When Albert Jarrett moved to Britain in 1943, he was not prepared for the weather. Volunteering for the Royal Air Force at the age of 18, he moved from his native Jamaica to an airbase near Sutton Coldfield, and struggled at first with the biting winter mornings.
“There was quite a bit of frost when I looked out in the morning. The ground was white. My first thought was, ‘I wish I could go back home’,” Jarrett recalls.
76 years later, Jarrett does not struggle to remember any details of his story as he sits with his wife, Shirley, in an Italian cafe in central London. But he is worried that other British people have forgotten his contribution to the Second World War, as well as that of the hundreds of thousands of other foreign troops who fought for Britain between 1939 and 1945.
And he is not alone in his concern: this year, in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, the Royal British Legion is campaigning to highlight the contribution of soldiers from all over the world, “irrespective of nationality, creed, colour, or race”.
During the Battle of Britain, as many as one in five of the RAF’s pilots came from abroad, and campaigners worry that many non-British troops have been written out of the national story. Indeed, watch a Sixties cinema classic like The Battle of Britain or Where Eagles Dare, and most of the characters are white, public-school types with cut-glass Queen’s accents. In more recent years, directors have tried to present more diversity: in 2017, Christopher Nolan was praised for having Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ speech read by a working-class Tommy in a northern accent, in his Oscar-winning masterpiece Dunkirk. But some groups, like Caribbeans and east Europeans, still struggle to get a look-in.
Signing up for the RAF alongside 6,000 other Caribbean men, Jarrett was keen to “escape the grip” of his father, an engineer who wanted Jarrett to move with him to the Panama Canal, where he had found work. Fancying an adventure, Jarrett joined in 1942, just after the Blitz, when German bombers had launched nightly raids against Britain's industrial cities, including London, Coventry, Glasgow, and Liverpool. He worked in ground crew, driving Spitfire parts to his base from a factory in Birmingham, and busying himself with other odd jobs, before he was transferred to bomber command in Grantham, Lincolnshire, towards the end of the war. “Those days, it was all go,” he remembers.
He anticipated some racism from his fellow troops, but was surprised by how well he was treated. One day, he was walking into Sutton Coldfield when an elderly widow stopped him for a chat. The two became friends, and she began to invite Jarrett to her house at the weekends, where she cooked him meals and chatted about her week. “She was like a mother to me,” he remembers of Mrs Roper, whose adult children had long moved since away.
Although Jarrett never flew a plane, about 450 Caribbeans did between 1939 and 1945, according to the RAF Museum, and one of Jarrett’s own schoolmates from their northwest Jamaican parish of Hanover was killed while on a mission over Germany.
Back home in Jamaica, there was no doubt about the commitment of the locals to defeat Hitler’s armies. In May 1940, as hundreds of thousands of British troops were trapped at a beach in Dunkirk, RAF Squadron 139 was engaged in a dogfight over France when nearly every plane was brought down by the Luftwaffe. Reading about the tragedy in the papers, Jamaicans raised money to buy several Bristol Blenheims to replace the fallen aircraft. As a mark of gratitude, the squadron was renamed after Jamaica.
Jarrett was demobilised at the end of the war and returned to the Caribbean, but in 1953 he relocated to Britain permanently, coming as part of the postwar wave of half a million Caribbean immigrants known as the Windrush Generation. Jarrett had felt broadly accepted in wartime England, making friends with several locals, but he was disappointed upon his return to find that Britons were not quite as grateful for his service as he had hoped. “The people that you used to [speak to] during the war, they were the same people that, when you walked through the streets after the war, looked at you as if they’d never seen a black person before. That’s my big puzzle: why was it different during the war and after?”
He moved to Birmingham and found work as a bus driver. “In those days, there was such a great change, everyone wanted to go somewhere, and the standard of living in Jamaica really wasn’t good enough for a decent living.” He married and had one son, and later three grandchildren, one of whom invited Jarrett to his graduation ceremony at Cambridge University last month.
Jarrett is joined in London by fellow Jamaican veteran Donald Campbell, an RAF engineer who served in Germany, Belize, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands, who is spearheading a campaign for a permanent monument to Caribbean troops to be built at the UK's National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. “The Book of Life has been written, but there’s a chapter missing, and that chapter is ours,” he says. “I believe our [Caribbean] youngsters are lost, they have nothing to focus on, and they don’t know about trailblazers like Mr Garrett, who said, ‘Mother country needs us, we must go and fight’. I thought I was one of the first young black boys joining the British forces [in 1969], not knowing about the centuries before me. We’re not taught that in school.”
Alongside Caribbeans, the Allied war effort was also buttressed by a quarter of a million Poles, who refused to put down their weapons in 1939, when their own government collapsed under the weight of Hitler’s armies. One of them, 97-year-old Otton Hulacki, has spent much of his life resisting foreign occupation, whether it came from the Nazis or the Soviets. In 1940, a year after Moscow and Berlin agreed a secret pact to carve up Poland, Hulacki’s family home in the east of the country was raided by Russian agents, and he was deported to the gulags in Kazakhstan.
He was freed in 1941, when the Soviet Union switched sides following Hitler’s invasion, and he quickly joined the Polish resistance. He was drafted into the British 10th Army in 1943, under the command of General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, and fought under British command at the Battle of Monte Cassino - the Allied attempt to break through to Rome.
Moving after the war to the “Polish corridor” in west London, where he opened a printing business and met his wife, Hulacki immediately felt welcomed, and quickly picked up English by reading the Daily Telegraph. “When they see me walking down the street with my black beret, even now, they shake my hand,” he says of locals on the Isle of Wight, where he lives now with his 91-year-old wife.
But, each year on Remembrance Sunday, Hulacki never truly felt part of Britain’s war commemoration. This stemmed partly from the events of 1946, when Polish soldiers were left out of London’s official victory parade - “that wasn’t very nice” - but also because Poland didn’t have much to celebrate after the war, in his view, with Nazi occupation replaced immediately by Soviet occupation. “I didn’t do anything to celebrate because we didn’t get freedom. There was no reason for us to march.”
But since 1989, when Poland “became free”, he is keen for more recognition for foreign soldiers like himself. “They came here and fought from Britain, many people from many different countries. We lost a few thousand at Monte Cassino, and we had four or five cemeteries in Italy.
“You couldn’t do it on your own.”