Sid Guttridge wrote: ↑
08 Apr 2021 10:45
You post, "The drop from 14 battalions, even if 10 were deployed as labor troops, to one (or perhaps two) is quite remarkable
". However, not, I would suggest, so remarkable if one considers all the other obligations the British West Indies undertook in WWII that they didn't have in WWI.
You post, ".....once the KM withdrew from the Caribbean, seems like a more useful role for the now available West Indian manpower could have been found in the ETO, presumably as non-combatant labor forces who could have replaced the British conscripts who went into the mines in 1944-45; those same conscripts could have gone to the field forces, and helped keep the 1st Armoured and 50th and 59th infantry divisions in the field.
The British Empire wasn't monolithic. Its manpower was not interchangeable, or at London's dictatorial beck and call. Britain wasn't able, for instance, even to introduce conscription in Northern Ireland. The colonies, like the British West Indies, were also not subject to conscription. During the Great Depression there was unrest throughout the West Indies and a British Government Commission in the late 1930s had recommended self government. The outbreak of war interrupted this but, if I remember correctly, Jamaica got self government in 1944. Thus there were political constraints not present in WWI.
So only volunteers were available. However, this meant, as I mention above, that from late 1940 all British recruitment was in competition with better paid and more convenient American jobs on the US bases round the Caribbean and, later, jobs in the USA. Given that these jobs were similar to any non-combat work likely to be performed in the ETO, the net loss to the Allied war effort was nil. Indeed, as there was less travel time and shipping involved and fewer climatic problems, it was probably advantageous to keep them in the Americas.
Any Army expeditionary element had to use volunteers from the existing defence forces. As these amounted to some 7,000 men, the available pool, having been non-existent in 1939, was still small by 1944.
The skilled, volunteer British Honduran Forestry Unit was not directly equatable with the unskilled, conscripted Bevin Boys. The British Hondurans were all experienced loggers already. Furthermore, their experience was not altogether a happy one. Some from the first contingent of 500 had their their ship torpedoed en route. When they arrived they found the climate extremely cold. As a result the second contingent did not recruit its full 500 and no more followed. The BHFU was dissolved at the end of 1943. Most went home and many quickly enlisted on US bases in Panama or the USA.
There were almost no miners in the British West Indies at the time so it was completely outside local tradition. Besides, even if there had been, they would quite likely have been better used in their existing work.
In fact, as detailed above, West Indian manpower was
found for service in the ETO after the U-boat threat was contained. 7,000 West Indian volunteers were in the UK in RAF uniform by the end of the war. Indeed, the larger vessels of the TRNVR were on their way to the Far East. They just weren't wearing khaki.
In all this, we have skirted round the racial and associated propaganda issues. The British were reluctant to use black troops against white enemies on the continent of Europe (something that infuriated the Germans about the French). They deliberately liberated the city of San Marino with a British regiment even though Indian troops were better positioned to do so. They used British troops debilitated by several years in the siege of Malta in the Aegean in late 1943 because the Greeks didn't want their territory first liberated by fresh, non-European, Indian troops who were already in Cyprus.
The BHFU found its reception in the UK decidedly mixed. In Bermuda white Bermudans were sent to a British regiment for service in north-west Europe, whereas black Bermudans were sent to the Caribbean Regiment. One reason why the Caribbean Regiment wasn't used in combat in Italy was because it was technically a British unit serving on the same conditions as white British units and would have to be brigaded in a white British division. Some Britons thought this might be awkward, so this contributed to it being sent to Egypt, releasing an Indian battalion for an Indian division in Italy. However, as a British unit, it was considered a cut above the African units also in Egypt, so it wasn't brigaded with them, either. British racial assumptions of the times produced all sorts of convolutions.
It may seem surprising now, but British trades unions were also a problem at the time. They didn't object to the occasional black seaman among the crews, but they were very much opposed to entire crews of black seamen. This was not simply to protect British jobs but also due to some crude racism amongst some British seamen. (I will spare the details here, but they are freely available in the National Archives at Kew).
British manpower problems were to a great degree the consequence of their own differential decision making. It beggars belief that, after four years preparing for the reinvasion of France, they had so run out of trained infantry reserves after just six weeks of combat that they had to begin dissolving some divisions to give others replacements. They fought in north-west Europe in 1944-45 with a similar number of divisions to those they had had there in 1940!
The decision seems to have been made to shore up the impression of Britain as a worldwide superpower by committing everywhere else at the expense of creating a large and sustainable army for the reinvasion of north-west Europe - something that could only be attempted with the USA anyway. Britain was able to pretend to be one of the Big Three up until the day of the D-Day landings, when all three service commanders were Britons, most of the aircraft and ships and half the troops landed were British or Canadian. However, from D+1 the reconquest of north-west Europe became increasingly a US show.