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The second World War

Title Image
King George VI inspecting Indian troops, Italy, 1944.
Courtesy: National Army Museum


The huge involvement of men and women from the West Indies, Africa, India and many smaller Commonwealth nations in the allied war effort is one of the lesser known stories of the Second World War. They provided manpower, equipment and support in theatres throughout the world and made a vital contribution to the war effort.

At the end of the War over three million men were under arms, 2Ĺ million of them in the Indian Army, over 200, 000 from East Africa and 150,000 from West Africa. This is a hugely impressive figure given that many thousands more civilians from the Empire were also involved in the war effort. The vast majority were volunteers (but some colonies did use limited forms of conscription) who played a major part in the operations in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East.

Britainís population of about 7,000 people from the ethnic minorities also played a significant role. Many were merchant seamen who prior to the outbreak of war had settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields. As the war progressed, the Merchant Navy, which had continued to employ sailors from all over the world, lost many of its men to the Royal Navy, recruited under the Naval Discipline Act. Seafarers from India, Africa, Malaya, Burma, the West Indies, China and Malta also provided manpower to assist the Allied cause at sea.

The Royal Air Force also looked to recruit personnel from across the Commonwealth. At first, recruitment concentrated on British subjects of European descent. However after October 1939 questions of nationality and race were put aside, and all Commonwealth people became eligible to join the Royal Air Force on equal terms. By the end of the Second World War, over 17,500 such men and women had volunteered to join the RAF, in a variety of roles, and a further 25,000 served in the Royal Indian Air Force.

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