2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Today it is remembered for its role in shaping modern Britain and as a defining moment in the story of the Black British contribution to this country. Its roots, however, were firmly in the Second World War.

Over 800 of the men and women who arrived in Tilbury on 22 June 1948 were among thousands of others that journeyed to the UK from the Caribbean in the post-war period. For many of them, it was not an arrival but a return.

A large crowd of male RAF volunteers stand or sit on the deck of a ship.
© IWM CH 13438

A contingent of 1,000 RAF volunteers from the Caribbean listening to an address by a senior RAF officer shortly after their troopship docked in Liverpool, 5 June 1944.

War

From 1941 the British government started to actively recruit people living in the Caribbean to support the war effort. Over 10,000 men and women answered the call to come to the UK, working in a range of different roles. Most served in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Others joined the Army, Navy or Merchant Navy, or worked in industry, forestry or agriculture.

Images of these men and women were captured and distributed as part of a co-ordinated propaganda campaign to show a united, multi-racial empire community fighting the war against Nazi Germany and its allies.

Billy Strachan was one of those who volunteered to the join the RAF. Although he was cleared for service by a British Army doctor in Jamaica, he was told he would have to pay his own way to England to join up. Eventually, he managed to obtain a discounted ticket for the voyage by sea for £15.  

'I didn’t even have £15 so I sold my bicycle and my saxophone….I paid my £15, got on the ship and left Jamaica with about £2.10 in my possession and a small case with one change of clothes.'

On the journey, he was the only passenger and spent his days crushing empty tin cans to help save metal for the war effort.

He became an air gunner in the RAF. After completing 30 missions, he was entitled to spend six months way from front line flying. Instead, he asked to retrain as a pilot and flew Lancaster bombers until the end of the war. 

Strachan's flying goggles, helmet and log book are on display in the Second World War Galleries at IWM London. 

A man sits on the wing of an aircraft, whilst another man stands pointing upwards with his right hand.
© IWM CH 11478
Caribbean pilots of the Bombay Squadron, 1943: Arthur O’Brien Weekes of St George, Barbados, and Flight Sergeant Collins Alwyn Joseph of San Fernando, Trinidad. Joseph was killed in action over Belgium on 31 December 1944.

There were a range of factors that motivated people from the Caribbean to come to the UK. Some felt an obligation fight the Nazis and to support the ‘mother country’, while others were interested in travel, adventure and opportunity.

John Ebanks was driven by a desire to help stop Hitler. He heard Churchill’s ‘ fight them on the beaches’ speech and joined up in 1941. In an oral history interview, he explained that he didn’t fight for King and Country, but worried that if Hitler conquered the world he would do to Black people what he was doing to Europe’s Jews.

Ebanks joined the RAF and was a navigator with Training Command 1941 to 1944, continuing to serve in other roles after the war including in Malaya in the early 1950s.

When the war ended, most of those who had helped the UK in its hour of need were not given permission to remain and had to return to the Caribbean.

Four smiling women walking towards the camera, with the Colonial Centre behind them.
© IWM PLP 3836D

Jamaican Women’s Auxiliary Air Force volunteers - Noelle Thompson, Sally Lopez, A Labadie and Sonia Thompson - leaving the Colonial Centre in Russell Square, London, 17 February 1943.

The MV Monte Rosa

The ship that would become the Empire Windrush started its life with a different name. When it was first launched as a passenger liner and cruise ship in Hamburg, Germany, on 13 December 1930, it was the MV Monte Rosa.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Monte Rosa was put into service taking Germans on short breaks as part of the Nazis’ Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) programme. These precursors to modern package holidays were part of Nazi efforts to create a single national community known as the Volksgemeinschaft. Among the destinations it took its passengers was London, where it sailed down the Thames under the swastika flag.

At the outbreak of war, the MV Monte Rosa was requisitioned as a troopship for the German Navy, operating as part of the invasion of Norway. In 1942 it was used to deport Jewish people from Norway to Hamburg, Germany. On arrival, those on board the ship were loaded onto trains and sent to Auschwitz where all but two were murdered.

Having survived damage from mines in the latter part of the war, the ship was eventually captured by the British in 1945. It was renamed Empire Windrush (after the river in the Cotswolds) a year later.

Irregular shaped wooden badge, painted and varnished. The design depicts an ocean liner, painted in red, black and yellow in front of a city skyline in grey. There is a yellow section at the base with the inscription 'Mit Kraft durch Freude Gau Sachsen nach Norwegen'.
© IWM INS 21573

This Nazi badge commemorates a journey from Germany to Norway as part of the ‘Strength through Joy’ programme. The MV Monte Rosa was one of the ships that made this journey and and looked very similar to the one depicted.

The Empire Windrush

After the end of the war the UK had a labour shortage. The government tried to recruit additional workers from across the Empire to assist with the process of rebuilding the country.

The famous voyage of the Windrush from Jamaica to the UK in 1948 was the only time the ship travelled on that route. The £28 fare for the journey was the equivalent of 3 months salary for some travellers.

Though it has come to stand for all ships that took people from the Caribbean to the UK in the post-war period, it was one of many to carry passengers on that journey – and not  even the first.

Allan Willmott came to the UK in December 1947 on board the SS Almanzora, six months before the arrival of the Windrush. Amongst the possessions he brought with him was a Stetson hat, as he wanted to look smart for potential employers. His hat and his suitcase are on display at IWM London.

On arrival

Finding jobs was not easy. Some people returned and served with the Royal Air Force. London Transport and the newly formed National Health Service – itself a legacy of war – were also large employers. Most remained in London, but a number went to different parts of the UK.

Connie Goodridge-Mark, who had served with the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Jamaica between 1939 and 1945, was reluctant to emigrate to the UK, but came to be with her husband.

Her daughter was only three months old when she arrived in Shepherd’s Bush in London. Her first impression was of the cold and how 'all the buildings looked alike'.

The family found a room to rent and Goodridge-Mark found a job doing ironing in a blouse factory and later, a role as a medical secretary. However, she was aware that discrimination when it came to accommodation and jobs was a reality – and would sometimes ‘test it’.

'I had a very good white friend and I would let her ask for the room and they tell her ‘oh yes’…..I would go first and they tell me ‘no’.'

The civilian bomb shelter at Clapham was among the places that the new arrivals without jobs to go to were taken. The shelter had come into service in 1944 protecting Londoners from V weapons. In the post-war period it served a different purpose, acting as accommodation.

And Beyond

Though some of those who came to the UK from the Caribbean received a warm reception, others experienced sustained prejudice and hostility. Despite this discrimination, many went on to become important figures in contemporary Britain.

Samuel King emigrated from Jamaica to the UK aboard Empire Windrush in 1948. He too had served in the RAF, as an aircraftsman between 1944 and 1946.

'I was glad when my foot touched Tilbury on 22 June 1948, I thanked God….I rejoined the Royal Air Force from the ship because my father said I must stand on my own two feet.'

Over the next few years, he sent for two of his brothers and the family bought a house in Southwark. In 1983, he became the first Black Mayor of Southwark.

'Overall, I am proud to be British,' he said in a 2007 interview. 

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