The Second World War, VJ Day and Imperial Amnesia

Neil Fleming

Even with the cancellation of public commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of both VE Day and VJ Day, the former remains larger in the national consciousness. Indeed, this year, during the global health crisis resulting from the coronavirus, VE Day was held by some to possess a special resonance with its message of triumph over adversity.

Why not VJ Day? There could be a number of explanations. The war in Europe was physically much closer to home, as was the threat posed by Great Britain’s main adversary, Nazi Germany. The bulk of Britain’s defence forces were concentrated in the European theatre. The war in the Pacific was dominated by the United States. And it was the Americans who brought it to a conclusion by introducing a new and highly destructive weapon that confirmed its economic, scientific and technological superiority over the old powers, including the United Kingdom.

Whatever the reason, the tendency to focus on VE Day, which did not represent the end of the Second World War, rather than VJ Day, which did, is partly bound up with ‘imperial amnesia’. In focussing largely on the conflict (and its conclusion) in Europe, it becomes possible to forget about the vital assistance given to Britain during the war by millions of people in its far-flung colonies. It also means ignoring the difficult relationships and tensions between the British and their colonial subjects. It must be said that contemporaries understood that it was the British empire that was at war with the Japanese empire. It was an idea drummed into them by the wartime government, not least the prime minister, Winston Churchill.

The explanations for imperial amnesia are several. The fact that the empire was largely decolonised by the late 1960s is an obvious explanation. The reluctance of schools and museums to tackle the subject is another. There is wariness too of doing anything that has the potential to glorify or excuse imperialism; this has certainly served as a restraint on public commemoration in many former colonies.

However well-meaning, ‘imperial amnesia’ has had unintended consequences. In the 1960s, opponents of non-white immigration to the UK claimed that the Welfare State was meant to reward the nation’s wartime sacrifice, and that it was therefore unfair that South Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants also benefitted. As historians demonstrate, the significant expansion of welfare after 1945 was not a ‘reward’ but a means of addressing the urgent need for post-war reconstruction. It was also a direct response to the intractable economic and social problems that had scarred communities across the UK in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rather than late comers, imperial networks of employment and trade meant that non-white communities had been present in Britain for several centuries. They were often subjected to racism, such as the infamous 1919 ‘race riots’, but their established presence in the country meant that they were an integral part of the UK’s war effort in 1939-45. Moreover, almost as many non-white men as white men volunteered to serve in the ‘British’ armed services during the war. By far the largest contingent came from British India (present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), though Africans and West Indians also enlisted in significant numbers.

Indeed, in the wake of the recent ‘Windrush scandal’, it is worth recalling that many of those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948 were Jamaican ex-servicemen. As such, they had already experienced living in wartime Britain and they were not alone. Lesser known examples include the hundreds of Caribbean workers in British munitions factories, and the almost thousand-strong workforce of Honduran foresters stationed across Scotland.

It is also important to recall the wartime role of Muslims, especially as Britain’s Muslim community is today the target of extreme right-wing groups that have appropriated iconic imagery associated with the Second World War. As Muslim leaders have asked, why is it not better known that over a million Muslims volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the British empire, just as an equally large number had served in the First World War?

Wartime mobilisation involved far more than recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen. Civilian work was vitally important, in agriculture, industry and transport, and women and men were mobilised across the empire to keep the wheels of production turning. Canada’s role in the Atlantic convoys is still remembered in Britain, but almost completely forgotten is the presence on board many British-registered ships of large numbers of South Asian and African sailors.

In relaying all of this it is important not to replace one myth with another. It is true that the British empire was more cohesive in its response to the war than some had previously predicted. But there were still tensions between Britain and the self-governing ‘dominions’—Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—over wartime strategy and organisation. More significantly, the image of a united front was undermined by nationalist opposition to participation in the conflict. The Indian National Congress chose to boycott the war effort despite being sympathetic to its aims. It was frustrated that Indian politicians had not been consulted by the British before putting their country’s vast resources on a war footing, despite years of reassurances that India was moving towards self-government. Ireland (excepting Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK), had become a dominion in 1922, and during the 1939-45 ‘Emergency’ it determinedly demonstrated its sovereignty by remaining neutral.

These examples of nationalist opposition were not completely effective. 43,000 Irish citizens joined the British forces, including deserters from the Irish army, and many Irish women and men moved to Britain to perform civilian war work. In the case of India, a staggering 2¼ million men served in the armed forces, playing a crucial strategic role in South Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The motives of volunteer recruits and war workers varied, from the need to escape poverty to seeking a new life. But not everyone was a volunteer. In Nigeria and Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), the colonial authorities were so determined to extract certain resources that they used techniques of forced labour.

As this suggests, racism remained a marked feature of the British empire despite waging a war against the Nazis. There was nevertheless some progress. The ‘colour bar’ preventing non-white men serving as commissioned officers was removed in October 1939. Non-white participation in legislatures was advanced in Nigeria, the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and British Guiana (present day Guyana). In 1944 Jamaica was granted a House of Representatives elected on a universal franchise. Still, these latter developments should not disguise the fact that the British were determined to remain in control of the pace of constitutional reform; that they were willing, during the war and for almost two decades after it, to use coercion in resisting those actively challenging their authority.

That determination reminds us that the Second World War did not herald the end of the British empire, at least not immediately. The independence granted to India and Pakistan in 1947 was part of a process of constitutional reform dating back to 1919. The displacement of Britain during the war by the United States, especially in the Caribbean and Pacific, reflected the shifting balance of global power, but it did not eliminate completely Britain’s influence in either region.

‘Imperial amnesia’ is understandable given that racism, violence, and oppression were features of imperialism. Equally, a determination to avoid repeating Europe’s destructive wars has encouraged precious habits of reconciliation and cooperation among former foes. Yet, it has meant that Victory in Europe Day looms larger in the British imagination than Victory over Japan Day, despite most of those fighting in the service of George VI (as King, or for his Indian soldiers, as Emperor) having to carry on until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. If this preference for VE Day over VJ Day is unlikely to change, let us hope that Britain’s multicultural society can at least remember that Asian, African, and Caribbean men and women contributed to the victory marked this year.


Neil Fleming is Principal Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester. He is the author of Britannia’s Zealots, Volume I: Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), and co-editor of Histories, Memories and Representations of being Young in the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

British Press Perceptions of the 1857–58 ‘Indian Mutiny’

Arran Jenkins

In 1963 the skull of an Indian man was discovered in a small pub in Kent. Folded and pushed inside one of its eye sockets was a scribbled note that revealed he was called Alum Bheg and that he had lived over a century ago in India. He had met his end, like many others, when he was blown from a cannon for his alleged involvement in an attack on a British resident family. Bheg’s skull was a war trophy taken during a mutiny of sepoys, or native soldiers, that began in the ancient city of Meerut on 10 May 1857 and soon erupted into a wider conflict that engulfed an estimated one sixth of the East India Company’s (EIC) territory in India.

The revolt lasted fourteen months and its implications sent shockwaves through the martial and civil spheres in India. It also reverberated throughout British society. To see evidence of this we need look no further than the rivers of ink spilled in newspaper coverage. The numerous editorials, opinion articles and letters from the public that appeared in national and regional publications, such as The Times and Berrow’s Worcester Journal, expose a multifaceted debate revolving around the 1857 Uprising that touched upon such disparate topics as the shortcomings of the EIC, the character of the Indian people and the loyalty of Catholic soldiers. Capital punishment was another recurring topic and it is the focus of this piece.

Contemporary newspapers viewed the ‘mutiny’ as an event of great importance which attracted widespread attention in Britain. Such interest is likely to have been based more on familial than fiscal ties. The 30,000 British soldiers—and the family members that they brought with them—were comprised of people from a variety of backgrounds. And they maintained connections to their homeland. In July 1857, for example, there were over 20,000 letters sent home by settlers that described the startling events then unfolding across India and these were frequently published in British newspapers. In this way, the mutiny managed to reach many people in the United Kingdom and is one of the means by which the events scarred the national consciousness.

This resounded in British literature for decades, with related themes appearing in novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India. An infiltration of ideas such as racial superiority and inherent ‘otherness’ into fictional works reveals the subtle ways in which the crisis affected the public psyche. The earliest histories produced narratives that were concerned with military battles and heroic acts. These largely cooperated with the colonial project rather than undermined it: some were even published before the rebellion was comprehensively crushed. Historicizing an event so swiftly is at least one indication of imperial arrogance. Nonetheless, reactions to the uprising largely defy generalisation.

What historians might term an ‘imperial’ narrative of events existed, but this did not go undisputed. In particular, that this was merely a tale of religious prejudices inflamed by the introduction of greased cartridges was never believed to be the only cause by all contemporary commentators. Many were able to trace the grievances of the rebels to a multitude of misjudged policies instigated years previously by the EIC, a once powerful organisation now in its death throes. The press did not tenderly ease its passing. Numerous past procedures of the EIC came in for criticism, reflecting long-held anxieties within Britain about merchants acting in the role of a state. The EIC was thus the primary target in the hunt for an adequate cause. This hunt was initiated by concern for British enterprise in India but lingered in the public discourse because of the rebels’ violent actions committed against British residents. A fierce reaction was sparked from the home press. From early on in the crisis, The Times, Glasgow Herald and Berrow’s Journal were demanding the blood of anyone considered culpable in the murder of British women and children. This sullying of the purest symbols of Victorian domesticity was proposed by The Times as an effort to ‘dishonour England itself’.

Wendy Webster demonstrates how this concept of domesticity being under siege also resonated in accounts of post-1945 colonial conflicts. Just as ideas of ‘white’ domesticity were shaken by fears of ‘black’ disloyalty during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the sepoy mutiny tainted a perceived paternal relationship on both a micro level—between a British officer and the sepoys—and a macro level between Britain and India. So much so that the popular illustrated newspaper, Punch, mocked the notion of a filial relationship forwarded by earlier thinkers like James Mill, with a cartoon that depicted the ‘Clement’ Governor-General Canning patting the head of a child-sized sepoy clasping a bloodied sabre.

The lampooning of those considered too merciful by many in the press is set against a context of progressive debate about the utilisation of capital punishment in Victorian society. Pro-abolitionists had made great strides with several government acts in the 1830s; reducing the amount of capital crimes by 66 per cent and by 1841 execution was only carried out for treason and homicide. By 1857 however there was a clear contradiction in contemporary discourse between the civilised, forward-looking Englishman and the blood-thirsty sensationalist Englishman, addicted to retribution as a means of revenge. The Times suggested that after an ‘immense amount of humanity’, with the reform of the penal code, there appears to be a ‘new phase of the British character to find a general consent in favour of strong measures in the East.’ Understood by some as a repressed retributive spirit connected to the teachings of the Old Testament, the Indian uprising was an episode that led to its resurgence in popular culture throwing into question the constructed identity of British civility.

Ultimately, the revolt failed to knock loose the jewel from the imperial crown. Yet, it is a testament to the sheer depth of the impact that it had on the people of the United Kingdom and India—political, social, cultural and intellectual—that it is still recognised as a landmark event in both these country’s histories.


Arran Jenkins is a History graduate of the University of Worcester. His final year Independent Study, examining the British press and the Indian Uprising, won the Stanford History Group Prize for Best Independent Study in History.