In 1943, 300 middle-class “colored” women from across the West Indies were recruited to the ATS, a branch of the British Army during WW2.
Meeting up for a reunion with her wartime friends, 72-year-old Hermione Williams is asked how often she indulged in Buddhist chanting. “Morning and evening,” she replies. “As often as I can now that I’m having this problem with the Inland Revenue.”
Hermione, a fashion designer, is one of five women who are getting together again some 50 years after 300 West Indian women first came to Britain to serve in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) so that male soldiers could leave their desk duties to go to the Front. It took the War Office two years of infighting to allow Caribbean women of color to join the ATS.
Frances-Anne Solomon’s upbeat film makes good use of some truly appalling War Office internal memos: “Dear Thomas: In brief we are quite prepared to accept European women from the colonies, but I must emphasize we cannot accept colored women for service in this country.”
The documentary also uses archival footage and still photographs of these young women looking astonishingly exotic in foggy wartime London. These five friends settled in England afterwards, one to become a Head Teacher while another became a midwife.
Their exuberant pleasure in reliving their comradeship — going through parade-ground drills, and singing “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” — is hugely infectious. One says she made the journey through U-boat infested waters because: “It was the way you were brought up. England is your mother country and you must do something to help.” And then, there is the hilarious memory of giving a pint of blood to a wounded man who, when he saw her, was terrified that he might one day sire a black baby.