“As an outward-looking nation, Britain has always counted on the dedicated service of our friends from the Commonwealth to keep this country safe … So we’re stepping up the numbers of recruits from the Commonwealth, knowing that they will bring key skills and dedicated service to our military.”
What was not stated, however, by either the Government – or the Minister, is that the Armed Forces, especially the Army, are very short of recruits and they are, therefore, desperately seeking out new sources of cannon fodder.
This reminded me of a similar situation that had occurred around 44 years ago, when British Army units serving in Northern Ireland were losing soldiers and finding it difficult to recruit replacements. So the Government and MoD had frantically turned to the ‘Ethnic-Minorities’ in Britain in the hope that they might provide a supply of new soldiers.
As a veteran I had watched this saga unfold with some interest. I knew that all armies stereotype and demonise their enemies in order to make it easier for their solders to kill them. The British Army’s main role, however, had been as an army of Empire, where stereotyping and racism had gone together like a hand in a glove.
Often this included racist feelings towards foreigners, or anyone considered inferior and I couldn’t help wondering – and dreading – how any new recruits from the ‘Ethnic Minorities’ would be treated in the British Army.
Slavery and Racism
While the British Empire was built by violence, superior arms and ‘divide-and-rule’, the justification for it was usually made in racist terms. Conquest and colonisation had always brought with it changes in attitude towards the conquered and the slave trade, which required ignoring and justifying the suffering of the slaves, deepened that process.
In his book, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, the historian, Christopher Hill, wrote:
“Early references in English literature to people with non-white skins – Pocahontas, Othello, Massinger’s The City Madam, many early seventeenth-century poems about flirtation between black and white, Mrs Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all suggest that an attitude of racial discrimination was the result, not the cause, of the profitable slave trade: in the seventeenth century far greater generalized contempt seems to have been shown for the Irish than for Negroes.
The consequences of the slave trade in brutalizing English opinion, and in fostering the Puritan tendency to hypocrisy, should not be underestimated.”
[Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967].
Control of the West Indies had opened the way for the slave trade as conquest and exploitation went hand in glove. From 1500, over the next three-and-a-half centuries, some twenty million African slaves were shackled in irons and forced aboard ships so they could be transported to the ‘New World’. About a quarter of the slaves did not even survive the journey, dying from trauma and illness due to the conditions in which they were kept – and from the brutal treatment of their captors.
The City of London boomed with wealth and ports like Bristol and Liverpool expanded dramatically during the slave trade, which also became a major source of funding for the industrial revolution. Slavery, the ultimate exploitation of human beings, made fortunes for those who ran and controlled it – as Hill pointed out:
“All this great increase in our treasure proceeds chiefly from the labour of negroes in the plantation’, said Joshua Gee in 1729, with a frankness that few historians have emulated. The slave trade was essential to the triangular imperial trade which grew up under the Navigation Acts. It seemed to economists an ideal trade, since slaves were bought with British exports, and transported in British ships …
When I think of the colossal banquets of the Barbados planters [wrote Richard Pares], of the money which the West Indians at home poured out upon the Yorkshire electorate … of the younger William Beckford’s private orchestra and escapades in Lisbon, of Fonthill Abbey or even of the Codrington Library, and remember that the money was got by working African slaves twelve hours a day on such a diet, I can only feel anger and shame.” [Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967].
Captured Africans were treated like animals, with slave traders even using branding irons to brand their initials on slaves and this was justified by calling the Africans ‘barbaric heathens’ and saying they were not Christians.
Ottobah Cugoano was a 13-year-old when he was kidnapped in Ghana and shipped to the West Indies as a slave. After he was eventually brought to Britain and freed, he questioned the morality of those who had enslaved him:
“Is it not strange to think, that they who ought to be considered as the most learned and civilised people in the world, that they should carry on a traffic of the most barbarous cruelty and injustice, and that many … are become so dissolute as to think slavery, robbery and murder no crime?”
[Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, by Peter Fryer, Pluto Press 1984].
Slavery continued as a lucrative trade for Britain until the early 19th century, when parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. But it wasn’t till 1838 that it was abolished in British colonies.
While many sincere people campaigned against slavery, it also came to an end because industrialisation demanded an ever-expanding exploitable labour market for the workshop and factory system. And it was considered that a pool of wage-slaves – workers who were free, but unorganised and poverty-stricken – best provided this.
When slavery ended, the British Government paid out £20m in compensation. Not a penny of this money was paid to any slave; the total sum, almost £17bn in today’s money, was paid to the slave owners.
The ‘freed’ former slaves did not receive any help towards integration, or social and financial improvements. They were, however, often forced to work on as slaves for a set number of years – to reduce the distress that the ending of slavery was causing to the slave owners.
During the Victorian expansion of empire suspicious and hateful attitudes towards foreigners became widespread in Britain, sustained by jingoism and new pseudo-scientific theories of race. A hierarchy of races was proclaimed, with white Teutonic Anglo-Saxons at the top and black ‘Hottentots’ at the bottom.
In between were the Irish, the Jews and the British working classes – about whom it was claimed that they had darker skin and hair than the upper classes. Even an ‘index of nigrescence’ was produced, so the racial components of any population could be deduced.
Britian’s upper class establishment hailed the quest for empire as a civilising mission and took it upon themselves to become the arbiters of world morality – representing conquest as a duty and exploitation as a noble task. ‘Scientific’ racism fuelled these prejudiced views, which were propagated in the music halls and in the writings and poetry of the pro-imperialists.
In 1899, Rudyard Kipling encapsulated this sanctimonious ideology in a poem:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to naught.
In this establishment view of the world, the Irish occupied a position well below themselves, but just above the Africans. The two were often compared, as in these verses from the ‘Punch’ magazine, during the worst years of the famine in 1848:
“Six-foot Paddy, are you no bigger –
You whom cozening friars dish –
Mentally, than the poorest nigger
Grovelling before fetish?
You to Sambo I compare
Under superstition’s rule
Prostrate like an abject fool.”
[Nothing But the Same Old Story – the Roots of Anti-Irish Racism, Information on Ireland, 1984].
During the expansion of Empire, as the superiority of British weaponry and technology over native peoples became greater, so racist feelings increased. Where there had been interest and sometimes admiration for aspects of other peoples’ culture and religion, there was now only contempt. Britain was to remain permeated by these attitudes and all too often traces of them still appear today.
The Remnants of Empire
Inside the British Army’s regimental system, which glorifies past colonial battles and is steeped in the traditions of Britain’s imperial legacy, anyone considered an outsider would often experience hostility. Even the more modern regiments sometimes conveyed these attitudes.
The history of 45 Commando Royal Marines, which was formed in 1943, stated proudly that at the end of WW2 one of its ‘favourite’ marching songs was: ‘Sambo was a Lazy Coon’.
[FourFive – The Story of 45 Commando Royal Marines 1943-1971, by David Young, Leo Cooper Ltd 1972].
In 1955 the British WW2 film ‘The Dam Busters’ was made about the famous RAF bomber raid on German reservoirs in 1943. Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led the raid, had a black Labrador retriever, which he called ‘Nigger.’ The dog’s name was the code-word used by Gibson to confirm that the Möhne Dam had been breached.
In the film the dog was seen quite a lot and its name was frequently mentioned, but no one seemed concerned. Decades later, when ‘The Dam Busters’ was often seen on TV, the dog’s name was either censored, or viewers were warned: ‘That some might find it to be racially offensive.’
In 2005, Richard Todd, who played Gibson in the film said: “With political correctness which is a new concept of a way of life in this country – and I think all over the world – it didn’t exist when we made the original film so Nigger was Nigger, but nowadays you can’t say that sort of thing.”
[Today – BBC Radio 4, 13th December 2005].
At the time the film was made xenophobic attitudes were all too common in Civvy Street and racist terms were often expressed in a casual manner. Work applicants often found that after a jobs’ description the words: ‘No coloureds’ would be written. Similarly, those seeking lodgings would often see on notices offering ‘Vacations’ – the words: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.’
From the end of WW2, to the first use of British soldiers on the streets of Derry and Belfast in late 1969, the British Army had been continually fighting rear-guard actions to keep control over the remnants of Empire.
In places like Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya and Aden a pattern kept being repeated: after civil-rights, or pro-independence protests, an emergency would be declared; troops were then sent in; internment was introduced and mass conflict would break out.
In 1952 it was the turn of Kenya, a country dominated by an elite minority of racist white settlers. After some moderate agitation for black rights an emergency was declared and troop reinforcements were rushed in, many of them conscripts doing their National Service.
Army officers found they had a natural affinity with the white Kenyans and spent much of their time-off at settlers’ homes and clubs. Most ordinary soldiers knew nothing about Kenya, or why the ‘Emergency’ was happening, but many had similar views to the settlers:
“Most of these officers and men had left Britain with firm convictions about the racial superiority of whites (especially those from the British Isles), and their service overseas in places like Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, and Malaya had only confirmed for them that ‘wogs’ and ‘niggers’ were a lower form of life.
These attitudes were incorporated in a British Army Handbook, which was distributed to all officers. Under a section discussing the handling of African trackers assigned to Army units, it read: ‘The African is simple, not very intelligent, but very willing if treated in the right way. Do not regard him as a slave or an equal. You will find that most Africans have an innate respect for the white man’.” [Mau Mau: An African Crucible, by Robert B Edgerton. The Free Press, Collier Macmillan, London 1989].
In July 1958 the British Prime Minster, Harold Macmillan, visited Cyprus during its ‘Emergency’. Macmillan had succeeded Sir Anthony Eden as the Tory leader after the Suez debacle and his trip included several meetings with the troops:
“One of the Premier’s calls was to Lyssi village, which lay under a ten-day curfew, but he spoke to no one there except soldiers and police, departing with ten copies of ‘The Grenadier’, a Guards magazine … Breaking into verse at one point, the cyclostyled magazine declared:
Sergeant Clerk is the Acorn’s clerk
But is prone to get in rages.
If the Wogs give any trouble
He puts them into cages.
The cages were the barbed-wire pens where men waited their turn for questioning – another name for them was ‘play-pens’; the Wogs, of course, were the Cypriots. The visitor wrote across a souvenir copy: ‘With best wishes from an old Grenadier – Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister’.”
[Legacy of Strife – Cyprus from Rebellion to Civil War, by Charles Foley, A Penguin Special 1964].
In the late 70s a Scottish veteran handed over to the Scottish ‘Sunday Mail’ paper a dossier containing information on up to forty killings carried out by fellow soldiers in Aden – about a decade-and-a-half before. Some of this was printed by the paper in early 1981 and a controversy ensued, with the ‘Sunday Mail’ being inundated with letters.
Some veterans and serving soldiers complained bitterly about their former mates telling tales out of school and attacked the paper for printing material detrimental to the ‘honour of the regiment’. Others, mainly ex-soldier veterans, wrote in telling how the terrible events in Aden had been on their minds. Unable to forget, they welcomed the opportunity to unburden themselves and wrote of their own experiences, some of which the paper printed as: ‘The Aden File’. The following is taken from what they said:
1] The Yellow Card instructions – which laid out the circumstances in which soldiers could open fire – were abused. To detain an Arab, soldiers were taught to shout ‘waqaf’ – pronounced ‘wakeef’ – meaning halt. If three warnings were ignored soldiers were then entitled to shoot, but some treated this as a joke and shouted ‘fuck off’ or ‘corned beef’ instead. Not surprisingly, most Arabs did not understand this and several were just gunned down.
2] The Army had set-up machine gun emplacements overlooking the Crater district and on nights – after attacks on soldiers – those heavy guns were fired into this deprived area as a punishment. The heavy velocity bullets ripping through the thin walls causing untold death and destruction.
3] The bodies of Arabs killed by soldiers were taken in a three-ton truck and dumped off a bridge into the bay, some of the dead were suspects who had been arrested, or wounded Arabs who had been taken to the army medical centre. A soldier who had carried out the ‘dumping’ of the bodies stated: “Some of the prisoners’ bodies had gunshot wounds, but some had been given injections.”
4] The officers had initiated inter-platoon rivalry by awarding Robertson’s Jam ‘golliwog stickers’ to the squads for each killing of an Arab. An ex-soldier recollected: “At one stage my platoon had notched up 13 kills and another platoon were one kill behind. Their corporal even told the privates to use their bayonets, for it was to be that sort of killing. They went into an alley and killed a young Arab who was out after curfew.”
The ‘Sunday Mail’ passed the dossier to the Scottish Lord Advocate who promised an investigation. Two years later the ‘Sunday Mail’ printed a tiny article saying the Lord Advocate had decided no proceedings should be instituted in this case.
[Sunday Mail (Scotland) on 26th April, 3rd May, 10th May and 17th May 1981; also see the edition of 17th Dec. 1978].
The military unit involved in those incidents in Aden was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment with a history as ‘proud and honourable’ as any in the British army. They were led in Aden by Lt-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, who became a ‘war hero’ in the British media. After leaving the military Mitchell became a right-wing Tory MP.
Ireland – a Rising in the North
Towards the end of the 60s, General Sir Walter Walker, a former commander of NATO, who had fought in Malaya and Brunei, made a call: ‘To save Britain from the Communist Trojan Horse in our midst’ and claimed that Harold Wilson, the Labour Party leader: ‘Was a proven communist.’ On Northern Ireland Walker said:
“I have engaged in campaigns against blacks, yellows and slant eyes. Why should we have one rule for whites and one for coloureds? We have to decide if Northern Ireland is part of Britain or not – and if so, act accordingly.”
Many in the officer-class had similar opinions and, after a brief ‘honeymoon period’, the army, while claiming to be ‘peacekeeping,’ launched a series of assaults against Nationalist areas. These included ‘The Falls Curfew’ (July 1970), ‘Internment’ (August 1971), ‘Bloody Sunday’ (January 1972) and ‘Operation Motorman’ (July 1972).
Over this period active membership of an almost defunct IRA rose dramatically – as did the support in Nationalist areas for its armed struggle. Decades of conflict followed as the army was equipped with CS gas, plastic bullets and other weapons of social control, which were subsequently sold on by the armament firms to repressive regimes around the world.
After the British Army’s provocative actions, military and political resistance became entrenched in nationalist areas. A huge repertoire of songs and poems, with posters, graffiti and wall paintings, reflected that opposition, including the experiences of locals at the hands of soldiers.
In the early 70’s, the IRA had received a consignment of Armalite rifles from America and many British soldiers were killed or wounded by this weapon. In Nationalist areas this weapon became the subject for a song: ‘My Little Armalite’:
I was stopped by a soldier,
said he, ‘you are a swine’,
He beat me with his baton
and he kicked me in the groin,
I bowed and I scraped,
sure me manners were polite
But all the time I’m thinking
of me little Armalite.
And it’s down in the Bogside [or any local Nationalist area]
that’s where I long to be,
Lying in the dark
with a Provo company,
A comrade on me left
and another on me right,
And a clip of ammunition
for me little Armalite.
Chillingly, for British soldiers, graffiti started to appear in Nationalist areas, proclaiming: ‘GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS – BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL’.
1972, especially after Bloody Sunday in Derry, was a year of extreme violence that claimed 496 lives. 108 soldiers, 26 UDR and 17 RUC members were killed, as were 74 republicans and 11 loyalists. In the mayhem, 258 civilians also died, many caught up in shootings and bombings.
Some soldiers, like Lance Corporal Kevin Cadwallader, deserted to Sweden rather than face another tour of duty. He said:
“I came to Sweden for asylum because of Northern Ireland. I do not think that what is happening there is very good. As I see it, there must be a simpler way of ending the fight without more people being killed. So I have left rather than fight in something I think is wrong.”
[Peace News, 8th June 1973]
Other soldiers who had fled from the army went on the run in Britain. Terry, a deserter from the Royal Artillery, was interviewed by the London ‘Time Out’magazine:
“At 15 it [the army] seemed to appeal to me – it seemed to offer more and regular pocket-money and when I re-joined for a further six years I was still hung up on money and I hadn’t given any serious thought to whether the army was the right place for me.
… In the army I was trained to kill and to cope with riots. About 8 or 9 weeks into your training you’re shown human targets on the rifle range and you’re told to shoot for the centre of the target to achieve maximum damage. You’re not taught to injure someone so they can’t escape arrest – you’re just taught to kill. … Any non-essential violence I disagree with completely and I call the army’s violence in Ireland non-essential.
… Since I deserted I’ve been worried and depressed because the army gets you into their routine, so you don’t have to think for yourself. I’m used to walking into the mess hall, for example, getting a meal, eating it and leaving the plates and cutlery for someone else to wash. The army tells you to stop thinking for yourself. They don’t like people thinking for themselves – that’s why they lay everything on for you. The only thing a soldier does for himself is, once a month, wash his civvies at the launderette.
I want to say the best of British luck to any army deserter who may read this. Second, to those people thinking of joining – don’t do it. My message to anyone already a soldier is that I am a lot happier out of it.”
[Time Out, 7th to 13th April, 1972].
Of course the great majority of soldiers did not go to these extremes, but the dissatisfaction of British soldiers with tours of duty in Northern Ireland did dramatically increase over the years. An ex-marine recalled this period, when feelings of disaffection were building among the troops:
“Years ago when the troubles first started soldiers viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland as an opportunity to get some active service in. To many young soldiers who had not served in Aden and Malaya, despite the dangers, Northern Ireland seemed very exciting, it was the real thing, something to boast about back home.
However, the novelty wore off. By 1975 when I was discharged a tour of Northern Ireland was the worst thing that could happen. The number of soldiers deserting or going AWOL would increase, alcoholism and violence was prevalent, and the cost to family relationships was immeasurable.
Apart from very new recruits who had never been there the attitude of most soldiers is that we should get out – though it is usually expressed by saying that we should let them fight it out.”
[Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine, in: British Soldiers Speak Out On Ireland, Information On Ireland 1978].
By the end of 1974, 232 British soldiers had been killed in the conflict and over 2,500 wounded, many seriously. In Britain, disenchantment with the war, due in part to the high level of soldiers’ deaths and injuries, continued to grow.
The previous year, in early 1973, Peggy Chaston, a Reading housewife and a soldier’s relative, had started a public petition calling for: ‘Our boys to be brought home’ from Northern Ireland:
“Opposition MPs at Westminster have been talking for months about the growing resentment in the country against the rising death toll of British soldiers in Ulster, but it has taken a housewife to present the feeling in concrete terms … With a minimum of national publicity, she has secured in four weeks more than 42,000 signatures for the petition. … Mr William Whitelaw and other political leaders have warned Mrs Chaston that her campaign can only have the result of encouraging the IRA.
… She steadfastly refuses to listen to criticisms about the effect her campaign could have on the ordinary civilians of Ulster. ‘This is their struggle, and British people should not be made to die for it’, she said. ‘Neither should their wives and mothers be forced into nervous breakdowns’.”
[The Times, 2nd July 1973].
After the fall of the Sunningdale Agreement, calls for the ‘withdrawal of troops’ were increasingly heard back home. Opinion polls were clearly showing that over half the British population favoured this option and an edition of the London ‘Evening Standard’ had carried the headline: “Ulster: Back-bencher makes a startling claim – HALF LABOUR MPs WANT TO PULL OUT.”
On June 3rd 1974, the ‘Daily Mirror’, which claimed ‘Europe’s biggest daily sale’, started to campaign for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, saying: that: “Britain must face the most sombre option of all – to pull out the troops and abandon sovereignty.”
In the face of mounting casualties, it was evident that many of the soldiers were fed up with their role in Northern Ireland. In April 1974, Christopher Dobson – ‘With the troops in Ulster’s ugly world of terrorism’ – had filed this report in the ‘Sunday Telegraph’:
“To walk along Belfast’s Royal Avenue today is like walking in the past – along Ledra Street in Nicosia when Eoka’s murderers were at work. Venturing into the Bogside in Derry is like taking a patrol into Aden’s Crater district, and dropping by helicopter into a border fort is like visiting a fire-base in Vietnam.”
Under the sub-heading – ‘ANGER OF ARMY THAT FEELS BETRAYED’ – Dobson continued:
“So far more than 200 British soldiers have been killed while many more have been maimed. The soldiers’ work is hard, their pay is low and more often than not they receive curses instead of thanks from the people for whom they are dying.
There can be no surprise therefore that the average soldier is thoroughly fed up with Ireland and everything to do with it. But what surprised me was the extent and depth of the bitterness that exists among the troops, some of whom are on their fifth tour of duty in Ulster.
I met a section who had just returned from an ‘Eagle patrol’ – lifted in by helicopter to set a snap road block. They were tired, dirty and remarkably frank. I said to them: ‘Tell me what it is all about’. Their officers were present and I believe that they were also surprised at the depth of feeling that the troops displayed.
Soldiers are expected to grumble, but these men genuinely felt that they were being misused and ill-treated. Their complaints ranged over pay, excessively long hours, of being ‘forgotten’, and in particular the inability of ‘the bloody politicians’ to settle the appalling mess in which the soldiers found themselves targets of both sides.
… Just as the American soldiers in Vietnam used to divide their existence between ‘the Nam’ and ‘the World’ so do the British soldiers in Ulster, with only the world outside seeming real while they lead a surrealistic existence in an unreal world punctured by the brutal reality of bombs and bullets.
They feel that the people outside cannot understand this strange world of theirs and they feel cut off, forgotten. The impression they have is of people in safe England, so very close, watching their television sets, seeing the explosions and the bodies, saying, ‘How terrible’, and then turning to something really interesting like the price of petrol.”
[Sunday Telegraph, 7th April 1974].
The New Recruitment
In July 1974, the British Government published their latest White Paper on Northern Ireland: “In the past five years over 1,000 people – men, women and children; soldiers, policemen and civilians – have died by violent means. There has been great continuous and widespread suffering and destruction. … In August 1969 there were only 2,500 (troops) stationed in Northern Ireland. This figure rose to 22,500 by the end of July 1972 and has never been fewer than 14,500 since that time.”
[Government White Paper: The Northern Ireland Constitution, July 1974].
As the pressure for troop withdrawal mounted and soldiers’ disaffection increased, a search was put in motion for a new political and military strategy:
“At the Northern Ireland Office Sir Frank Cooper approached a senior civil servant, John Bourne, and asked him to start thinking about what should be done. After the chaos of the past years, with political initiatives and power-sharing executives falling like autumn leaves, it was considered time to take stock.
… On John Bourne’s committee sat Jack Hermon of the RUC; some senior Army officers including the Chief of Staff; various civil servants and a representative from MI5. It did not meet regularly like a normal committee, but all the members had their opinions canvassed, and finally its report appeared, under the title ‘The Way Ahead’. It was never published, but it was mentioned by Merlyn Rees the following year when he announced the new policy of ‘Ulsterisation’ and police primacy.”
[Pig in the Middle – The Army in Northern Ireland, by Desmond Hamill, Methuen London Ltd. 1985].
Some soldiers, including many who were – or others who would have become – NCOs, began to leave the army in large numbers – either purchasing their discharge or refusing to re-enlist. This caused a recruitment crisis, a problem that was still evident in later years, as ‘Hansard’ reported:
“£26 million was spent on recruitment last year ; during this period there were 40,243 recruits – an average of £654 per recruit was thus spent … Of this £1,050,000 was spent on press ads for officers; 2,135 were recruited in this period, an average of £500 per recruit.”
[Hansard, 2nd May 1977].
Many British Army regiments, serving tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early to mid-70s, found their soldiers were leaving the army in unprecedented numbers. And, when new soldiers to fill the gaps proved hard to procure, it was decided a new recruitment policy was required. So, desperate to replenish the ranks, a special effort was then made to gain recruits from the ‘Ethnic Minorities’ in the UK.
In 1971 a survey of the popular television show, The Comedians, had revealed that jokes against the Irish were the second most frequent in the repertoire, with jokes against Pakistanis, or other black people, heading the list. A comedian just had to say: ‘There was this Paki’ or: ‘There was this Paddy’ – and the audience would howl with laughter; before the joke, or punch-line, was spoken.
And now, one section of these maligned minorities was to be recruited into the British Army and used against the insurgent Irish other. Once in the Army, several of the new black soldiers quickly became aware of the predicament they were in. They were subject to discrimination and prejudice within the ranks and some, like Lloyd Hayes, became disturbed by the situation they were thrust into in the north of Ireland:
“Black soldiers were being used for night foot patrols while the whites would do the cushy vehicle patrols. Some soldiers committed suicide because they were sick and tired of being in Ireland. Most of the soldiers had the following attitude to killing Irish people: ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is to do or die.’ And many did die!
On several occasions myself and a few others would try to get an explanation as to why the IRA were always ‘terrorists’ and the Protestant Paramilitary groups were never mentioned. Why the Protestants were always implied to be on the side of law and order? We were always ignored.
One of the most vivid things I remember about Northern Ireland was a chat I had with a couple of other black soldiers who had just returned from a house search. They had felt so ashamed and disgusted with the whole thing in Ireland that they had felt like leaving their rifles in the house they had just smashed up.
They had gone to this house, bust down the front door, waking up the mother and the father and the five kids living there (including a one-year-old baby). They had ripped up all the mattresses on the beds, they had ripped up the floor boards, and smashed the cistern in the toilet, flooding the bathroom. After all this – all they found was a kid’s catapult and a rubber bullet that was fired through the front window by a soldier.
The thing that really got to me was the hatred with which the Catholics looked upon us – the blacks in the British Army. It was only those of us into Black Power who understood that although we were on the other side of the wire, both blacks and Catholics faced the same enemy. We, an exploited and oppressed minority like themselves, were helping our own oppressors to oppress them.” [Flame, 6th May 1977, by Lloyd Hayes].
The Racist Abuse of Black Soldiers
Inside Britain there were often reports about incidents of abuse and violence being used against black members of the population. This coincided with the growth of right-wing neo-Nazi groups, like the National Front (NF) in the 70s and later the British National Party and Combat 18. These organisations often sought to have contact with serving soldiers and veterans:
“Two soldiers were among more than a dozen individuals whose homes were raided after a year-long investigation into the activities of neo-Nazis … The soldiers … served with The Parachute Regiment and the King’s Regiment. The first is said to be a private who did tours of duty in Northern Ireland and Bosnia…
… Links between C18 and the UDA and the UVF loyalist paramilitary groups had been strengthened recently … the man responsibly for the links, a former soldier from Portadown, brought seven UVF members to Wigan for a C18 concert.
Such concerts and music sales are a lucrative source of income for C18, now headed by a former Royal Marines Territorial member from south-east London …”
[Soldiers recruited by violent far-right, by Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, 8th March 1999].
In the Armed Forces there were probably about the same percentage of racists and bullies as there were in Civvy Street. The confined, extreme and tribal atmosphere of a British Army regiment, however, was one where racist behaviour, if not stopped, could grow and become malignant.
A few British Army regiments had a history of not wanting, or welcoming, black soldiers – and often those in charge turned a blind eye towards any reports of racist ill-treatment. And gradually it became clear that many of the new recruits from the ‘Ethnic Minorities’ were suffering from increasing levels of racism and abuse while serving in the British Army.
In 1981, the journalist Ian Jack visited an army regiment while writing a series of articles on British youth:
“The dozen boys I spoke to were all white, from working-class homes in London, the Midlands and the West Country. The Green Jackets, however, do recruit a fair number of black youths. Slowly the conversation drifted through patriotism (‘We’re English, aren’t we? I mean, we’re God’s gift’) and the riots of this summer (‘daft – just to get yourself noticed’) towards the thorny and ever-present subject of race.
‘Yeah we got coloured geezers, sambos and that,’ said one of the louder boys, “but we take the piss. I mean last month we pretended to be the Ku Klux Klan. We put pillow cases over our heads and went around the barracks at night moaning and wailing and telling them that Maggie Thatcher was going to kick ’em all out. But everybody gets the piss taken out of them, they know it’s only a joke like. There’s this Paki, we call him Abdul. We say, ‘Give us a fag, Abdul, you nig-nog’ and he says, “Aw piss off or I’ll get my tribe down to have a go at you”, ‘I mean it’s a joke for him as well. We all do it. The corporals take the piss just as bad’.
They do. The next day Donald McCullin was photographing a black recruit behind the parade ground. A corporal passed them. ‘Oi’, he shouted, ‘remember to show ’im your lips’. I asked a young officer if this kind of behaviour presented problems. He said: ‘Well occasionally we do get blacks ganging up together in a black power kind of thing – we call them coon clans – but fortunately we’ve got some excellent black NCOs and they sort things out pretty quickly’.
In fact the Green Jackets tend to be regarded as a sloppy, pinko outfit by other units in the British Army; by, for example, the Household Regiments who appear to such stunning effect in royal pageants. The Household Regiments do not accept black recruits. ‘It’s not official policy, you understand’, said a cavalry officer, ‘it’s just that we won’t have them’.”
[The Sunday Times Magazine, 1st Nov. 1981 – report on British youth by Ian Jack].
Of course, not all black soldiers were subjected to abuse, or attacks. Nigel Benn, who later was to find fame as a world champion boxer, had earlier served in Northern Ireland with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Later, in Civvy Street, when he was the Commonwealth middleweight boxing champion, a journalist asked Benn if he was ever afraid in the ring? In his reply he talked about his service in Northern Ireland:
“Christ, I remember the day we arrived in Ulster. All the Rambos in our regiment were loving it – they were crazy – they thought this was all some film, like. I knew it was no film. For every single moment I was there, for two whole bloody years, I was terrified, man, sheer terrified!
Even today, man, when I hear a click, my ass hits the floor! I lost four of my best mates there, blown to bits, and I wonder now just what the hell it was all for.
No, man, I have no fears in the ring, absolutely none at all.
After two years crawling around Tyrone and South Armagh, it don’t frighten me none.”
[You – The Mail on Sunday magazine, 23rd April 1989].
As a boxer Nigel Benn was a fierce fighter, who ‘liked a good tear up.’ So, as racists and bullies are often cowards, most would probably have had second thought about having a go at him.
Other were not so lucky and often incidents of bulling and abuse occurred inside the training barracks, just after recruits had first joined up:
“A bullying corporal made life hell for army recruits, it was claimed yesterday … At barracks where three young soldiers have died in the last three months … The incidents are alleged to have taken place at Shorncliffe Barracks, Kent, last summer. At the barracks in December, 17-year-old soldier Nicholas Burnup apparently shot dead a corporal and turned the gun on himself. A month later another 17-year-old, Jeffrey Singh, was found hanging dead.’
[Daily Record, 5th March 1987].
A Labour MP, Sid Bidwell, asked the Secretary of State for Defence about the death of Jeffrey Singh, but was told: ‘It would be inappropriate for me to comment in advance of the coroner’s inquest’.
Six months later the ‘Independent’ paper reported on the inquest:
“The inquest into the death of private Jeffrey Singh heard allegations of bullying and that he had been called a ‘black bastard’.”
[Independent, 12th Oct. 1987].
Stephen Anderson was another black soldier subjected to abuse and discrimination while serving with the Devon and Dorset Regiment in Berlin and Wiltshire. He was beaten up for refusing to go drinking with white soldiers, and his life was threatened:
“He had to lock himself in a bathroom to sleep at night, and was called ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’ by NCOs. He is serving 112 days at the Army’s correction centre in Colchester after being court martialled in December for absence without leave. His mother, Mrs Joyce Anderson, said yesterday that he had absconded because officers had refused to listen to his complaints.”
[Guardian, 5th Feb. 1988].
After his discharge, Anderson fought for justice with the help of the Commission for Racial Equality. After a four year battle he was awarded just £500 compensation and the black paper, ‘The Voice’, reported his ordeal:
“Stephen Anderson phoned a local radio station while he was wandering about Birmingham city centre last week in a distressed state. Thousands of listeners to BBC Radio WM heard him say: ‘I can’t cope, I’ve had enough.’ He told of the injustices he suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers in the Devon and Dorset Regiment.
Anderson had just been awarded £500 by the Army for the verbal and physical abuse he suffered while serving in Germany. He had been called a ‘black bastard’, ‘nigger’, ‘coon’, and ‘Rastus’ by some of his colleagues, a corporal and a sergeant. He also claimed the corporal held a knife at his throat.
In September 1987 Anderson had brought 13 complaints of serious racial abuse to the notice of his commanding officer, but in 1989 a military hearing dismissed his claims. In November 1990 a High Court judicial hearing, held in response to pressure from the Commission for Racial Equality, quashed the Army’s decision. Five of the complaints were proved, but only one of the incidents took place while Anderson was on duty.”
[The Voice, 22nd Oct. 1991].
‘Unpalatable Facts’ about Racial Discrimination
After the murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence at a south London bus stop in 1993 a report by Sir William Macpherson delivered a damning assessment of ‘institutional racism’ within the Metropolitan police. Similarly, in the Army there was often indifference from those in command to the abuse suffered by black recruits at the hands of white fellow soldiers and NCOs.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that there was a fall-off of recruits from the black communities. And in 1989 a secret report into ‘why black and coloured people shun the Armed Forces’ was ‘sending shock waves through the Ministry of Defence’:
“It is said to contain ‘unpalatable facts’ about racial discrimination in all three branches of the Services. Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton admitted last night that a massive marketing campaign was needed in ethnic communities to counter the ‘alienation’ felt by black and Asian groups.”
[Daily Mail, 12th June 1989, full-page report by Paul Maurice].
A week after the secret report was presented, journalist Kate Muir visited the Guards as they rehearsed for Trooping the Colour. A guardsman was telling her about a recent posting:
“He is interrupted by another soldier who has clearly not been invited to speak by the press officer. ‘We didn’t really like Belize ’cos of all the coloured people’. The others laugh. ‘Notice that I say coloured, not Pakis and wogs. That’s because the army isn’t racist any more’.”
[Independent, 19th June 1989].
As racist abuse continued, a succession of stories appeared in papers highlighting the way black soldiers were being mistreated. Like Winston Clay in the Royal Artillery:
“A black soldier who went AWOL after racist bullying said yesterday: ‘Being in jail was better than my regiment.’ Scot Winston Clay put up with the abuse for several years – but eventually he couldn’t take any more. He went on the run for six months before being captured … And the 23-year-old squaddie was banged up in the glasshouse for 56 days.
He said: ‘It was better in prison because people knew they couldn’t get away with racism’. … Winston, whose dad comes from Sierra Leone, joined the regular Army in 1992 after a spell as a boy soldier. But racist bully-boys made his life hell and picked on him because he was black – and Scottish. He was told he couldn’t march because of the colour of his skin and fellow soldiers’ sick taunts included the name ‘Porridge Wog’.”
[Daily Record, 13th Jan. 1997].
It is four-and-a-half decades since the MoD and Government turned to the ‘Ethnic Minorities’ in the UK to provide a supply of new recruits. And now, short of soldiers once more, they are turning to the Commonwealth. So, once again, I wonder what might happen to these new recruits?
No doubt the MoD will claim that the Army has cleaned up its act and left behind bigotry and any kind of racial discrimination? But will that prove to be true? Or will it be the same old story – all over again?
Winston Clay had a message for the Army, so I will leave the last word to him:
“I wanted to do my bit for my country but now I feel let down: There needs to be a system of taking care of racism – teaching people the do’s and don’ts – but that is the last thing the Army worries about.”
[Daily Record, 13th Jan. 1997].
Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served for 8 years in the British Army in the 1960s.