Caribbean have helped transform Britain and created an enduring multicultural legacy.

One of them was Laurent Phillpotts, now 92. He left Jamaica to serve in the RAF alongside Wadsworth’s father, whose story inspired him to make the original documentary. Sadly, Phillpotts – who appeared in the original film – wasn’t well enough to be interviewed for the BBC version.

Director-producer Matt Cottingham says: “In testimony full of wit and charm, the veterans candidly reveal their experiences as some of the only black people in wartime Britain. [. . .]

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