Author: DAVID OLUSOGA
The stories of the thousands who came to Britain from the colonies and the occupied nations of Europe during World War II have often been marginalised and forgotten.
The word immigration and the phrase postwar are commonly paired. Those who study black history often talk of the existence of a “Windrush Myth”, a widely held notion that the presence of non-white people in Britain began in the summer of 1948, when that famous ship docked at Tilbury in Essex. To counter this, historians point to the long history of black and Asian people living in Britain, stretching back for many centuries. Yet when reaching for this deeper history, what is sometimes overlooked is a brief but remarkable era of diversity and encounter that, in 1948, was a recent national memory. For some of those on board the Windrush, many of whom were veterans of the Second World War returning (rather than emigrating) to Britain, it was personal experience.
The study of the Second World War is not without its own myths. Perhaps the most persistent – in this country at least – is the belief that between the fall of France and the launch of Hitler’s war against the USSR, Britain “stood alone” against the might of the Nazi war machine. It is an idea that is repeated more often than it is scrutinised and has become an element within the dominant popular image of Britain at war – that of an “Island Race” defiantly defending its realm while managing to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. This notion of Britain alone has been wheeled out regularly over the past couple of years and presented as evidence for the existence of a form of British exceptionalism that is said to distinguish us from our European neighbours.
As numerous historians have demonstrated, Britain’s solitude, even through the “Darkest Hour” of 1940-41, was far from complete. Rather than “alone”, Britain stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people from across the largest empire the world had ever seen. Churchill’s government made great efforts to portray the conflict as an “allies’ war”; not just global but also pan-European, an existential struggle against fascist tyranny in which Britain was not only the key player but an island sanctuary, the refuge and the training ground for peoples whose homelands had fallen to the enemy.