Story of black WWI hero born in Trinidad who served in British Army

Extraordinary story of black First World War hero who was born in Trinidad and served in British Army before he became firefighter during the Blitz emerges in new book published 80 years on

  • Rifleman George Roberts enlisted in the British Army in 1914 because he saw England as his ‘mother country’
  • He joined Middlesex Regiment and fought at the Somme and Loos (wounded at both) and the Dardanelles
  • Aged 50 and too old to fight in WWII, he volunteered for London Fire Service during the Blitz of 1940
  • Stephen Bourne’s book Under Fire also reveals stories of other black people who came over to Britain out of loyalty to the Empire

The exploits of a black First World War hero whose courage saw him run towards hand grenades and hurl them back at the enemy – and who later became a firefighter during the Blitz – have emerged in a new book 80 years on.

Rifleman George Roberts was born in Trinidad in 1890. However, in 1914, he enlisted for Army service in Britain, which he saw as his ‘mother country’, and joined the Middlesex Regiment.

He took part in some of the fiercest fighting during the conflict, seeing action at the Somme and Loos – where he was wounded at both –  as well as in the Dardanelles.

George, who had initially trained as an electrician, was demobbed out of his regiment as a sergeant in 1919 and settled in Britain after the war – but was too old to fight in the Second World War.

Instead, at the age of 50 he volunteered for the London Fire Service when the German bombs started raining down on the capital in September 1940.

The exploits of a black First World War hero whose courage saw him run towards hand grenades and hurl them back at the enemy – and who later became a firefighter during the Blitz – have emerged in a new book 80 years on. Rifleman George Roberts was born in Trinidad but in 1914 he enlisted for Army service in Britain, which he saw as his ‘mother country’. George (above) was demobbed out of his regiment as a sergeant in 1919

George (above) saw action at the Somme and Loos – where he was wounded at both – as well as in the Dardanelles. He initially trained as an electrician and settled in Britain after the war. As he was too old to fight in WWII, the 50-year-old volunteered for the London Fire Service when the German bombs started falling on London in September 1940. His tale and that of other black people who came over to Britain out of loyalty to the Empire, are revealed in Stephen Bourne’s book Under Fire

A plaque commemorating the life of George Arthur Roberts

Records show how he continuously risked his own life to save many others as infernos raged.

His tale and that of other heroes of the black community in wartime are highlighted in historian Stephen Bourne’s new book, Under Fire.

Mr Bourne said he wanted to shine a torch on their ‘overlooked’ contribution to helping Britain defeat Hitler.

George was based at New Cross Fire Station where he became a section leader.

His efforts led to him being awarded the British Empire Medal ‘for general duties at New Cross Fire Station’ which was presented to him by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

George Roberts died aged 80 in 1970 and a blue plaque was unveiled in his honour in Southwark, south London, in 2016.

Another firefighter featured in the book is Jamaican-born Fernando Henriques.

He was told by an RAF sergeant at a recruiting centre in London in 1938 that black people were not welcome.

Among the other inspiring stories in the book is that of married couple Ramsay and Lilian Bader (above). British-born Ramsay was a mixed-race soldier in the 147th Field Regiment who took part in the D-Day landings, while Lilian joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Ramsay’s wartime testimony reveals he wanted to fight Hitler because of his treatment of American four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics

Author Stephen Bourne’s aunt, Esther Bruce – pictured, right, in 1942 – was a fire watcher on the roof of Brompton Hospital, south-east of Kensington, where she worked as a ward cleaner

Undeterred, Fernando decided to defend his country in another capacity, joining the fire service.

He later recalled: ‘There was no thought that through my colour I would be thought to be outside the conflict. My experience at the recruiting centre in central London was traumatic.

‘An RAF sergeant told me quite bluntly that ‘w*gs’ – that is, people of non-European descent – were not considered officer material.

‘That of course was in 1939. A year later, as Britain became pressed, the situation became quite different.

‘I cannot say that disgust invaded me totally at this rejection. It was rather like being confronted with hatred by someone you loved and thought loved you.

A memorial for the African and Caribbean servicemen who gave their lives in the two World Wars. ‘The contribution of black people to the World War Two effort was absolutely invaluable. Thousands and thousands of black people from Britain and the old British Empire volunteered through loyalty and also a hope that their countries would be granted independence in return, which eventually happened,’ said Mr Bourne

‘Told on the outbreak of war that I was not white enough to fly, I was permitted to defend London in another capacity.

‘With a friend from schooldays – inevitably white – I joined the Auxiliary Fire Service. We were accepted with enthusiasm, for in those days it was thought London would be inundated with fire bombs almost immediately.

How black soldiers travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ at their own expense to help Britain

After Britain joined the First World War, black recruits enlisted for action in all branches of the armed forces. 

From 1914, black Britons volunteered at recruitment centres and were joined by West Indian colonials.

They travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ from the Caribbean at their own expense to take part in the fight against the Germans.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, soldiers from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies were recruited. 

They helped to defend the borders of their countries which adjoined German territories and later played an important role in the campaigns to remove the Nazis from Africa. 

Around, 60,000 Black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units.

Source: www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk 

‘Issued with uniforms, we were swiftly assigned to one of the improvised fire stations which had mushroomed all over the city on the outbreak of war.’

Fernando was based at a requisitioned middle-class girls’ school in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, in north-west London.

There, he befriended the poet Stephen Spender, novelist William Sansom and the artist Leonard Rosoman, who began making paintings of his experiences as a firefighter during the Blitz.

Mr Bourne’s aunt, Esther Bruce, was a fire watcher on the roof of Brompton Hospital, south-east of Kensington, where she worked as a ward cleaner.

The black Londoner was adopted by his white working-class great grandmother during the Blitz.

In the book, the author also tells the inspiring stories of married couple Ramsay and Lilian Bader.

British-born Ramsay was a mixed-race soldier in the 147th Field Regiment who took part in the D-Day landings, while Lilian joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Ramsay’s wartime testimony reveals he wanted to fight Hitler because of his treatment of American four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics.

He said: ‘Why should human beings be treated like that when the Olympics is for sport for every nationality?

‘I couldn’t understand it and it made me want to fight against this sort of thing because having read what Hitler was doing to the Jews, the coloured would be next for the gas chamber.

‘I was born in Britain and accepted it as my country and I must fight for what I believe in, which I still think today. I did the right thing.

‘During the war, there was a friendly attitude from most service people and I didn’t feel too much prejudice because we were all fighting for the same cause. 

‘My brother was a sergeant major, decorated, and we served with all the other people who fought for the survival of mankind.’ 

A poster for the 1940 Ealing Studios film The Proud Valley. Focusing on Black Britain during wartime, the movie is about an African-American who finds a job in the mining community of Wales


Other black lives highlighted in the book include Earl Cameron (left), a young Bermudian sailor who went on to become a famous actor, and, right, Princess Ademola, from Nigeria, who worked as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital during WWII

And speaking of the D-Day landings in June 1944, he added: ‘We felt very sick, having not experienced this type of heavy swell which you get in the Channel, and the terrible loss of life, seeing floating bodies who had been hit by shells that had come in from the enemy.

‘Although resistance from the enemy wasn’t supposed to be very strong, we still met quite strong pockets of resistance. German sniping was always there. But the Free French and the resistance always helped us.’

While he was storming the Normandy beaches, Lilian was consumed with worry for her husband ‘who couldn’t swim’.

Writer and social historian Stephen Bourne’s new book Under Fire

She said: ‘For long periods, you wouldn’t get any news at all from the second front, the Normandy landings, because the mail didn’t get through.

‘At one stage I didn’t know if Ramsay was alive or dead but you just kept going and I remember kneeling in the chapel and praying like blazes that Ramsay would be saved.

‘It was a terrible time because you knew some people were going to be killed, and Ramsay couldn’t swim! He hated water. That’s what worried me more than anything, but he came through.’

Ramsay died in 1992 aged 73, while Lilian passed away aged 97 in 2015.

Mr Bourne said: ‘There has been an absence of black British stories from books on World War Two so I wanted to tell them so they are no longer overlooked.

‘People came from across the British Empire to fight for their ‘mother country’ and were extremely loyal.

‘George Roberts paid for his own passage over from Trinidad and fought in World War One at the Somme and other famous battles.

‘He was too old to serve in World War Two so he became a firefighter during the Blitz. He set up the discussion group which was important to help the firefighters between air raids.

‘Fernando Henriques was turned down by the RAF so he joined the fire service instead, and my aunt Esther was a fire watcher on the roof of Brompton Hospital.

‘The contribution of black people to the World War Two effort was absolutely invaluable.

‘Thousands and thousands of black people from Britain and the old British Empire volunteered through loyalty and also a hope that their countries would be granted independence in return, which eventually happened.’

Under Fire, Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne is published by History Press, £12.99.

How the Blitz was the most intense bombing campaign Britain has ever seen – claiming more than 40,000 lives

A boy retrieves an item from a rubble-strewn street of East London after German bombing raids in the first month of the Blitz, September 1940

The Blitz began on September 7, 1940, and was the most intense bombing campaign Britain has ever seen.

Named after the German word ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning lightning war, the Blitz claimed the lives of more than 40,000 civilians.

Between September 7, 1940, and May 21, 1941, there were major raids across the UK with more than 20,000 tonnes of explosives dropped on 16 British cities.

London was attacked 71 times and bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights.

The City and the East End bore the brunt of the bombing in the capital with the course of the Thames being used to guide German bombers. Londoners came to expect heavy raids during full-moon periods and these became known as ‘bombers’moons’.

More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and of those who were killed in the bombing campaign, more than half of them were from London.

In addition to London’s streets, several other UK cities – targeted as hubs of the island’s industrial and military capabilities – were battered by Luftwaffe bombs including Glasgow, Liverpool, Plymouth, Cardiff, Belfast and Southampton and many more.

Deeply-buried shelters provided the most protection against a direct hit, although in 1939 the government refused to allow tube stations to be used as shelters so as not to interfere with commuter travel.

However, by the second week of heavy bombing in the Blitz the government relented and ordered the stations to be opened. Each day orderly lines of people queued until 4pm, when they were allowed to enter the stations.

Despite the blanket bombing of the capital, some landmarks remained intact – such as St Paul’s Cathedral, which was virtually unharmed, despite many buildings around it being reduced to rubble.

Hitler intended to demoralise Britain before launching an invasion using his naval and ground forces. The Blitz came to an end towards the end of May 1941, when Hitler set his sights on invading the Soviet Union.

Other UK cities which suffered during the Blitz included Coventry, where saw its medieval cathedral destroyed and a third of its houses made uninhabitable, while Liverpool and Merseyside was the most bombed area outside London. 

There was also major bombing in Birmingham, where 53 people were killed in an arms works factory, and Bristol, where the Germans dropped 1,540 tons of high explosives and 12,500 incendiaries in one night – killing 207 people. 

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