British Guiana's contribution to the war effort, 1939-1945
By Arlene Munro
December 11, 2003
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During the Second World War Guianese volunteered to serve in various ways.
The men formed a part of the South Caribbean Forces. Others served overseas with the British Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Women also made a contribution to the war effort. The Daily Chronicle reported that Mrs. Marjorie Coates, sister of Mrs. C.I. Franker, was perhaps the first woman from British Guiana to "report for active duty." In December 1939, she travelled to England and joined an Ambulance unit. Another issue of the Daily Chronicle reported that another Guianese girl, an emigrant, was employed in the Women's Land Army. This was not surprising for many female Caribbean women became involved in the war effort, in spite of the prevailing sexist view that women should be debarred from dangerous work. At this time it was generally felt that the woman's place was in the home and that she was incapable of handling mechanical and similar kinds of work. During this period of history, women in the West Indies and in other parts of the world were becoming more adventurous and moving away from the traditional roles of housewife and mother. West Indian women, like their British counterparts, were eager to become involved in the war effort and the opportunity to travel to England served as a motivating factor also. It is possible that some of the recruits were considering the possibility of settling in Britain also. In 1943, 30 West Indian women travelled to England to serve in the British Transport Auxiliary. They formed the first batch of 100 women who were selected to serve in this organisation.
In 1943, the War Office in Britain began to recruit women from British Guiana for the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service. It planned to send a female senior officer to Guiana to recruit women for service with this organisation. This visit never materialised for the officer returned to Britain after visiting Trinidad. Guianese women were asked to apply to the Recruiting Officer in Trinidad. They responded to this call with alacrity. By August 1944 the Daily Argosy was reporting that ten more Guianese girls had been selected to serve overseas with the Auxiliary Territorial Service. These young women were Corporal Nathalie John-son, Lance Corporals Gwen-dolyn Eytle, Molly Ouckama and Sheila Phillips, and Privates Olga McWatt, Jeanne Carter, Margot Sinson, Dorothy and Sheila Green and Maisie Roberts. The article indicated that this was not the first batch of women to be recruited from British Guiana.
From time to time, the Daily Chronicle and Daily Argosy offered news about Guianese serving in the war overseas. The Daily Chro-nicle reported in February 1943 that 61 Guianese airmen has seen active service and it even listed the names of these men. It stated, moreover, that four of them had been killed, while one had been taken prisoner. The newspapers revealed that Guianese from all classes joined the Royal Air Force. For example, the Assistant Superintendent of Police D. Hoban departed Guiana in order to enlist as an airman. A policeman, Cecil Miller, also joined the Royal Air Force in 1942.
The newspapers also reported the frequent mishaps on the war front. For example Cyril Grant, a Guianese airman in the Royal Force, was imprisoned in Germany, eventually released, and granted six weeks leave to return home. Stanley Roza, brother of Dr. Charles Roza, died when a torpedo struck his ship in 1943. It is not clear whether Roza was in the navy or was a passenger bound for England. Mohamed Hosein was disabled during the war and had to return to Guiana. TRR Wood, son of BR Wood, Conservator of Forests, received the posthumous award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for services rendered as a pilot. Another Guianese, Sergeant Pat Nobrega, sent a letter to his family from the Japanese camp where he was imprisoned. Captured by the Japanese during the Battle of Malay Peninsula, he was eventually released in 1945. Private Clarence Trim of the Canadian Army Corps died in the line of duty in Germany on April 27, 1945. Trim originated from Rose Hall, Berbice. Aircraftsman, Leslie Augustus James of the Royal Air Force, died in hospital in England on May 19, 1945. These are just a few examples of casualties sustained during the war.
To a lesser extent, the newspapers focused on those Guianese who were employed as technicians in Britain. It reported that H. Swamy, and F. Hinckson were employed at one of the largest bomber factories there.
At the end of the war, the Daily Chronicle also reported on those Guianese who were planning to return to British Guiana. One of those who were expected to return was Sol Sahadeo, Chief Petty Officer, who had served three and a half years in the United States Maritime Service in the Mediterranean and Middle East, the Atlantic and Pacific. Royal Navy signalman, Marcus Griffith, son of Rev. J.F. Griffith, returned home while Sergeant Francis Gonsalves of the Royal Tank Corps was expected home shortly after. Although some Guianese chose to return home, many chose to remain in Britain.
Some Guianese servicemen had the opportunity to become involved in some of the social activities related to the celebration of the Allied victory in the war. For example, Corporal Owen Rollins claimed that during the V-J celebrations, he sang a solo at St. Bride's Church and another at the African Churches Mission in Liverpool. Aide-de-camp Lionel Texeira, nephew of Francis Dias, sang at a concert where he won the first prize of a gold watch for his rendition of "Going Home" and "Don't Fence with Me."
The watch was presented to him by Princess Elizabeth.
British Guiana also contributed to the war effort by providing a haven for seamen who survived when their ships were destroyed by enemy action. In 1942, the Executive Council made arrangements for seamen who had survived from the ships which had been destroyed to be provided for and to be returned to their respective homes. A doctor was sent to meet survivors when they arrived at the harbour. The Harbour Master was made responsible for these matters until the United Nations Mariners' Club was constructed and a Part Welfare Officer was appointed. Mr. Minshall, a former Information Officer in Trini-dad, was appointed Port Welfare Officer with the salary of $200.00 per month.
This action was necessary because from time to time survivors of sunken ships arrived at Port Georgetown. For example, in September 1942, 32 survivors from two ships which were torpedoed in the Caribbean arrived at Port Georgetown. They were accommodated at the Young Men's Christian Association and expressed their gratitude to the people of Georgetown. At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Brickdam, a Requiem Mass was scheduled for 28th September 1942 at 7.00 a.m. for the men who perished when the ship was torpedoed. Mr. M. Perreira's house at 169 Waterloo and New Market Streets was another residence for survivors who arrived in Georgetown. This was used until the new Mariners' Club building in Kingston was finished. In 1943, the government of British Guiana allocated 416 pounds for the maintenance of survivors in the colony when Red Cross funds began to be exhausted. The government also received subscriptions from the public for this purpose.
Finally, British Guiana and Dutch Guiana were major suppliers of high-grade bauxite to America during the war years when there was an increased demand for bauxite. The aluminium produced from this bauxite was used by the military in the United States. Consequently, British Guiana's bauxite exports increased from 476,014 tons in 1939 to 1,901,969 tons in 1943. The economy of British Guiana benefited greatly from the revenue obtained through bauxite exports. The monetary worth of bauxite imports rose from approximately $2.9 million in the early 1940s to $6.7 million in 1947. This was a consequence of developments in the Demerara Bauxite Company when it opened two mines at Mackenzie, bringing to a total of three the number of mines it controlled. Therefore, more jobs were created for the Guianese people. The national income of British Guiana rose from $50 million in 1942 to 58 million dollars in 1944 and to $60 million by the end of the war partly because of the export earnings of bauxite.
Many West Indians became part of the Allied effort to defeat Germany's Forces in Europe. Some served in the Royal Air Force and others in the Merchant Marine. In addition, the local British Guiana Volunteer Force was made part of the South Caribbean Force. The local volunteer forces in other Caribbean colonies also joined the South Caribbean Force. Members of this force were trained, selected to serve overseas and travelled as far as Italy and the Middle East. However, the Second World War ended before they could participate in the war.
British Guiana, like all British West Indian colonies, was required to play a role in the Second World War. She made a financial contribution to the war effort at a time when money was scarce. Her young men and women volunteered their services overseas to the Royal Air Force, HM's navy, munitions factories and other places. For many young persons this was an adventure, and opportunity to receive training and work experience, and some did not return home. In the colony of British Guiana, efforts were made by the government to assist and to repatriate survivors of ships destroyed by the Germans. The colony also became a place of refuge for Spanish and Yugoslavian Jews who were being threatened by the Germans. Although it is difficult to assess the extent and the impact of British Guiana's contribution, it is clear that her efforts were not futile and insignificant.