‘We Were Soldiers’: Jamaican Women Enlist in World War II

  • Dalea BeanEmail author


This chapter focuses on the experience of Jamaican women who served in the British army and examines their motives for participating in World War II. The results of participation are also assessed, around themes relating to what was achieved for King, country and self. The chapter begins with an overview of the long battle to get the British War Office to accept Jamaican women in the army. This background to enlistment is juxtaposed against the oral accounts of the soldier’s experience before, during and after their service. Their ability to utilise every opportunity for self-advancement as a result of the war is the hallmark of this section.


Jamaican West Indian Women Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) soldiersSoldiers Service Territory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

In September 1943, the SS Rimutaka sailed from Jamaica to England with unusual passengers: twenty-four young Jamaican female soldiers in the British Army. These women constituted the first contingent of recruits to the Auxiliary Territorial Service from the West Indies, through they would not be the last. Over the course of World War II more than 600 women served in the arms of the British Army in Britain, Canada, the United States and in their respective island homes. Trained as soldiers, these women, though few in comparison to their male colonial counterparts, paradoxically epitomised the bonds of Empire while challenging gendered colonial paradigms of military service. Their motivations, experiences in service, triumphs, disappointments remains largely uncelebrated by native country and former colonial power alike, but their very existence serves to debunk the perception that the colonies offered only male bodies to the fight the Empire’s wars.

The road to recruitment, paved with racial tensions, sexism and imperial anxieties, will be addressed in this chapter, as well as an exploration of narratives of service from women themselves, through interviews and published memoirs. From accounts given by Beverley Marsh, Ena Collymore-Woodstock OD, Kitty Cox, Olga Shervington, Norma Wint, Doreen Rickards, Lillian Bader, Esther Armagon and Constant Mark, one can glean that combination of a deep sense of loyalty to King and country, the need for adventure, a search for opportunities to change the course of their otherwise predictable lives and a deliberate challenge to the masculinised military enterprise motivated these women to abandon comfort zones for war zones.

These women’s willingness test the limits of acceptable female engagement with the war should perhaps not come as a surprise in a country with a long history of women’s involvement in wars of resistance. Contrary to the colonial ideals of peaceful and passive femininity, West Indian women refused to adhere to non-violent living, particularly where peace was synonymous with repressive systems of administration. Indigenous Kalinago women of the Eastern Caribbean were known to have skills with a bow and arrow and were involved in the preparation for battles. Similarly, women of African descent played active roles in protest movements during and after slavery. While some are well known, particularly Nanny of the Maroons, the quintessential rebel woman, and Cubah in Jamaica and Nanny Grigg of Barbados, countless women engaged in slave revolts and liberation wars in the Caribbean (Beckles 1989, 1999; Bush 1990; Mathurin Mair 2006; Shepherd 2007; Wilmot 2009).

As discussed in this work’s introduction, the life of Mary Seacole gives the best example of the long tradition of para-military aspirations of Jamaican women. Imbued with a deep sense of loyalty to the British Empire and an even greater motivation to tend her military ‘sons’, Seacole created a space for unofficial but effective military nursing on the battlefields of Sebastopol and Tchernya in the Crimean war in the 1850s. Seacole’s agency and bravery undoubtedly resonated in the minds of those who would offer service in World War II. Indeed, Constance Marks, who served the ATS for 10 years, was inspired by Seacole and was key in establishing the Friends of Mary Seacole Organisation in England (Kyriacou 1992). Seacole, Marks and other Jamaican women who later opted for military service in World War II, feminised a typically male enterprise, mounted a collective opposition to patriarchal militarism and challenged the conventional dichotomies associated with respectable womanhood and war.

Prelude to Jamaican Women’s Military Service

It has been established that Jamaican women were expected to be involved in the war efforts of the British Empire. However, while the British government was appreciative of their work from home to provide supplies for export, it was not as willing to employ these women as members of the army. While women were eventually allowed to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and other auxiliaries of the army, this was after a long battle, of which these women were unaware, between the War Office and Colonial Office.

As has been established in Chap.  4, the War Office, guided by racist principles, was not eager to recruit black West Indians, regardless of gender. However, in the case of West Indian women, blatant sexism which buttressed virulent racism punctuated the debates as to whether West Indian women would be allowed to participate in defending the Empire. The issue elicited heated secret debates from Britain’s top political and military figures, and it would be four years into the war before these women were able to serve in the army. The battle was waged on racial grounds, as the War Office insisted on upholding the colour bar, while the Colonial Office reminded their War Office colleagues that this position could ignite the West Indian people to insurgency just a few short years after the widespread workers’ protest movement of 1938. The Colonial Office insisted that given the sensitive political climate of the West Indies, British acknowledgement of the patriotic stance of men and women in the colonies was necessary or this loyalty would quickly turn into dissent. As Lord Moyne warned,

the people of the West Indies are eager to take an effective part in the war effort, but so far it has not been possible to give them much opportunity, and there is a danger of the spread of a sense of frustration and un-wantedness. Anything that we can do to give West Indians a part in the war effort is of the utmost political value locally, quite apart from the direct value of their services in industry and elsewhere. 1

The quarrel between the War and Colonial Offices were nothing short of déjà vu, as the Colonial Office faced the same dilemma with allowing West Indian men to participate in World War I (Howe 2002; Smith 2004; Goldthree 2011). Once, again, the Colonial Office was not calling for the dismantling of the colour bar, neither should it be idealised as a lobbyist for the human rights of the African diaspora. The Colonial Office was merely interested in political expediency, trying desperately to perform its dual roles of controlling the Empire and ensuring that while fighting a war against a remarkably racist foe, Britain should not herself be accused of racist practices.

The Colonial Office would face difficulty in carrying out these mandates however, since racism and sexism were as much part of the War Office’s guiding principles as was the defence of the realm. On the eve of war, the Army Order 89 of 1938 by the Army Council restricted entry into British armed forces to ‘men of pure European descent’ and the navy and air force soon followed suit (Sherwood 1985, 1). Influenced by the challenges associated with overwhelming expressions of unrequited colonial affection and military aspirations of West Indian men during World War I, the British Army sought to codify its exclusion of black and brown bodies from any future global conflict situation. However by 1939 with the outbreak of total war, a rekindled interest from West Indian men to serve, recent unrest in the colonies related to unemployment and other socio-economic vicissitudes of a failing colonial enterprise, and the prying eyes of British enemies and allies alike, the Colonial Office was forced to suggest lifting the colour bar; if only to improve the optics of Empire at a precarious time. Indeed, the War and Colonial Offices first came under pressure from thousands of blacks residing in Britain who were barred from service from the Officers Training Corps, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy because of their skin colour. Governors from the West Indies also mounted pressure on His Majesty’s Government as they were bombarded by letters from men, eager to save Britain from a new and merciless German menace.

On 19 October 1939, Winston Churchill ordered the lifting of the colour bar for the duration of the war. The release from the Colonial Office read: ‘British subjects from the colonies and British protected persons in this country, including those who are not of European descent, are now eligible for emergency commissions in His Majesty’s Forces.’ Lobbyists like Dr. Harold Moody, founder of the League of Coloured Peoples, expressed dissatisfaction with the wording of announcement. Moody took umbrage to the temporary lifting of the colour bar and said: ‘we are thankful for this, but we do not want it only for the duration of the war. We want it for all time. If the principle is accepted now, surely it must be acceptable all the time’ (Macdonald 1973). More than even the tone of the message, history has proven the statement to be a mere public relations stunt as the Foreign Office sent secret advisories to Consular Offices that read ‘only offers of service from white British subjects should be considered’ (Sherwood 1985, 5). The lifting of the colour bar was fiction. Black recruits were to be discouraged from applying for enlistment and/or rejected based on whatever reason could be plausibly fabricated on a case-by-case basis. Failed medical examinations were routinely used as excuses as well as concerns over the shortage of transportation and poor skill-set of applicants. However, by 1940 numerous cases emerged of well-educated and capable black British, African and West Indian men being rejected from all branches of the army; many of whom publicly highlighted the fact that the army was contravening the lifting of the colour bar one year earlier. By 1940 also, the acute shortage of skilled men of pure European stock was being felt in Britain and forced the War Office to begrudgingly accept non-white recruits and labourers. As a result, between 1940 and 1945, 6000 West Indian men served with the RAF, with the majority (over 5000) serving as ground staff and 300 as aircrew and pilots. Thousands also served in munitions factories, in the merchant navy, as lumberjacks and skilled engineers. The move also paved the way for millions of African American and African servicemen to be stationed in Britain (Bourne 2012).

While the thorny issue of the colour bar was being debated, the unnamed sex bar for women of pure European stock also featured as a throbbing headache for the War Office. Allowing black women to be equal partners in the danger and glory of hetero-masculine military complex should not have been expected to be easy within the context of white British women’s own struggles to serve in the army. The formal enlistment of British women in the army was a slow and painstaking process. Like most militaries of the day, The British Army resisted classifying women as soldiers in World War I. Guided by long-established connections between masculinity and the military, the War Office considered the presence of female combatants as a devaluation of the status of the institution. Initially, therefore, para-military female organisations were formed outside the ambit of the British Army and by collective efforts of women who yearned to serve. Long before 1914 however, British women had attached themselves to armies as camp followers. From the 1700s, these women served as cooks, nurses, and sexual partners; offering a range of essential services in a civilian capacity. In the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale epitomised military nursing, bridging the gap between female roles of caring and compassion within the masculine space of open warfare. However, it was the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) formed in 1907, which officially attempted to formalise military nursing efforts. FANY provided a critical site through which upper-class women were able to prove their patriotism and selflessness (Noakes 2006, 32). At the outbreak of World War I, their offer of service was flatly rejected by the War Office and led them to concentrate their efforts on French and German armies. British Military authorities were more interested in utilising women on the home front, as facilitators for men’s recruitment than as members of the military. This did not stymie the growth of numerous scattered voluntary organisations for women, including the Home Service Corps, Women’s Auxiliary Force and the Women’s Volunteer Reserve. Eventually, the need to formalise the numerous female para-military units resulted in the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1917. By the end of the war close to 40,000 women were involved in military service, although they remained designated as civilians/camp followers, with roles that typified peace-time female gender roles, such as cooking and clerical work.

The interwar years were characterised by disagreements between the War Office and female leaders about this demeaning designation of military women’s status. But with war looming in the late 1930s came the formation of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1938 attached the army, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS/WRENS) linked to the Navy and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) with obvious connections to the Royal Air Force. The WRNS and WAAF were formed in 1939 and concentrated on volunteers from the upper and middle echelons of British society, making them class-conscious units. Staffed by women with close family ties to men in the Territorial Army, the ATS became one of the few British women’s organisations that accepted working-class women, though Princess, now Queen Elizabeth joined the ATS at her own insistence in 1944 and facilitated a subtle shift the image of the Service. None the less, the ATS generally faced ridicule as a hotbed of promiscuity and idle pursuits. Considered the ‘groundsheets of the army’ (Noakes 2006, 2) the hostility towards women of the ATS was a microcosm of the distrust and unease that wider British society often exhibited to women in the military.

The lobbying by the women’s services eventually bore fruit, and in 1941 they were incorporated into the Army Acts, conferring military status on all female auxiliary units. In the same year, the National Service (No. 2) Act was also passed, effectively conscripting young unmarried women for service in the face of the dire need to release all able-bodied men for active combat roles. In the midst of World War II therefore, the War Office was well engaged in the process of shifting the boundaries of military service from a white male enterprise to temporarily include white women and black and brown men from across the Empire. By 1939, black men’s and white women’s integration into military service, though still problematic, was at least not novel. However black women remained the last frontier of exclusion on the eve of World War II, and having suffered a series of defeats in its position, the War Office was not eager to cave on this final issue. Even though British wartime propaganda would eventually include posters, print ads and action packed films highlighting unity in the Empire and the part being played British subjects across the world, the inherent racist underpinnings of Britain’s association with her colonies in the Caribbean did not wane.

The War Office placed several obstacles in the way of the recruitment of West Indian women to the British Army, and the arguments which they employed to hold on to the last bastion of segregation constituted political subterfuge. Black West Indian women were eager to sign up to assist the British Empire to defeat a foe which considered them sub-human by virtue of their race without considering that their beloved mother country viewed their skin colour with similar (and perhaps only slightly diluted) disdain. Where women were to be recruited in the British ATS in Washington, the United States colour bar was used as an excuse to justify their own racist ideologies, claiming that it would offend the Americans to have black or coloured women serving there. A branch of the ATS was set up in 1941 and with American entry in the war in that same year, pressure mounted to increase the number of women from the token 30 that were originally stationed there. British women could not be spared and it fell to ATS director, Jean Knox to find suitable recruits. She looked to the West Indies as a viable option given the proximity of the region to the United States, under instruction to seek white women only. The American colour bar was used as a smokescreen to divert attention from Britain’s own racism. Cognisant that the West Indian response to such overt prejudice would spark outrage, several Governors expressed their anxiety over the policy. Sir Henry Bushe, governor of Barbados pleaded with the Secretary of State:

(the) possibility of recruiting women from Barbados for women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service with British mission in the USA has been discussed here with the controller of the W.A.T.S visiting from Washington, who informed me her instructions were that only girls of purely European descent should be recruited… I fear recruitment on this basis will cause resentment and I think it would be helpful to us all if the War Office could find it possible to reconsider the policy. 2

In response, the Colonial Office fed the War Office with pragmatic reasons to reverse this position through Norman Mayle, respected retired RAF serviceman. Brigader Pigott of the War Office dismissed Mayle’s insistence that the policy would spark racial antagonism in the colonies thus: ‘special reasons render it inadvisable for coloured ATS to be employed in Washington itself. It might well cause embarrassment to the authorities and the commander advices very strongly against such course of action.’ 3 However, communications relating to ATS recruitment in Britain around the same time, indicate the general tone of the War Office and proves that the American colour bar was hardly the issue. Brigadier Pigott’s letter to the Colonial Office explained the position:

we are quite prepared to accept any suitable European women from the colonies for enrolment into the ATS and would hope that you would arrange with the treasury for their fares to be paid as is done for those who come from foreign countries… I must emphasise that this applies to European women only and that we cannot agree to accept coloured women for service in this country. 4

Needless to say, ‘this country’ was in reference to England and not to the United States, and the level of care and attention being paid to the welfare of white women was in stark contrast to the disdain being privately meted out to black West Indians. Despite the obvious deceit involved in the ATS/Washington arrangement, The War Office was successful in upholding this colour bar, and as a result, all 200 women from the West Indies who were stationed in Washington were white. The Jamaican recruits were quietly sent off without the usual fanfare associated with Jamaican military service. Undoubtedly the prickly issue of the recruitment of an all-white regiment was not lost on even the pro-British print media. On 27 October 1943 The Gleaner included a total of seven lines on the 40 Jamaican recruits, noting their safe arrival in Florida, and travel to Canada for training before settling in the posting in Washington.

The decision relating to Washington was a victory for the War Office, but there was little time to celebrate as they now had to tackle the issue of what to do with black recruits, since white West Indians were accepted for service in America. A steady stream of letters from black West Indians were being sent to ATS officials expressing interest to join the ranks in Britain. The War Office discouraged any idea of black women being transported to British soil and suggested that local service would be a better fit (Bousquet and Douglas 1991, 86). When this outlived its usefulness, the War Office hung on to the issue of Britain’s cold climate for dear life, as well as the apparent inability of the Caribbean nationals to adapt to British customs. Coupled with the weather was the issue of the frailty of the women and susceptibility to illness. Lieutenant Colonel Williams, deputy Adjutant General was only too quick to mention the problems the first 23 recruits of 1943 faced at the Guilford training facility:

The women are reported to be very keen, beginning to be a bit home-sick but have very little stamina. 75% of them have reported sick at different times, some with very small ailments but a few have been in bed almost ever since they arrived in this country and some have got chronic coughs… it is doubtful whether these women can stand the climate here. 5

The issue of shipping shortages was used to hinder recruitment as well, even after the scheme for recruiting women was eventually approved. James Grigg, as a last line of exasperated defence of the War Office position, exclaimed:

I don’t at all like your West Indian ATS ideas… I think it is quite possible that the 30 will go back to their own place very sour just as most of the Indians at Oxford and Cambridge used to do and probably still do. Anyhow, shipping shortages will make the process of bringing them over a bit uncertain and you will have to allow for that from the start. 6

The insistence of the War Office to keep black women away from the military and particularly the ATS is quite intriguing given the fact that the Service was the most unpopular among British women and was in greatest need for recruits. As Noakes (2006, 114) explains, the War Office target of 5000 recruits per week was often a far cry from the 1600 British women who actually joined the ranks weekly. The perception of the ATS being a company of prostitutes and the largely domestic and clerical work undertaken by the recruits were not overly attractive to British women. However, not even this reality was able to sway the War Office’s views on black female recruits and the Colonial Office was only able to convince the War Office to slightly lift the colour bar after the recruitment of white West Indian women and incident of great embarrassment to do with a Bermudan woman, Miss Curtis.

Miss Curtis applied to the ATS and was given clearance to join provided that she passed a medical. However when the War Office ascertained that she was black, they attempted to overturn their own ruling to keep Curtis from joining the ATS. In a letter to the Colonial Office, Lieutenant-Colonel Williams explained the War Office’s position: ‘It was not apparent from Curtis’ application that she was coloured otherwise her application would not have been accepted… We do not wish to accept Curtis and I suggest that the Governor should be informed that there is at present no suitable vacancy in the ATS in this country into which she could be accepted.’ Despite Mayle pointing out that this blatant fabrication was unacceptable, Williams held firm to the view that the War Office ‘cannot agree to accept coloured women for service in this country.’ 7

It was further suggested that the governor of Bermuda be told that the time between her application (December 1941) and their reply (1943) was too long and her case was dismissed as a result and that Bermuda was not in the West Indies and, as such no application from them was valid. The Colonial Office however surmised that any excuse would have been construed by the colonies as a direct attempt to keep Curtis out because of her colour (which indeed it was). Regarding Curtis, Oliver Stanley wrote:

Rightly or wrongly, this is bound to be represented as colour discrimination and to cause much local resentment… To scrap the whole scheme would be one way out, but from my point of view it would be a very bad way out. The other way would be to find employment for some of the coloured ATS in this country the numbers could be very small, all that matters is gesture. 8

The Colonial Office was eager to use the introduction of the scheme for the recruitment of ATS in the West Indies as a way out of the ‘troublesome case’ of Miss Curtis. They implored the War Office that having a ‘small practical’ scheme in which Curtis could be included, would cover their racism and improve the optics of the case, which was so badly bundled. Eventually the War Office agreed to host a small number of women as a token act to cover the issue of the gaffe regarding Ms. Curtis. They effectively lost the battle regarding black women’s exclusion from the British Army, and as a result, Curtis and 30 other West Indian women were allowed to join the ATS in the first instance in 1943.

The extent of the victory was largely unknown by the recruits as they were unable to mount a challenge for themselves, being largely unaware of how close the War Office came to dashing their hopes for assist their mother country in her time of greatest need. Also, while the Jamaican and West Indian women recruited in the army were quantitatively insignificant, the symbolic effect of their presence far exceeded their numbers. For the first time in Jamaican history, women were being formally trained for military service. This facilitated a shift the gendered profile of the military, and was impossible to undo in post-war years. While women were almost completely barred from front-line service, the pride at being engaged in a global phenomenon, and elevated sense of self-worth changed their own views on women’s capacities and colonial gender norms. Finally, the educational and professional opportunities that came with service in the army, rewards previously set aside for men, opened new doors for the women who served and positively impacted Jamaica’s social development.

Narratives of Service

In 1925, in a piece on women’s potential for leadership, Amy Jacques Garvey said ‘the doll-baby type of woman is a thing of the past and woman is forging ahead prepared for all emergencies and ready to answer any call, even if it be to face the cannons on the battlefields’ (Vassell 1993, 11). Her prophetic words rang true for the women who chose to join various arms of the British Army from Jamaica. While some recruits were unprepared to face cannons, their narratives of service speak to the rejection of tropes of frailty and passivity, though their social status was shaping them for doll-like realities.

In the main, Jamaican recruits for the ATS were well-educated middle-class women rather than the working class typically associated with British ATS women. Constance ‘Connie’ Mark for instance attended the prestigious Wolmer’s High School for Girls and did training at a Commercial College in shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. She then ascertained from one of her teachers that expert shorthand typists were required at Up Park Camp, Jamaica’s military headquarters. After taking the test and placing first in the cohort, she was accepted into secretarial work there. She served in the ATS for ten years as a medical secretary at the British Military Hospital. Beverly Marsh, who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs), a non-combatant branch of the Canadian Army for women, established during the Second World War to release men from non-combatant roles, was also from a middle-class background. A resident of Morant Bay in St. Thomas, she also attended to Wolmer’s High School for Girls. Marsh attested to her family’s upper middle-class status, noting that her father could afford a large enough portion of land for the family of nine to live on. She said:

My father had thought, since he was having all these children, we should have some where to run around and he actually bought a house with 7 acres of land, and we had a cow. My mother was really the business woman on the property, he would go to work he had his business outside, and she ran the business. 9

Ena Collymore-Woodstock, originally from Spanish Town, resided at the YWCA for a year before she joined the ATS in 1943. She attended St. Hugh’s High School on an individual scholarship. Olga Shervington attended Alpha Academy, and did secretarial work before joining the ATS. Kitty Cox attended Happy Grove High and then St. Andrew High for Girls and, after leaving school, she attended commercial school. Similarly, Norma Wint, who would eventually marry renowned Jamaican sports man and RAF pilot Arthur Wint, 10 attended St. Andrew High for Girls and then Excelsior Commercial School. Doreen Rickards, a Bahamian who joined the ATS in Jamaica and subsequently made Jamaica her home, also did secretarial courses and also had a top-notch high school education. These women were well educated to the secondary level and had further qualifications of a commercial nature, and were being groomed for a life of professional service, housewifery and motherhood.

The social stratum of the women is also evidenced by their general disregard for the wages they would receive as soldiers. This is not to suggest that Caribbean ATS recruits women were not in need of salaries they received. However, for most of those who were interviewed, the issue of being paid wages to assist themselves or to remit to their families was not a major concern. When Marsh was asked if monetary concerns played any role in her decision to join the army, she laughed and said, ‘No, I hadn’t even thought about that.’ Similarly, Shervington noted that she had a good job before leaving for England, so she had no real monetary concerns. Rickards echoed this view, although she did remember that the ATS were better paid than local male soldiers noting, ‘We got an allowance, they didn’t really call it a salary it wasn’t much but we got more than the local soldiers.’ This was as a result of the decision that all ATS recruits should be paid on the same scale as British ATS members. 11

Evident from the soldiers was that being British was deeply entrenched in their psyche and influenced their choice to take an active role in the war. As discussed in Chap.  2, loyalty to the British Empire pervaded the psyche of much of the Jamaican population. The period 1930–1962 in Jamaica signalled the emergence and development of ‘Jamaicanism’ and a shift from colonial leanings to inward yearnings (Palmer 2016). Nonetheless, the young middle-class women who participated as soldiers during the closing years of World War II exhibited the traditional acceptance of their British status. As women living in colonial Jamaica, their ‘dual’ ideology as Jamaican people and British subjects influenced their understanding of self and belonging. Perceptions of self were of being British first and Jamaican second.

These feelings were so well-established, that they saw defending their country as much as a defence of Jamaica as for Britain, and influenced those that joined the arm locally, or travelled to Canada or the United States to give service there. Rickards explained that when interviewed by the commanders as to why they wanted to join the army, the standard answer was: ‘To help my King and country’. Collymore-Woodstock echoed this view noting, ‘We felt that we were British. I think you would describe me as a person who was loyal, I was defiantly British, I felt that way.’ Constance Marks expressed similar feelings about England ‘England was our mother country. We were brought up to respect the Royal Family. I used to collect pictures of Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth. I adored them.’ 12 Wint added to this sentiment, noting that she felt very strongly about the war, and wanted to be a part of it based on patriotism to Empire. While her family was not particularly pleased that she opted to travel to England during the war, she harboured no idea of fear of the dangerous situation she was entering and was ‘hell bent on going to take part’.

Affinity to Britain therefore translated to a longing to assist King and country during World War II. In some cases, recruits exhibited an elevated sense of their importance; harbouring lofty thoughts of saving Britain through their service. As Marsh explained, many women joined the army ‘To go and save the world, to save England.’ Though she laughed when saying this, hinting that in retrospect this idea was far-fetched, she was not the only one who felt this way. Connie Mark explained, ‘I was very proud that I was in the army… it was punched into your brains that Britain is the mother country; your mother country had a problem so you were very proud that you could come to England and help your mother out of her problem.’ 13 Camille Duboulay-Devaux, a St. Lucian also reminisced, ‘I eventually ended up working in the War Office and I always say they never would have won the war if they hadn’t had me there making all that tea to keep all those old colonels going.’ 14 Connie Mark also commented that the recruiters ‘would go into all the little corners of Jamaica and they would beg, literally beg you to come to fight for England… so we all felt obliged to come and everybody was very happy to come’ (Kyriacou 1992, 1).

While it is impossible to ascertain the personal interactions between recruiters and eligible women, the fact that British authorities were loath to include black women in the army does offer some contradiction to Marks’ recollection of ‘begging’. While a more extensive call for recruits featured in Jamaican print media by 1944, the carefully worded release was far from the stirring 1914 ‘Appeal from the King’. The announcement indicated that Junior Commander Barbara Oakley would be seeing a ‘limited number of recruits’ for service overseas and in Jamaica and that ‘only girls with good clerical experience or those with an educational standard school certificate would be considered.’ Elementary educated young women were told not to apply; serving early notice that working-class women would not be considered for the ATS. A schedule of her proposed visits to key cities in the island was printed and it was made clear that the process would include an interview, rather than the mass recruitment drives Jamaicans had been accustomed to during World War 1. All aspects of the release pointed to the creation of a middle-class task force to appease the colonies and give a restricted opportunity for service.

It was natural for these women to exhibit some measure of loyalty to Britain, as they were British subjects. However Bousquet and Douglas (1991) have found these sentiments paradoxical. They note that these women had not even travelled from one territory to another in the Caribbean region, but at the first sign of war they were willing to travel over 5000 miles, sometimes under arduous conditions, to defend a country they had only been taught about. However, the penchant of the middle class to cling to things British, and the resulting willingness of these women to defend ‘King and country’, was only one of the reasons for joining the British Army. In fact, it may be argued that it was not the overriding factor for many. In some cases, the women were influenced by male family members or loved ones who were serving in the RAF, Merchant Navy and other branches of the military. When the call was open for women, they capitalised on the opportunity to be part of the action with little thought that the military was typically a masculine preserve. This, coupled with the need for adventure and the need to change the humdrum nature of colonial life, were strong motivating factors. With little expectation to see dangerous front-line action, most of the women expressed some level of excitement to travel for the first time, and face the great unknown. Olga Crawford-Shervington, expressed both sentiments saying ‘it was fun and seemed to be an exciting opportunity to go to war. My brother had gone to England and it seemed natural that I should follow him there’ ( The Gleaner , 22 August 1993, 4). Prevailing ideologies of British loyalty were therefore entwined with conscious actions relating to familial ties and a youthful craving for adventure.

In addition, it was evident that recruits not only wanted to ‘save’ Britain, but had a real concern for the safety of Jamaica during the war. Doing their part to secure Jamaican liberty and freedom was also an influencing factor in their decision to enlist. The recruits were aware of the island’s geopolitical positioning in a global war. Connie Mark aptly explained this:

we were very involved in the war effort… don’t forget we were an island and if a boat was torpedoed when you were expecting oil, then the island would be short of oil… We were vulnerable because the Americans had a base in Jamaica at Sandy Gully and we were close to Cuba, which meant that we were a strategic target. 15

The conflict was considered to be far beyond a European civil war—it was a threat to life and safety in Jamaica as well. When asked about the sentiments of her community to World War II, Beverly Marsh responded similarly, ‘where I lived in Morant Bay you could look out to the sea, and you would see the ships passing and sometimes you would see what looked like a battleship. It was something that I think we had a lot of concern about.’ Cox also recounted the ways in which the war affected her community and family in Morant Bay:

Well it was frightening, because there was rationing of every kind, we had blackouts, you had to do your homework by kerosene lamp, and it had to be the area where there was no light shining through, there was gasoline rationing, and my brothers worked with the government on travelling jobs they had to ration their gas. As a matter of fact when you were coming down a steep hill, instead of coming down in gear we had to coast down to conserve on gas.

Wint also explained that her family was affected by the shortages that were being faced during World War II. In her words: ‘Before I left Jamaica, my father had a small car and he had to use it very carefully because there was not enough petrol. I remember I got a bicycle; I was working at the Treasury at the time, and I rode to work.’

These women expressed a willingness to get involved in the country’s effort because the war hit even closer to home if their friends or relatives were casualties in either World Wars I or II. Beverly Marsh reminisced that some past students of Wolmer’s lost their lives in a shipwreck. In her words, ‘…beneath it all we wanted to do something about the war, we didn’t just want to sit here.’ Mark had a similar experience and reminisced, ‘After I left my girl’s school, I went to a mixed school to do my commercial course and sat next to a young man who later went to England to join the RAF. I saw his name on the list of the war dead which was posted in Kingston.’ She recounted the story of a friend who went to England to take piano finals at the Royal College of Music and died when she was returning to Jamaica and her ship was torpedoed. Her job as a medical secretary included her typing the medical reports for men injured in battle. Images and reports of the toll the war was taking on the human body were part of her daily reality. As she said ‘having to type the medical reports really brought home the reality of war… you saw men leaving hale and hearty and you see them coming back on stretchers, you see them coming back in wheelchairs, some blind’ (Kyriacou 1992, 2).

It is estimated that at least one-third of West Indian volunteers in World War II were killed in action (Johnson 2014, 230) and Marks’s account of Jamaicans searching lists for wounded relatives also signifies just how much Jamaicans stark the realities of war were for the island: ‘at Parade there were two lists—a list of men reported missing and a list of men reported dead. And that list would go on and on—sometimes you would go and you would see the name of your cousin; you’d go back a few days later and see your friend’s brother reported dead.’ These women were not unaccustomed to the death and destruction of warfare, and harboured a sense of guilt at sitting idly by instead of doing their part to see to its successful completion.

Perhaps the most striking sentiment from these interviews was the fact that these women held deeply personal reasons for enlisting in the army. In the forefront of their minds was not only what they could do for the war, but how the war could empower them. As Rampersad (1997, 17–19) notes with regard to Trinidadian and Tobagonian servicewomen, many were attracted to the war effort for various reasons, including, but not limited to patriotism and more importantly, the ability to improve their socio-economic and academic status. Being a part of the army overseas was seen as a way out of the Caribbean for many of the women, not necessarily as a permanent migratory condition, but one which would afford them a higher level of education which few could afford on their own. Sir Roy Augier, noted St. Lucian academician and former member of the RAF, confirmed this sentiment:

You cannot assume the motives of the numerous West Indians who went in the British West India Regiment… did it out of patriotism… one cannot assume that there weren’t private motives… One could sum this up as ‘let’s get out’… the war is an opportunity for getting out of the Caribbean… don’t assume that people who went into the war, had motives of loyalty or for fighting Nazis as their primary one, (though) some may have had that.

Indeed, most of the women interviewed exhibited clear reasons for participating in World War II beyond loyalty to Britain. Beverly Marsh recollected:

I decided I wanted to be a social worker. But you never had a university in those days and as the second of seven (children), there were all these others to look after. There was a friend of mine… she saw this article about joining up in the Canadian Army, and that would help you to go on and when you were discharged, you could go on and do studies. I joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, the CWACs. The thing in the back of my mind was to get studies afterwards.

For Lillian Bader 16 being in the army was an act of personal agency to elevate her social position. Bader was a domestic worker and she saw work in the war as a way to change this. Orphaned at the age of 9, she was raised in a convent and was trained for domestic work. At the outbreak of war she joined the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) as a deliberate means to reroute her life from domestic service. After seven weeks she was asked to leave because of her race, but joining the NAAFI set her on a new path, one which would eventually take her to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) where she excelled and was awarded a first-class post. Esther Armagon on the other hand aspired to be a nurse and sought training through the military. 17

Ena Collymore-Woodstock explained that the opportunity to go to university to study law was a major outcome of her wartime service. She said, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to (go to university), in those days you know you had to go to England to do law… I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.’ This was not only a concern for the women. The men who joined the RAF and other outfits in the British army had similar intentions. Marsh remembered the influx of students in a Toronto University after 1945:

When I went to Toronto, it was when the veterans came back, and the whole university was abuzz because of that… There were 600 in a class, and they were not accustomed to that, but it was because of the veterans coming back and going to University, because that was part of the package that they offered them.

It is not clear whether these men joined the army because of the option of having a free university education, or if they opted for it after leaving the army. However, for some, including Sir Roy Augier, who eventually attended St. Andrew’s in 1946, the thought surfaced when joining the RAF. He noted:

By 1941 when I actually went into the RAF the war did create an opportunity for university education, which I would not otherwise have… In 1939 we were still under one scholarship which was competitive, London Matriculation… I did not expect that I would be a serious competitor in the close field to qualify to go to university, so in a way I was gambling with whether I would be alive or dead. The English parliament then passed a law that persons who were in the armed forces (if they were qualified to go into university) they should be admitted, and their tuition and expenses were paid for, so that I went to university on that basis. So as it turned out this wild gamble worked out.

Women were no different. They expressed an eagerness to fight in World War II to be able to pursue studies afterwards. This was also evident in the case of Norma Wint who studied to be a chartered secretary at Balham University and her husband who opted to study medicine after his service. The Barbadian Odessa Gittens who became a Senator shared this sentiment: ‘I heard they were recruiting people for the army and besides my love for Britain, I wanted to further my studies and I was not able to, because my father and mother had died. I thought this was a good opportunity to do my duty to Britain and myself.’ 18 Kitty Cox also craved an opportunity for further education. While loyalty to Britain influenced her decision, her main reason for enlisting was to get professional training from the British government without paying for it. She explained; ‘there was the ad in the paper about the Auxiliary Territorial Service and I had read where people who went overseas were able to further their education. And I had hoped to do nursing, and so I took the opportunity and applied.’ Not only did the women join to access university education, but as Doreen Rickards explained, the ATS itself offered many educational courses. In her words ‘if you wanted to learn your opportunity was there. We were able to do courses… those girls who could sew were offered machines, or they could attend a course, those who were secretarial minded could further their studies. I did that, I did an English course, I was always interested in English.’

As a collective, these soldiers embodied agency and a drive for self-empowerment through service. While this motivation was common between male and female soldiers, women’s narratives also indicate an added intricacy facilitated by their sex. Rewards normally reserved for men in the military were squarely in focus for these young women whose very gender and aims subverted gender binaries and pushed the limits of female aspiration to a breaking point. Certainly, being in the army was one of the ways to prove that they could break out of a societal gender mould, even if they were participating in roles dubbed as feminine. The fact that they donned army uniforms was a major step forward for Jamaican girls on the road to gender equity, and in some cases was part of the impetus to enlist. As Collymore-Woodstock said ‘I never felt that women should stay where they were. The first jobs that I applied for asked for a male clerk, they never had female clerk, but I didn’t want to do the things they said women should do.’ She was not the only one who felt this way. Esther Armagon also stated that army life gave her and other women freedom and independence to try out a variety of jobs that previously had been regarded as a man’s domain. 19 Army life and pay gave Connie Marks a level of unprecedented independence, she was able to extend financial assistance to her family much earlier than expected. She said ‘My first salary was 3 6s 8d a week and I was rich! I remember giving my brother in law a pound a week…and I gave my mother another pound and the rest of it could do for everything else’ (Bousquet and Douglas 1991, 113).

Motivations to serve in the army were therefore rich and multi-faceted. Female recruits exhibited seemingly contradictory ideologies in that they were unquestionably loyal to an Empire that institutionally placed limits on their gender and colour while taking steps to break out of these unacceptable colonial restrictions and discriminations. Their subtle activism was also shrewd; they utilised the very tools provided by an oppressive system to change the trajectory of their lived experiences, while joining a cause they considered to be just. Women’s bargaining with colonialism, facilitated by wartime opportunities, would change their lives forever. For these women, devotion to Britain, concern for their home country, proto-feminist activism and attention to their own self-interest were hardly mutually exclusive. All could be accomplished in an army uniform.

We Were Soldiers!

Women’s experiences and jobs in the army were as varied as their reasons for participating. Esther Armagon did wireless operating, teleprinting and domestic work, including scrubbing floors. She did not seem to mind this, as she said it ‘made her a better housewife in some way’. Beverly Marsh worked with the directorate of Social Services in the CWACs. This job furthered her goal of becoming a social worker and was an eye-opening and rewarding experience for her. As she explained:

I was working with a male sergeant and guess what I was doing there? I was doing research on files of women in CWACs who had become pregnant… So I remember sitting there talking to this man about pregnancy, and in those days you didn’t talk about pregnancy. But it helped me… to look at the Jamaican situation… and I learned a lot about Social Services.

In Ottowa, she also worked with a group of women who lobbied to improve the reproductive choices and health of women, shaping her own views on reproductive health and women’s rights long before this became part of the current human rights discourse. Mark worked as a medical secretary to the Assistant Director of the medical services at Up Park Camp in Jamaica. She was proud to be in the army and her main job was to collect and organise the documents of the wounded soldiers and other patients there. She was promoted after six months to Lance Corporal and then to Corporal one year after she first entered.

The women were beneficiaries of the active social lives the army afforded. Apart from the jobs she did. Rickards spoke at length about the exciting social life she led. She recollected:

We had social evenings, they had picnics for us, they taught us how to play hockey… we used to go out to Port Royal and play hockey out there, and out on yachts on Sundays… they would get transport for us… and they took us to other parts of the country. I knew more about Jamaica than the people with whom I lived. You got vacation, every three months you got 48 hours, (after) six months, you got two weeks and you were allowed to go home, once a year.

This sentiment was shared by Olga Shervington who spoke of their enjoyable exploits in the first days of their army lives. She said: ‘We went up on a boat, it took quite a while… and we had a good time on the boat and everybody enjoyed themselves… because there were several guys there and we could dance and so on. We had a good time and went to England and we weren’t afraid… we were given a good reception.’

However, these light moments did not overshadow the regimented and difficult life in the army. For those who were in England, bomb scares were always imminent. As Nellie Reid recalled, her first night was filled with the sounds of bombs while they were recording greetings at the BBC. As she said, ‘while we reported through the BBC that we were fine, we were not fine at all. The bombs were going off over our heads and we were very nervous.’ In addition, the training at Guilford in England, and Newcastle in Jamaica was difficult military training. This coupled with homesickness, the extreme cold of England and rainy weather of Newcastle, and the strict discipline was recounted by many of the women. As Figs. 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3 vividly illustrate, women were active in drills and other activities that typified army life. Doreen Rickards noted that apart from using guns, women engaged in similarly gruelling training as the men at Newcastle in Jamaica. There was no doubt in her mind that the women were indeed soldiers:
Fig. 7.1

The auxiliary territorial service in Jamaica 1944: Jamaica’s first ATS unit at drill.

Source Imperial War Museum

Fig. 7.2

The auxiliary territorial service in Jamaica 1944: Women of Jamaica’s first ATS unit arriving at their headquarters in an army lorry.

Source Imperial War Museum

Fig. 7.3

The auxiliary territorial service in Jamaica 1944: Sergeant Moore of the ATS holds an inspection of Jamaica’s first ATS unit which she trained since her arrival from England.

Source Imperial War Museum

We went up to Newcastle for training, just like the men. We lived in barracks, we were taught how to make beds the army way, how to clean shoes the army way, how to clean your brass. We had to walk from where we were billeted to the square, and they taught us how to drill… At Newcastle you had to be quick with the eating or you got nothing, if they said breakfast is at 7, you had to be there at 7. The hours were hard, you had to get up early, and you had to be on parade, you had to be spick and span; your cap had to be at an angle you were not allowed to walk without your cap on the street. If you were not up to the training they put you out. It was intensive training. It wasn’t easy it was rainy and cold. We did the same training as the men. We were soldiers!

Norma Wint also recounted that life on English army camps was often rewarding, but gruelling and deleterious to their general health. As she said:

We went to Bicester in Oxfordshire. It is now a famous camp, but in those days the camp was just being built so we were really pioneers, and we have to live under primitive service conditions. For instance, sometimes there was no running water in the camp and some times, we had to take the snow and wipe off the plate, it was primitive conditions that we were living under. Some of the girls got quite ill with meningitis. The whole camp was under very bad conditions. But we did quite good work in all our different spheres.

However, this was not the case for all the recruits. For instance, Ena Collymore-Woodstock’s army life was so comfortable that she was dissatisfied with her civilian-like existence during the global conflict. She recounted her dissatisfaction with the civilian-like conditions:

They kept us very sheltered, and we worked in the ordinance company. Ordinance, meaning that we were indoors doing clerical work, and we were well fed, and I didn’t think this was the kind of thing we came for, I thought we were going to war. After a time I wrote a letter to the War Office, saying I didn’t come here to do what I was doing at home. To my surprise I was getting four meals a day and, being a Girl Guide, knowing what it was to go to camp and rough it, this looked too easy.

The War Office responded favourably, and after taking an aptitude test, she was employed to do anti-aircraft radar operations. She became one of the few women of that first batch of ATS to do non-clerical work. She much preferred her new job in Belgium, because she felt that she was contributing more to the war effort.

I became a radar operator…we were in an enclosed vehicle… and there were four of us. We focused on planes, then we had an operator who enquired if the plane was enemy or friend all this was in code. If you were a friend we gave the code, and another person would give the order to shoot or not to shoot. This was the first time they were attacking planes that couldn’t be seen.

Lilian Bader was similarly dissatisfied with not playing a major role in the war after expulsion from the NAAFI and decided to apply to the WAAFS. She was accepted, much to her delight. She explained:

Now my real service began, as Melksham was a huge sprawling camp, huts everywhere… my training was to lead to my being an Instrument Repairer II after a ten or twelve weeks’ course. The course was intensive: lectures everyday in a classroom situation. We also did practical work, filing brass blocks to certain precise measurements using a micrometer… I was very interested in learning about the principles of the barometric working of aircraft instruments. (Bader 1989)

After training was complete she worked with airmen in Shawbury, Shropshire ensuring that their equipment was fit for combat. By 1941, she was climbing the ranks and took a test to become a Leading Aircraftwoman and eventually attained the rank of Acting Corporal before being discharged after becoming pregnant. Her husband, Ramsay Bader also served in the army.

Beverly Marsh also recounted a similar situation in Canada. Even though she did not want to be in combat, she too was dissatisfied with the first job she had in the CWACs. She said:

I was based in Ottawa and I complained that in the 6 weeks I typed one letter and I listened to an American girl and a Canadian, having one over some Colonel that they were both in love with. So I wrote and complained, in any case I felt that I was not contributing to any war effort or anything, they just had me sitting down there. A Captain, a Major and Lieutenant, came to see me, to see this creature who was quarrelling about not doing any work, and it turned out that they were in the directorate of the Social Services of the Canadian army, so because of that I went to the directorate of Social Services.

However Beverly Marsh’s and Ena Collymore-Woodstock’s wish to have more active roles in the army was not shared by all the women. Shervington did secretarial work before she joined the army and she was pleased to continue that occupation in the ATS. When asked if she was not interested in taking a job closer to the ‘action’, she swiftly replied, ‘No no no! I wouldn’t want to be there and get shot down. I was quite comfortable where I was.’ Doreen Rickards was also satisfied with her job at the ATS Head Office at Up Park Camp and did secretarial and organisational work. She and others supervised all the women recruited through Jamaica, and were in charge of keeping accurate records of the girls at Up Park Camp. Wint also engaged in clerical work and was specially commended for her excellent shorthand skills.

Despite the fond memories, the women did hint at their frustration with some aspects of their army life. The greatest source of disappointment was for those who did not get an opportunity to serve overseas. This was particularly true for Doreen Rickards and Connie Mark. Though proud to be in the army, Rickards recalled that even before leaving the Bahamas, her mother asked why she wanted to come to the ‘poor country of Jamaica’. Though she eventually made Jamaica her home, part of her reason for coming to Jamaica was that it was the only medium for her to serve in England. She was not to go there during her service however, as the last group of girls to go to England was the batch before hers. As she put it: ‘We just missed it! We were so disappointed. That’s where we want to go you, we trained for that. You can imagine how disappointed we were.’ Mark also applied to work in England but was not to get there until after 1945. As she said;

I did apply to come to England and I got kitted out with my winter gear and in the end my boss who was the head of the medical services in the North Caribbean area, refused to sign my form. He said medical secretaries are very difficult to train and the same thing I would be doing in England, I would be doing in Jamaica, so he wouldn’t sign the paper for me to go. 20

Then there was the inevitable racial discrimination that often reared its ugly head. Connie Mark referred to occasions when the ATS officers wanted local ATS girls to clean their houses. Ostensibly, this was neither specific to Jamaican servicewoman nor to the ATS, as Rampersad (1997, 28) has highlighted that a Trinidadian member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS), Margaret Jardine was given menial tasks to perform, such as scrubbing floors. Connie Mark surmised that her own unwillingness to perform a similar task resulted in her being passed over for the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for service. As she explained ‘my commander, Lieutenant Colonel Arondell put me up for it, and the ATS officers hated my guts so much that they were the ones that turned me down… I’m not going to anybody’s home to clean their home when I’m paying somebody to clean mine.’ 21 She also noted that racism was at the root of this belief that black ATS girls should clean their houses, because they did not expect the white girls to do domestic chores. While Constant Marks eventually received the MBE in 1992, and other members of the ATS such as Ena Collymore-Woodstock would also be awarded, it is evident that black Jamaican women who served in the army were not as readily memorialised through medals and accolades as their white and near-white counterparts who served as nurses and organisers of war work in 1914. World War I workers were far less threatening to the army establishment as they worked as civilians at home and gave voluntary service rather than embodying a problem to be solved by the War and Colonial Offices. Regardless of the high sense of self-worth that Marks and others held for themselves and their elevated status in relation to the Jamaican working class, they were second-class citizens within a British institution. Some ATS officers who were also aware of the general reluctance of the War Office to include black women among the ranks would also have been well prepared to remind them of their subaltern station. British-born Lilian Bader, asked to leave the NAAFI when it was ascertained that her father was of West Indian lineage. Similarly, Amelia King, also British-born to West Indian parents was refused entry to the Women’s Land Army in 1943 despite the fact that her father was a merchant sailor and her brother was serving in the Royal Navy.

Being Jamaican was also a disadvantage even for the white women in the Washington branch of the ATS who were reported as being disgruntled with the fact that their British colleagues were receiving the majority of the promotions (Bousquet and Douglas 1991, 103). Jamaican whites were therefore forced to reckon with their diminished status outside of their island home and were exposed for the first time to the hierarchies of nationality. A ‘near-white’ ATS recruit also experienced discrimination as she travelled through the United States. Private Avis Marzink complained of being ‘assaulted’ during her brief sojourn in Florida. She was particularly perturbed that as a servant of King and country, she was not guaranteed better treatment by officials in the army. She was subject ‘to the deepest humiliation’ due to her segregation from the army personnel. Having labelled her as coloured, the officials asked her to stay in a hotel for blacks. She considered this infra dig and reported, ‘the British government deemed it fit to relegate me to the scum, the cut throats of southern America presumably because I was not English’ ( The Gleaner , 31 January 1946, 8).

Ironically, while some who served in Jamaica and the United States faced discrimination, most of the soldiers who served in Britain such as Olga Shervington, Ena Collymore-Woodstock and Doreen Rickards recalled good relations with their British colleagues. They were invited to visit their commanding officers in their homes both during and after World War II, and did not experience overt discrimination. Also, Doreen Rickards beamed with pride that she was promoted twice in the ATS and was given the prize as best junior NCO in her batch. In addition, Sergeant Phyllis Melbourne was the first Jamaican in the local services to be raised to the ranks of Senior NCO officer.

The issue of experiences of racial discrimination were individual and personal. For some the period of service was free from hostility but time spent in England in the post-war era got an unhealthy dose of racism. Norma Wint explained that the level of discrimination they faced in the post war period was so evident that it was only then that they truly realised the difference between being West Indian and English. For instance, her husband’s room-mate in college moved out the day after he starting living there because he was not prepared to share a room with a black person. Having largely accepted their colonial status with open arms, the racism they faced in England was a sharp wake up call. As she said ‘We only became West Indians when we came to England and saw the conditions there.’ The experience of Connie Mark, who went to Britain in 1954 with her first husband who was a cricket professional at C. M. Harbour in Durham, is also poignant. Her account of the difficulty in renting a house embodies the level of dissolution she felt as a loyal British subject:

You respected the British so much and you respected the fact that you were British so much. We treat English people like kings and queens in the islands and when you came here you were treated. (There were) signs like ‘room for rent: no coloureds, no Irish, no children no dogs.’ I didn’t mind being put with the Irish, but I thought it was a bit of a come down being put with the dogs.’ 22

Mark also expressed her frustration that the British people she encountered after 1945 were unaware that Caribbean women were in the army and played important roles in the war effort. She also noted that when they were made aware of that fact, they often did not respond with a sense of gratitude, but one of shock and even disdain. In her own words, ‘I get very annoyed that people don’t want to accept and remain ignorant of the fact of how very much the West Indies were involved in the war’ (Kyriacou 1992, 2).

While Jamaican colonials expressed a belonging to Britain, mainly through an understanding of self as a British citizen, this was often unrequited by Britain, particularly in the post World War II period. A unique manifestation of racism blossomed in post war Britain, because of deliberate or inadvertent amnesia relating to its colonial and imperial past. As a result of this, Britain was hardly a nurturing and loving ‘mother country’ to Caribbean migrants (Hall 1978). While Britain acknowledged that its colonial peoples were subjects of the Empire, these people were never characterised as belonging to the ideological and geographical space of England itself. Probably it was Webster (1998, 26) who articulated it best when she said:

In colonial discourse the colonized were often represented in a pattern of familial imagery where colonizers and the colonized were seen as members of one imperial family… These contractions of the colonized as a part of ‘our people’ depended on them being outside Britain – contained and controlled elsewhere.

These immigrant Jamaican women claimed a theoretical right to British citizenship and to suitable social space as a result of being a part of the imperial family, but some faced the harsh reality of their racial and ethnic inequality and ‘alien’ Jamaican identity upon settlement in Britain. Under these circumstances loyal subjects quickly became problematic ‘immigrants’. For some ex-service women, being legally British and their involvement as soldiers meant very little in terms of access to rights as citizens, which was determined by race, class and place of birth.

Results of Participation: What Was Achieved for King, Country and Self?

What then was the significance of service? The racism and sexism which almost robbed West Indian women from the opportunity to serve in the British army certainly remained a constant feature through their service, keeping many from typically celebrated military activity. In the aftermath of service, some also faced the stark reality that Britain had not only forgot their service, but would rather they not remain in the country, but remain to their island homes. Their relatively small numbers, subaltern ‘feminised’ posts they occupied and the almost complete collective amnesia of both the British and West Indian populace to the contribution of ex-servicewomen could make their contribution seem indiscernible in the grand scheme of the war. Though local wartime propaganda publications portrayed men and women from the colonies as giving invaluable support to Britain, the memory of this contribution evaporated almost as soon as war ended. Also the wave of decolonisation movements in the post-war slowly eroded previously powerful tropes of colonial belonging and rendered service and devotion to imperial nations passé.

Did the women really ‘help the mother country out of her problem’ as some of them envisioned as their roles? Many, if not all, war historians would say ‘no’ or even scoff at the legitimacy of the question. Their inclusion in the army was a gesture construed by the Colonial Office to appease the colonies without overly agitating the War Office rather than a concerted effort to include West Indian women in the defence of the realm. The War Office had no intention of putting them on the front lines, or remotely close to action, and while interviewees argued that it was to keep them safe, a more accurate rationale may be the racist and sexist ideas that were inextricably linked to the policies of the War Office. The Colonial Office, too, was more concerned with political expediency and having an outlet for West Indian patriotism, than lobbying for women to play major roles in the conflict. Many were prepared to go to the front lines, but for the most part, they were not allowed to do so. This was evident from other testimonies of women who wanted to drive lorries and be involved with combat. Inez Bent, for instance asserted, ‘I am strictly out to do something in this war. I wouldn’t mind if they would allow me to handle one of those guns myself’ ( The Gleaner , 17 July 1943).

Where the contribution of the women is concerned, it is more accurate to see them as cogs in a huge machine, rather than the machine itself. They were certainly not the hinge on which victory rested, but they played important roles in the effort. Indeed, the tasks undertaken by these hundreds of women were critical to the organised prosecution of war. So called feminised and menial tasks were critical to ensuring proper record keeping, providing hospitality for significant decision makers, sending of key messages on which meant the difference of between life and death and to the structuring of social services in the army. Jobs that focused on instrument repair, radar operations, guidance systems and other auxiliary roles to the armed forces were obviously important as microcosms of a well-oiled machine. Naturally, the presence of Caribbean servicewomen in the army also released large numbers of men from non-combat duties to take up active fighting roles.

Indeed, if the response of the local print media is any indication, Jamaica’s ego was boosted by the stellar contribution of its men and women. The duty performed by Jamaicans in England was reported as a noble deed, one in which they risked their lives so that Jamaicans could continue to be free people and continue to enjoy that democratic way of life ( The Gleaner , 6 December 1949, 7). Pro-British print media held nothing back in describing the valiant, self-sacrificing deeds of its nationals who served in World War II. Publications such as the Victory Book were specifically geared towards celebrating the brave efforts of Jamaicans and included a spread on seven ‘popular’ (to mean white) Jamaican women who were recruited in nursing services, Air Raid Precaution Services (ARP) and the Women’s Royal Air Force. Similar publications were produced by other territories for their ATS girls including The Brave Eleven, which highlighted the life and work of Bahamian women who joined the ATS through Jamaica. The pride which Jamaicans reportedly felt in having participants in World War II far outweighed any doubts as to whether they actually helped to win it. As one testimony noted ‘Jamaica is proud of her fighting men and women—her loyal sons and daughters of every hue—who are doing their bit and playing their part for the victory’ ( The Gleaner , 6 December 1949, 7). Reports of the money and supplies collected graced the pages of newspapers and, ever so often, messages from the Governor and royalty in England, also signalled the gratitude for what the colonies in general did to assist in World War II. This included filling dire shortages in labour, which grew more severe as the war progressed.

Without question, the greatest result of participation was in terms of personal empowerment. Almost with one consenting voice, ex-servicewomen characterised their experiences in the army as invaluable and as an epoch-making moment in their lives. Many of those in Washington did not return to Jamaica, and opted to go into business there or further their studies, married other soldiers and made lives for themselves there ( The Gleaner , 28 April 1944, 8). The women’s testimonies are replete with positive reflections on the range of opportunities that were afforded them as individuals. As Beverly Marsh indicated, ‘that’s where I learned to be objective about a lot of things. I learned a lot about social services. In fact when I eventually went to the school of social work, I did a BA degree and then a Bachelor of Social Work. And it turned out that some of those lecturers were people I had worked with in the army.’ She worked with revered neurosurgeons in Montreal, and also with anthropologists in Jamaica, and was exposed to a variety of areas in social work. She summed up her testimony by saying her time in the army improved the quality of her life because there was no other way she envisioned getting an education, as well as the exposure and independence the army afforded her.

Similarly, Ena Collymore-Woodstock who was endowed with a national award (Order of Distinction) for her unwavering service to the nation, credits her academic achievements to her involvement in World War II. After her service she attended Gray’s Inn of Court in London, where she studied law. In Jamaica, she became the first female Clerk of Courts and the Deputy Crown Solicitor among many other achievements. The ability to study law in England would hardly have been afforded to her outside of her wartime service, and, as she put it, she would have ‘got married and that would be the end of that’. Lilian Bader was on a trajectory to continue climbing the ranks in the WAAF, and while pregnancy resulted in compassionate discharge, her life chances were markedly improved by her wartime service. After raising two sons she continued her education to university level and became a teacher.

Though the immediate effects were felt mainly among the women who were members of the army, the opportunities they received rippled through the society as well. Without perhaps labelling themselves as feminists, many of the women exhibited strong traits of feminist activism to better the lives of women in their communities. While Marsh focused on reproductive health options for women, Collymore-Woodstock, among others, was able to make changes in the laws of Jamaica with respect to the status of women. She explained her role as part of the team of persons who worked in the 1960s and 70s to change oppressive and discriminatory laws:

A lot of us there, in England both in the war and as young students, played a big role in improving the status of women, because all of us were active in the women’s clubs. We started the optimist, which focused on improving the status of women. We were responsible for things like getting rid of the word ‘bastard’ out of the law. We were also responsible for giving illegitimate children the same rights as legitimate children, called the Illegitimacy Act. We worked on that and we had a hard time getting the men attuned to the fact that children who were born out of wedlock should have the same rights. I myself did a lot of work on that, speaking around the island.

For Olga Shervington, being a soldier was not so much for purposes of garnering a university education, but for increased exposure and adventure. After 1945, she returned home and married her fiancée, and left the civil service for a job at a private firm. She said that the war did her well because of the exposure she got as a young woman and added, ‘I didn’t suffer in any way by having gone.’ The positive effect of service on Doreen Rickards’s life was also evident in her testimony. She noted that at the end of the Second World War she learned discipline, and many secretarial skills that prepared her for her job as secretary to Senator Douglas Judah for 25 years. She was even more convinced about what women’s participation in the army did for their self-esteem and general development. In her estimation women became more independent as a result:

A lot of them were young and they left home, they didn’t know much about being out there on their own so they left their homes, parents and went out in the world. I would say, independence, was taught to a lot of them, to be independent of men, and not to depend on men for everything, have an education get a profession, so that you are your own boss. They were better-educated, they were offered different spheres to go into, women were able to strike out on their own, and not to become homemakers.

Her argument does not suggest that being a homemaker is ignoble, but that women who joined the army were given the option of becoming professional and better-educated before or instead of merely preparing for marriage. As married women, they were able to make more meaningful contributions to their families and not be totally dependent on a male breadwinner. Movements towards equity in these unions were therefore facilitated by wartime opportunities. The military training afforded by the British army also equipped the women with new skills that shifted the paradigm of the male dominated defence and military forces. For instance, in 1949, three women were appointed to the force for the first time, two of whom were appointed because of their service with the ATS, Sylvia Myres and Iris Tulloch (The Pagoda, 8 January 1949, 7).

The positive outcome of these women’s participation in World War II, was in some instances an essential part of their reasons for joining, while for others, the benefits were inadvertent. As Beverly Marsh said, ‘aside from working in the war effort to help, the women felt that they were getting some job satisfaction out of it. I know the ones in the ATS felt that way.’ The effect of the recruitment of Jamaican (and by extension West Indian) women cannot be overstated. These women saw World War II as an opportunity to better their positions in life, in addition to truly supporting the Empire in a time of great need. In some cases, they grabbed opportunities that the military complex had to offer, in others, they carved out their own niches for empowerment and self-actualisation. They refused to be overlooked at worthy candidates for the responsibilities and rewards of militarism and, while their agency and bravery are often not part of the narrative of the evolution of Jamaican womanhood, their existence cannot be written out of history. Footprints of their army boots are evident in Jamaican women’s march towards equality and indeed, while they may have been missing from the front lines of warfare, they were present at the front lines of the battle for meaningful social change.


  1. 1.

    LAB 18/83: Scheme for The Recruitment Of Unskilled Technicians From Jamaica: Letter from Lord Moyne, 3 September 1941 to Ernest Bevin, MP.

  2. 2.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943, Secret telegram to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 22 January 1943.

  3. 3.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943: letter dated, 17 February 1943.

  4. 4.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943: letter dated, 11 March 1943.

  5. 5.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943: letter to B. D. Edmonds of the Colonial Office, 16 November 1943.

  6. 6.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943, letter to Oliver Stanley the Colonial Secretary, 19 May 1943.

  7. 7.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943.

  8. 8.

    CO 968/81/4: Recruitment of Women: West Indies, 1943, letter to James Grigg, 14 May 1943.

  9. 9.

    Beverley Marsh, Interview by author, May 2005. Unless otherwise stated, subsequent quotes will be taken from interviews conducted by Dalea Bean and their full references can be found in the reference list.

  10. 10.

    Wint served in the RAF as a pilot. He left the service in 1947 and became Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medallist at the summer Olympics in London in 1948.

  11. 11.

    The War Office was forced to remunerate all ATS recruits at the same level after white recruits to Washington were offered the same pay as British ATS members. Fears over unrest if black and white women received different pay were stressed by the Colonial Office. See Bousquet and Douglas (1991, 96–97).

  12. 12.

    Imperial War Museum (IWM): Interview with Connie Goodridge-Mark no. 15286 reels 1 and 2.

  13. 13.

    IWM. Connie Mark interview, Number 15286 reel 1.

  14. 14.

    UWI Mona: Manuscript on West Indian Women at war: 1989 West Indian women at war typescript of interviews.

  15. 15.

    UWI Mona: Manuscript on West Indian Women at war: 1989 West Indian women at war typescript of interviews.

  16. 16.

    IWM Film: ‘Caribbean Women in World War II: Four Black Women’s Oral History of War Time Service.’ Esther Armagon and Connie Mark: Jamaican, Norma Best: Belize and Lillian Bader: UK born to West Indian parents.

  17. 17.

    IWM Film: Caribbean Women in World War II .

  18. 18.

    Manuscript on West Indian Women at War.

  19. 19.

    IWM: Film Caribbean Women in World War II .

  20. 20.

    IWM: Connie Mark interview, Number 15286 reel 1.

  21. 21.

    Manuscript on West Indian Women at War.

  22. 22.

    Manuscript on West Indian Women at War.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of the West IndiesKingstonJamaica

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