Women's History

Searching for Histories of Black Women’s Service across the Seas in the Second World War

It’s Anzio, western Italy, autumn 2012 and I’m in a Second World War Allied Forces cemetery full of white graves commemorating dead servicemen. Campania is full of such military cemeteries, including those of Germans. And members of my Leger battlefield tour group have delighted in helping me locate servicewomen, calling over the carefully-mown lawns, ‘Jo, over here! I’ve found a nurse’s headstone.’  On the inscription gender is made clear by the name and the unit she was part of, for example Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.  This raises the question for me of what remains that can tell us about the different ethnic identities of the women who travelled overseas to contribute in that war: the black British women and the women from places such as the Caribbean?’ Was there no black Vera Lynn who flew to the Middle East to sing ‘We’ll meet again’ to anyone of any colour? Was there a black Second World War successor to pacifist writer and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Vera Brittain sailing out on a hospital ship to Mudros to nurse Our Boys, including Sikhs, injured at Gallipoli?

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

Paul Reed, our Italian battlefield guide, tells me about segregated memorial visits by the United States moms of fallen black servicemen in the First World War. Even the ships on which they came to Europe were racially divided. So what might have been the position of black women serving overseas in the services, in all countries? It’s a big question that I hope war historians worldwide will be addressing, just as some have now addressed women’s presence in both world wars.

Women at sea

I myself am a historian interested in gender and mobility who is writing about British women at sea in both world wars for a new book that Yale University Press is going to publish. At the outset I thought it might be a very brief book. But actually British women have left so much overlooked testimony about their voyages, train and aeroplane rides that at least three volumes would be possible.

Women’s subjective evidence up-ends the rugged and exclusively male story that popular culture transmits through movies such as The Cruel Sea.  Such evidence also augments and challenges the traditional academic naval and military histories that prompted me in the first place to think surely women were on some ships? I’d found yes, they were tens of thousands, on hundreds of vessels. Their mobility was great – and very problematic for authorities worried about their moral welfare overseas amongst all those men, including beastly foreign types, as official documents at the National Archives show.

But it’s an almost entirely white story. Why is that? Is it that black women were absent? Or is it just an absence of evidence? The autumn’s Black History Month and my involvement with University College London’s Equiano Centre (which promotes historical research into the black presence in Britain) prompted this white anti-racist to probe further, and internationally.


Primary sources so far found offer very little indeed. Two secondary sources on black women serving in the British and Commonwealth forces in WW2 are richer: Ben Bousquet and Colin Douglas’s West Indian Women at War (1990) and a film that deserves fuller media attention, Reunion: West Indian Women at War (1993).

British Black and minority ethnic women going overseas

But these examine stories of women who came to Britain. What of the black and minority ethnic women already in Britain, many of them the daughters of Asian, African and Caribbean seafaring men? There seems to be no primary or secondary work on their contribution to the war, whether serving at home in Britain or overseas (as at least 50,000 British and Commonwealth women did). Nor is their work on any women who came over from West Africa, as thousands of men did. Indeed I have failed to find evidence of any black women who sailed from the largely white former colonies such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada, by comparison to several thousand white women, such as Maria ‘Johnnie’ Ferguson, a medal-winning would-be Wren from Panama.

The most easily accessible information about another country’s practices in relation to black women serving overseas comes from the United States, which had a racial quota system until challenges dinted it in 1944. The US Army Nurse Corps had 50,000 nurses, 479 of whom were African-American (0.8 per cent). Of the 14,000 Navy nurses who served overseas, small numbers of African-American women went to Africa, Burma (where they nursed Chinese troops), and the South Pacific. In June 1944 a unit of 63 black Army Nurse Corps nurses came to the 168th Station Hospital in Warrington, Cheshire. Their role was specifically to nurse German prisoners of war – the least desirable patients.

The largest group of African-American women who sailed to war were part of the army.

Postal battalion
6888th Postal Battalion women in Rouen, 1946

Brenda L Moore outlines the history of the 855 women who were the only black Women’s Army Corps members to serve overseas: 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.

Such US information helps us see that Britain was less overtly segregationist, but probably enabled fewer black and minority ethnic indigenous women to travel overseas (and we can’t know how proportionate that was, because lack of British population data about ethnicity at that time). It provides a comparator, of which there could usefully be many more, for example Japan or Australia.

Black and minority ethnic women who came to Britain

Instead we can look at the women who came especially over to Britain from what was then called the West Indies. Informally friends who are nursing historians tell me that they are vaguely aware of nurses who came privately from the West Indies to Britain. No-one seems to know how many, what they did, or what were the racial issues around their employment. For example, were their qualifications ignored and professionals put in auxiliary roles, as they were in the 1950s? But it seems that when they arrived they were not formally segregated into solely nursing patients from minorities and disliked groups (such as Germans), as were their sisters from the United States.  This is a history still to be uncovered.

However Frances-Anne Solomon’s Reunion: West Indian Women at War reveals five Afro-Caribbean women’s enthusiasm for the war effort, which led them to sail here, as they now recall. The documentary’s researchers found that the British government was reluctant to let black women come 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]. By 1942 it seems that, after protests from colonial governments, people from the colonies could enter Britain without facing the old requirement for documentary evidence of their British nationality. But it’s not clear how many women were among the many men, nor what they did.

Finally, British official policy towards women changed, not least because of labour shortages meant both colour and gender had to be ignored. Near the end of 1943 Afro-Caribbean women sailed from the Caribbean to Britain to become part of the women’s branch of the army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Fashion designer Hermione A and 299 middle-class ‘coloured’ women were ‘accepted’ onto Britain’s shores. Seemingly they paid their own fare.

A year later, five years into the war, more Afro-Caribbean female service personnel were sailing to Britain to become members of the ATS. Probably fewer than 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.

Tolerating the voyage

Like most white British women they were excited by the adventure of travelling for the first time, and staunchly delighted at making a patriotic contribution. Voyages could be boring because avoiding danger caused them to be so long: ships zig-zagged, went at the speed of the slowest in the convoy, and took circuitous routes. They could also be like house-parties but with risk attached.

Because the women from the West Indies 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.”’ But one of the film’s interviewee’s declared of her trip ‘It was the way you were brought up. England is your mother country and you must do something to help.’ So of course you tolerated U-boat-infested oceans and on-board privation.

White British servicewomen also sailed on such troopships as they went out to postings overseas, as their way of helping the mother country. Perhaps because of having been through the Blitz (as people in the Caribbean had not) and being socialised to stay cheery despite every hardship, none of the testimonies I’ve read mentions the dreadful mattresses on ships. This may have been simply because white women were allocated better beds. None, allegedly, let themselves cry – perhaps because they were appropriating the image of the men’s stoicism. If they groused it was in the approved jolly and mild manner, about water shortages and overcrowding on such vessel, not a formal complaint, which would have been seen as ungrateful and disloyal.

Arrival – but not going off again?

When the Afro-Caribbean women came to Britain, they were deployed here rather than being sent on overseas. In all the main archives such as the Imperial War Museum and the Liddle Archive at Leeds University, none of the voyage accounts by white British women mentions black women being in their units going out to postings. This is not because white women wouldn’t have noticed or commented upon race. Many commented on the black and minority ethnic people they met in intermediate ports, such as vendors and taxi drivers. I believe the absence of references is because black and minority ethnic women were not present.

And yet in no official documents have I found references to an outright policy of exclusion of women from the services (let alone service overseas), on racial or colour grounds. It must have been a far more hegemonic process, in which interviewers selected out non-white women and women themselves knew there was no point in putting themselves forward.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service sent 6,000 of its 75,000 members (7 per cent) abroad to work at naval bases. Regulations stipulated that both parents should be British-born, which of course does not necessarily mean white. But as the service was so elite, and overseas postings so desired, any black and minority ethnic woman would have been foolishly optimistic to apply at all, and certainly to hope to sail off to exoticised locations such as Trincomalee (Ceylon) or Kilindini (Kenya). Work on racial exclusion in the other women’s services such as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force has yet to be done.

Why the exclusion from the record?

I’ve puzzled and debated the writing out of women from histories of the wartime seas. The explanations seem to be that Woman doesn’t fit accounts of wartime bravery. The logic goes that if members of the frail sex are at sea then maybe conditions aren’t so challenging; maybe any ordinarily-scared person, female or male, can do it, after all. With that way of thinking, women’s presence thus reduces the glory of men’s contribution to the war at sea. Further explanations include that few historians think the matter worthy of attention: women were the minority. Also combat is seen to be the main point, and travel to and from war zones regarded rather as an aside, a book-end. In addition, women were seldom in the naval battles that are such a key genre in war histories. All this is bolstered by the traditional superstitious view of women aboard ship as matter out of place: a nuisance, an anomaly and an anathema.  Omitting them from the record may be an ostrich-like activity that somehow pretends they weren’t actually or significantly there at all (except as ladies welcomed because they were decorative exceptional guests, or badly-needed nurses).

Information matters

Such writings-out are important because information can end ignorance about what half the human race has done, and therefore can do. When historians make black women visible they end the myth that war, risk-taking, adventuring and tackling danger is men’s business. For example, an outraged officer (presumably male, white) buttonholed former Wren, Audrey Coningham, for wearing the Oak Leaf medal she’d been awarded for bravery. He simply believed she was not entitled to it. (She was. She’d rescued a drowning man from the sea when her submarine depot ship, Medway, was torpedoed between Alexandria and Haifa in 1942.)  He was acting on a common assumption; women didn’t do significant honourable things in wars. But knowledge of women’s pasts can bring new respect for women veterans.

The need to give women their rightful place in recorded war histories is doubly urgent when it comes to black and minority ethnic women. Both those who came to Britain and those who were already here deserve proper recognition. That is something anyone can do, by interviewing them and helping to make sure their testimony is preserved for posterity, including on websites, in the Black Cultural Archive, the Equiano Centre, and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.


  1. Hi, I’m ecstatic that I found this website and the issues that you’ve come across on this subject, I’ve been trawling the internet since 2017, when I first started researching for a fiction novel on Black servicewomen and nurses pre-WW2 and during. the information dam is solid. where are the hiding this? I refuse to believe that there was not even 1 Black servicewoman pre-WW2, or that black women, either from the West Indies or home grown, did not become nurses, its impossible that for an expected career path (caring for others) that not even one Black woman was admitted to train as a nurse! Anyway, lack of information won’t stop me from pursuing my craft, I just hope that such an important aspect of British history wasn’t so blatantly ignored or buried. T=

  2. Like Sara, I too have had an interest in Black female nurses in WW2 – mainly because my grandmother was one, grin. She went to England in 1938 and trained as a nurse there only to be caught in the country when WW2. What I know I have garnered from my mother. The thing that I questioned was my grandmother’s status – my family is Black, Portuguese and Indian on my mother’s side and my grandmother could pass for Portuguese. I mention that because I know that the African american nurses could not serve white soldiers while my grandmother did.

    We should all chat further. I can be reached at http://manyblackhistories.com

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