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The 75th Anniversary of Windrush and their role in the armed forces

Date published 22/06/2023
HMT Empire Windrush alongside at Singapore, c1948 Credit NMRN

Pictured: HMT Empire Windrush alongside at Singapore, c1948 Credit NMRN

During the Second World War the British Empire contributed nearly 3 million personnel for military service. Among these were people from the West Indies, who from the 1940s until the 1970s become known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. They were air crew for the RAF, fought for the British Army, and served onboard Royal Navy ships. This link between those who sailed onboard HMT Empire Windrush and their role in the Second World War makes it an important topic for the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Especially now as 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of Windrush, with celebrations ranging from commemorative coins to special events.

Britain had suffered greatly during the course of the Second World War with key cities around Britain, including Portsmouth, having been heavily bombed during the Blitz. In London alone thousands of civilians had been killed and homes destroyed, as well as the many serving personnel impacted across Europe, Asia and beyond. In 1948 the British Nationality Act was passed. This act created a new citizenship for Great Britain and all its colonies. Offering those in the Commonwealth the opportunity to move to Great Britain and work legally, this act also helped fill the labour gap in the country. 

On the 22nd June 1948 His Majesty’s Transport HMT Empire Windrush docked just outside of London. Onboard this ship were commonwealth citizens searching for work, ready to settle in a country that was familiar to most, but a long way from home. While this was the most well-known voyage of the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’ this group includes multiple trips, on multiple ships, leading all the way to 1971. While the act would not be in effect until the start of 1949, this trip in 1948, alongside some the year before, only became more frequent as time went on. 

The idea of working in Britain was an attractive one. For instance, the situation in Jamaica was serious, a hurricane in 1944 had come only months after a drought. This hurricane destroyed many crops, damaged buildings and killed 30 people in Jamaica alone. Job prospects in Jamaica were poor. Meanwhile Britain in 1948 was still recovering from the devastating damage of the Second World War. The huge loss of life and infrastructure meant that there was a labour shortage the British government was eager to fill. 

At the time Great Britain was perceived by some as the mother country, the head of the Commonwealth of which they were a part.  The Commonwealth was far more visible in people’s lives. Additionally, many of those onboard were returning from leave from the RAF or veterans who were re-joining. 

Not all of those onboard the Empire Windrush in the summer of 1948 were from the Caribbean. Some were British, but more interesting were those who gave ‘Mexico’ as their last country of residence. These were in fact Polish refugees, who had been taken from their homes by Russia during the Second World War, and sent to labour camps in Siberia. Surviving this horror, they had found themselves in Mexican refugee camps. 

The Windrush story is obviously not all positive. Discrimination was rife, becoming a daily occurrence for the commonwealth citizens that came to Great Britain looking for a new life. Unrest spilled out on more than one occasion in the country during this period. This discrimination came from the top of society too, perhaps most markedly from MP Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Later political decisions also worked to undo the act of 1948, tightening the grounds for citizenship. Racism was also felt keenly in society at large, race riots, including the series of riots in Notting Hill in 1958, betrayed that while they were allowed into Great Britain these commonwealth citizens may have perceived they weren’t truly welcome. 

This story does not end in the 1970s. In 2017 it was revealed that hundreds of the ‘Windrush Generation’ had been subject to deportation, wrongful detainment, denial of benefits and even more. Stemming from the British government’s attempt at a ‘hostile environment’ for those who do not have legal right to live in the UK. 

The anniversary of Windrush is celebrated every year on the 22nd June, and 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of this significant trip. For those who may have made that difficult journey, have family members who did, or are just interested, the National Museum of the Royal Navy has collated photographs and items related to the heritage of some of the Windrush countries. While we hope this collection grows, these objects can be viewed on our Collections Portal.