HAYNES CYRIL – Windward Islands Battalion.
A 2015 BBC article by Claire Brennan entitled “Soldiers of the Caribbean: Britain’s forgotten war heroes” states:
“Some 10,000 left their families and homes to join the British armed forces, working behind the scenes and on the front line to defeat the Nazis. Although Britain was initially reluctant to let black people join the war effort, the rules were relaxed as the war progressed and casualties mounted.”Excerpt from Clair Brennan’s 2015 BBC article.
To really understand the irony of the situation during WWII, where the scourge of racism initially prevented blacks from the West Indies from volunteering, we need to go back to WWI when some 15,600 black men from the West Indies volunteered and made up the British West Indies Regiment within the British Army.
During the Palestine Campaign General Allenby sent the following telegram to the then Governor of Jamaica William Henry Manning:
“I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations”.General Allenby telegram to Jamaican Govenor William Henry Manning
Battalions from the British West Indies Regiment would also serve with distinction in France and Flanders.
One would think that with that kind of service record, Britain would welcome the patriotic volunteers from their colonies wanting to “do their part” to defeat Hitler just over 20 years later. And yet, such was the disdain and condescension of the British Government that, in spite of the grave danger facing the country at the onset of war, West Indians were refused for the simple reason that they were black.
In 1939, a letter from St. Lucians Leo Bousquet and Marcus George to the British Minister of Shipping informed of the availability of able bodied men “to serve the Empire at sea or on land” to which came the reply that they would be suitable for the merchant shipping. It would not be until 1943 that the British decided to invite volunteers for the British Army in the Caribbean, thus allowing for the formation of the Windward Islands Battalion. Haynes Cyril was already serving as a police officer in St. Lucia when he joined this battalion in September 1943 and proceeded to boot camp for 3 months. In February 1944 the men shipped out, eventually arriving in Norfolk Virginia where they continued their training in partnership with the US army.
Cyril’s Section Commander was killed during one training session, shot in the head, from the live rounds in use. Cyril told me they were crawling along on their bellies under barbed wire at the time. He reckoned the unfortunate man simply did not have his head down at that moment. Cyril was appointed Acting Section Commander. Upon completion of training, the First Battalion Caribbean Regiment was formed and attached to the Regular Army. Cyril’s platoon (#16) was designated lead platoon, within which, his section was the lead section; first to lead an attack in case of combat. The Regiment shipped out and joined a convoy in the Atlantic. On the fourth day at sea, attacking German submarines sank 4 supply ships. They made it to the Mediterranean without further incident eventually landing in Naples Italy, crossing over various sunk ships before setting foot on land.
The Regiment immediately moved to and camped on Mt. Vesuvius only to watch as German aircraft bombed Naples where they had landed hours before. The war in Europe by now was in its closing stages, although there were still pockets of heavy resistance; at night they would see flashes from heavy German artillery. It was thought that the Regiment would serve as a reinforcement for the Welsh Regiment and 64th Garrison as part of a final thrust into Germany, but the war in Europe was over before they could be deployed.
The Regiment was instead assigned to escort 4,000 German POWs from Turin in Italy to Fernara Camp in Egypt. Cyril recalls the German prisoners being well behaved and orderly at all times. Along the way, one German officer who spoke English, asked Cyril why he had gotten mixed up in a war since the Germans had no quarrel with St. Lucians. Cyril informed the Officer that in fact a German submarine had attacked Port Castries with heavy damage and loss of life. The Officer apologized saying he had no idea. The men would later part respectfully. Despite their preparation, the commanding officers still doubted the ability of Cyril and his senior officers to lead men into battle as Officers. So they were sent on further training near the Suez Canal with the expectation that they would fail and thus be demoted. The men including Cyril, exceeded expectations and were in fact promoted.
Cyril would eventually return to St Lucia and rejoin the Police force and later serve as St. Lucia’s Fire Commissioner for many years before retiring. I have no doubt, like the British West Indies Regiment during WWI, the First Battalion Caribbean Regiment would have courageously engaged the enemy had the situation presented itself. What is undeniable is that these men voluntarily put their lives in danger, whether in training with live ordinance, or during transshipment across the Atlantic, or upon landing in Italy still within range of German bombers and artillery.
After the war, many West Indians returned to the Caribbean to find employment opportunities slim. Many emigrated back to the UK, a country desperate to rebuild after the war; the so called Windrush generation. It was thus especially discouraging to witness the disgraceful treatment of some of these individuals and their descendants in 2018 who were wrongly labeled as having no residency status by the UK Government.
West Indians can be justly proud of the excellent service they displayed in both World Wars. Caribbean men and women who served, like Mr. Cyril, deserve the same respect and courtesy shown to veterans the world over for “doing their part”.