Black and Minority Ethnic Women and the Sea in World War 2


 US Army Nursing Corps Sisters wait to disembark at Greenoch, Scotland, August 15 1944.

One of the great benefits of Black History Month (October) is that it prompts us consider the absence of BME people, or even of references to race, in the subjects we are studying, if we can’t find their presence. For example, in writing about British women who sailed in WW1 and WW2 I’d initially thought that all the need for skilled personnel would bring large numbers of women from India, the Caribbean and other British colonies into the war effort. Surely they crossed the seas to help ‘the Mother country’ and the Allied cause between 1939 and 1945?

But they are barely on record – and it seems were barely involved. By contrast, US evidence, with all its clear racism, shows just how black women were excluded or relegated.

In Britain there’s no record of whether BME women were among the troops and voluntary workers who went overseas. And no black or mixed-race people appear to have been among the many women entertainers, such as Vera Lynn, sent out from Britain.

Afro-Caribbean enthusiasm for the war effort meant people from the West Indies were keen to participate. But the British government were reluctant to let black women over here. Years of argument about this, between the War Office and Colonial Office, ensued.  One internal memo said ‘Dear Thomas: In brief we are quite prepared to accept European women from the colonies, but I must emphasize we cannot accept coloured women for service in this country’ [my italics].

An unknown number of nurses came privately from the West Indies to the UK. When they arrived they did not, of course, work solely with black men as their US sisters did.

Finally, policy changed. Near the end of 1943 black women sailed from the Caribbean to Britain to become part of the women’s branch of the army, the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS). Fashion designer Hermione X and 299 middle-class ‘coloured’ women were ‘accepted’ onto Britain’s shores. Seemingly they paid their own fare.

A year later, and five years into the war, more Afro-Caribbean female service personnel were sailing to the UK to become ATS. Probably under 500 did so. In October 1944 they set off  (via Trinidad and New York) on the by-then much-worn troopship Queen Mary to Scotland.

Because many had had a privileged upbringing they were shocked at conditions on the ship. One un-named woman said: ‘We had to sleep on wire covered with canvas. Sugar bags covering wire that was our beds! Some of them started to cry. I was always trying to make peace, telling them “You joined it, you glad to be coming, so you must accept what you getting.”’[1]

White British servicewomen also sailed on such troopships as they went out to postings overseas. Perhaps because of the Blitz and being socialised to stay cheery, none of the testimonies I’ve read mentions the awful mattresses on ships. None, allegedly, let themselves cry either. They mainly complained in the approved stoic and jolly manner  about water shortages and overcrowding on such vessels.

In the US the authorities were similarly reluctant to utilise black women’s labour.  They imposed a quota on nurses that wasn’t successfully challenged until 1944.  Only 479 of the Army Nurse Corps’s 50,000 nurses were black (0.8 per cent). They were expected to work with only black troops.

The first African American women to sail overseas in the war were ANC nurses who went to Liberia. Later they went to other parts of Africa, Burma (where they nursed Chinese troops) and the South Pacific (which suggests that a very different version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, featuring white nurse Nellie Forbush, could have been written.) In June 1944 a unit of 63 black ANC nurses came to the 168th Station Hospital in Warrington, Cheshire. Their role was specifically to nurse German POWs – the least desirable patients. [2]

6888th Postal Battalion women in Rouen, 1946

The largest group of African-American women who sailed to war were part of the army.[3] 855 women were the only black WACs to serve overseas. They were postal workers in the elite 6888th Postal Battalion. They initially came to Birmingham circa January 1945. Later they crossed the Channel to work in Rouen, and later Paris.

Historian Brenda L Moore interviewed many of them, who said they had been trained how to board a ship via cargo net and to climb ropes (these were not skills with which any British women service personnel boarded ships).

They sailed in two batches, aboard two of the worlds’ most iconic liners, that had been converted to troop ships: the Ile de France and the Queen Elizabeth. Myrtle Royden on the Ile de France thought it was ‘loaded to the brim …with bombs and ammunition.’[4] This made it a legitimate target and Germany attacked. The ship had to take evasive action (zigzagging). And the convoy was attacked by a u-boat before reaching Scotland.  

Women in the second contingent, such Dorothy Johnson on the Queen Elizabeth, didn’t have any trouble; she found it ‘a rather luxurious journey’[5] full of the mateyness and mingling that was so typical of troopships, where the rare women – whatever their ethnicity – were very popular indeed. First Lt Mildred Dupree Leonard made the crucial point that status was the key divide and so officers had it relatively easy on these hierarchical ships. ‘We [officers] were living in the best quarters [whereas some] enlisted personnel were down in the hole.’ She likened it to travelling on an ocean liner: ‘the further down on the ship you go, the less pleasant the trip.’[6]

Women of 6888th on both ships made the comment that tens of thousands of servicewomen made, whatever their trip, whatever their ethnicity: seasickness was the main feature of the voyage. The Atlantic can be particular unpleasant in winter and the Ile de France’s zigzagging worsened it. One of the post women, Miss Rhoden, said she had to hang on with all her strength the veering was so severe – and noisy: ‘the sirens, the banging, the horns, and the whistles; the galvanized cans were banging and clanging.’ And in their cramped cabin women’s perfume and cosmetics whizzed off the shelves, ‘flying through the air like marbles.’[7]    

But they made it.[8] And no black British or black American women were among the hundreds of women is recorded as being among those who died on ships in the two wars. However, I think this is highly unlikely, and that evidence of fatalities will emerge.

According to the information available, black British and US women were not allowed to play a proportionate part in either war. Consequently they did not experience full access to that bonus, mobility, that was such a key feature of war for white women.

For those who did travel, their experiences of overt and subtle discrimination during voyages is little known. Broadly speaking, all women tended to be seen as intruders on wartime ships. But as British merchant vessels were operated by crew used to dealing with a range of people from other countries, it may be that the African-American women travelling to Britain in WW2 experienced less overt racism than they usually experienced in the US. Certainly, in general, BME women suffered additional hostility – for example, delayed trips – which deserves acknowledgement.

Jo Stanley (c) 2012

Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS, is an expert on the gendered sea. For Yale University Press she is currently writing Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas (2013). She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research.

[1] Ben Bousquet and Colin Douglas, West Indian Women at War, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990, p119.

[2] Judith A Bellafaire, The Army Nurse Corps, US Army Center of Military History. See also

[3] 150 Caucasion WAACs  (their auxiliary status, marked by that exta ‘A’ was dropped in 1943) had served in North Africa from November 1942 and many other served in Europe. Although women were only allowed overseas later than men, Africa-American women were only permitted to go two years later than that. It was expected that African-American WAACs  would come to Britain in 1942, as secretaries and chauffeurs who would ‘bring a touch of home to the [black] soldiers.’ But Director Oveta Hobby’s concern that they were just being seen as escorts for black US troops meant the plan was shelved for two years. Brenda L Moore, To Serve My Country, To Serve My Race, New York University Press, New York and London, 1996, p81.

[4] Cited in Moore, To Serve, p105.

[5]  Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.

[6] Cited in Moore, To Serve, p106.

[7] Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.

[8] Depending on how long they’d served, these postal workers rotated back to the US, finally leaving in March 1946.