Tuesday's Book: Our War

Our War: How the British Commonwealth fought the Second World War by Christopher Somerville (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)
"As soon as the Japanese could see it was Africans coming at them, they would keep waiting and let them pass - waiting for the European right at the back. The European was to be killed first - this was the way - because he gave the orders. So the Europeans would get a big can of boot polish and cover their faces with it..."

Mutili Musoma is a Kenyan whose memory of fighting the Japanese in Burma is one of many recorded by Christopher Somerville during the two years he travelled the Commonwealth to interview men and women who served in the Second World War. The fighting threw together diverse subjects of the Crown more suddenly and on a vaster scale than peace could ever have done. The Colonies, like India, had no choice but to follow Britain into war. Dominions could choose. South Africa fought, the Irish Free State (not yet a republic) sat and watched.

About five million Commonwealth men and women served, about six million from Great Britain itself. The numbers of killed and missing were some 170,000 and 260,000 respectively. But the enemy was beaten, and independence movements gathered strength, the latter not always to the veterans' liking.

While Our War does contain harrowing tales of the actual fighting, what makes this book so valuable is what these veterans - men and women of many different races - remember about the battle to get along with their own side. But for Somerville, many of the stories in this fascinating book would have been lost with the deaths of their tellers. This is the first time some of these men and women have spoken about their experiences.

"When we left Kenya we were young men," says John Mumo. "Our custom says that at that age, if you are not married, you are not supposed to touch a dead body. But when we went to war we were compelled to do those things." The war made Mr Mumo into a medical orderly.

The picture that emerges from the book is that common experience bred widespread tolerance between servicemen and women of different colour. Top brass, however, could still be grudging and were always in two minds about equal pay and treatment for whites and non-whites - who ran equal risks under hardship to topple the racist regimes in Berlin and Tokyo. Frank Sexwale, a South African who served against Rommel in the Western Desert, remembers being trained with an assegai (spear) and a club.

And when the war was over? As Jamaican servicewoman Connie Macdonald found when she emigrated to England, whites wouldn't even rent blacks a room. "The only people who would rent us rooms were our own black people," she says. "They are the worst people to rent rooms from... whereas a white person would get a whole flat for pounds 1.5s (pounds 1.25p), we had to pay pounds 3 or pounds 4 for one room. We were our own worst enemies."