Guest Post from Elizabeth Wein
Louisa Adair, the young code-cracking heroine of The Enigma Game who narrates half my new novel, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an English mother. She grows up in Jamaica but moves to London at the age of twelve. Readers familiar with my writing will recognize a theme here – every single one of my books features what’s known these days as ‘TCKs’ – Third Culture Kids. In the simplest of terms, they’re children with parents of different nationalities (check out this article).
It gets more complicated when a TCK tries to define his or her national identity. My children are dual citizens of the UK and the USA, with an English father and an American mother, but they were raised in Scotland; and I, though born in New York, lived for five years in England and Jamaica as a child. When I first started school in the USA at the age of 9, I spoke English with a rural Cheshire accent and was fluent in Jamaican patois. My father was Jewish and my younger sister is bi-racial. So my fictional characters tend to be a pretty mixed bag too. In Louisa, I had a chance to take a look at World War II in Britain from an unusual point of view, through a character whose early life is in some ways a lot like mine.
My interest in Jamaican servicemen and women in the war began when I was writing Code Name Verity. Towards the end of the book, I wanted to include a black airman as a minor character, and originally I meant to make him American. But after doing a little digging I discovered that the USA’s strict segregation laws meant that my airman couldn’t be part of a bomber crew over France in 1943… so, because of my own Jamaican background, I looked into the possibility of making him Jamaican.
It turns out that there were about 6,000 black Caribbean men who volunteered for the RAF in World War II, with about 450 of them serving as aircrew – and 80 Caribbean women joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Most of these Caribbean servicewomen were from Jamaica. The RAF website says that “in February 1945, there were over 3,700 Jamaicans in air force blue.” There’s a great online exhibition about these patriotic immigrants, called ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’, and here’s another website dedicated to Caribbean aircrew.
And in connection with this year’s VE Day celebrations, here’s a wonderful interview with 95-year-old Jamaican RAF veteran Albert Jarrett, as well as retired RAF Officer Donald Campbell describing a proposed war memorial to Caribbean military personnel at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
It wasn’t until I did the research to add detail to Louisa’s character that I really began to discover the hurdles and prejudices that Caribbean people faced when they tried to volunteer for the war effort. British colonials were British citizens and considered the United Kingdom, and England in particular, their “Mother Country” – they genuinely wanted to serve and to join the fight against fascism. But it wasn’t as simple for black Caribbean people as it was for whites.
Here’s a very small sample of what they had to deal with to join that fight. To get to the UK, they had to voyage from their island homes by boat to the USA, then overland to New York to begin the ocean voyage to Scotland. On the train from Miami to New York, black British travellers discovered the severity of American segregation, as they weren’t allowed to travel in ‘white’ carriages or eat in ‘white’ restaurants. This was new to them and they fought it – politely and often successfully (usually with compromises), simply because they were British and foreigners.
In the UK, meanwhile, after the USA entered the war, blatant American racism overtook the more ‘subtle’ British version – and suddenly black servicemen and women found themselves segregated even on British soil to keep the American soldiers happy.
It’s a pretty shameful story on both sides of the Atlantic.
Louisa Adair is only fifteen in The Enigma Game, and her narrative plays out a little differently. Although she hasn’t joined up yet during the novel’s events, I like to imagine that later on she’ll get to work as an aircraft instrument technician like Lilian Bader.
… Or even join the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which from 1943 began training women with no flight experience to ferry aircraft for the Royal Air Force. About 30 women from the Caribbean joined the ATA, though none were of Afro-British origin that I’m aware of. But the RAF did accept a few black pilot for training, so though it’s an improbable storyline for Louisa, it’s not impossible. I like to think of her ending up as a pilot.
The Enigma Game will be published by Bloomsbury Publishing on Thursday 14th May 2020. For more information check out the trailer below. This post was written by Elizabeth Wein as part of an The Engima Game blog tour. The next stop on the blog tour will be published tomorrow at Amy’s Bookish Life and Live Otherwise.