Britain shunned wartime volunteers: Amos Ford says there has been a cover-up over the shabby treatment of British Hondurans who came to help us out, reports Martin Hennessey
Sunday 20 September 1992
One distinguished Belize citizen was absent. Amos Ford, 74, is a retired civil servant who worked in Britain for 32 years. He still lives here and returns for three months each year to Belize where he is a respected Justice of the Peace.
But Amos Ford has a different kind of anniversary in mind; of a sad and shabby episode that took place half a century ago but which, Mr Ford believes, still embarrasses the British authorities - and may have been the subject of a sustained cover-up.
He was one of a thousand patriotic young men in the territory, then known as British Honduras, who volunteered to travel to wartime Britain to work in a British Honduran forestry unit in the Scottish Highlands. In August 1943, having completed their three-year stint, 93 of the volunteers were heading home; but they went via New York, and ended up being held temporarily in the notorious Ellis Island illegal alien centre as Britain had failed to issue them with passports.
Sir Godfrey Haggard, the Consul-General in New York, sent Whitehall an angry telegram to protest at the 'callous dumping' of the volunteers. But it was merely the final chapter in a tale of discrimination, neglect and indifference that the British Hondurans endured while in the charge of the British Ministry of Supply.
Mr Ford has spent almost two decades trying to unravel a past he believes has been quietly erased from official records.
His search began when, having become a civil servant in the Department of Health, he came across documents dealing with the wartime Scottish forestry units.
'I was very surprised. There were detailed accounts of Australian, Canadian and New Zealand contributions, but there was nothing about us. No mention that the British Honduran Unit had been there at all.
'From my own experience, I know that documents that are in the public interest, but which could later prove embarrassing, are destroyed; it seems likely other departments would do the same.'
He devoted his spare time and money to delving through the archives. In every corner of his home in Totnes, Devon, there are bundles of papers, many photocopied. 'This has cost me many hundreds of pounds, but there is nothing they can do now, these documents exist, and I have them.'
It was plain, he recalls, from the moment of the first unit's arrival in Scotland that all would not go smoothly. The first of many disputes began with allegations of dishonesty.
'Our boat was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Every one one of us survived, but we lost all our possessions. Yet when we tried to claim for all our clothes we were given a pittance as recompense. They believed we lied about the amount we had lost.'
In the Highlands themselves, there were more arguments to come. Throughout the unit's service from six bases peppered across Kinlochewe, Achnashellach and Golspie in the north, and Kirkpatrick, Duns and Traprain Law in the south, the men remained poorly equipped.
It should have been anticipated that arriving in the depth of Scottish winter would be a shock to people used to tropical temperatures. Yet they were given unsuitable clothing and only wooden huts for accommodation. 'This was wartime, and none of us expected chandeliers, but our situation was much worse than we expected. We were treated as lackeys.' As a 'scaler' - responsible for measuring the quantity of production across the camps - Mr Ford was struck by the unit's unequal treatment. Frequent forays into the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand bases were depressing, he says.
'They had luxury compared to us. We were doing the same job, but they had the basics such as purpose-built accommodation and changes of clothing. We did not. We had one battle-dress to work in and relax in during the evenings. Sickness and fatigue was common.' Three men died of pneumonia during their service.
In one report to the Ministry of Supply, the men were described as 'fundamentally lazy' and criticised for their belligerence. 'Yet these were men who were used to cutting mahogany trees the size of a house,' says Mr Ford. 'These little Scottish forests were nothing to them, yet we were told we were not doing enough.'
Mr Ford believes racism lay behind most of the tensions. The 'coloured' men were said to be riddled with venereal disease. In one notorious letter to Harold Macmillan, a Scottish landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch, complained about the men from 'Equatorial America' mixing with locals.
The letter reads: 'The people in the neighbourhood were encouraged to be friendly to them and the girls have interpreted this rather widely . . . Personally, I dislike this mixture of colour and regret that it should be allowed with no discouragement.' In his reply, Macmillan promised a report was being compiled. The report has never surfaced.
For young men like Mr Ford there was never any question of withdrawing from local life. 'The Scottish people we met had probably never seen a black face before, yet they were very kind.' Indeed, about 50 Hondurans ended up marrying local girls.
By far the greater evil, he says, was the administration. All Amos Ford wants now is official acknowledgement of the wrongs his unit suffered throughout the war.
He compiled a book, called Telling the Truth: The Life and Times of the British Honduran Forestry Unit in Scotland (1941-44), in which he challenged Whitehall to come clean - but to no avail. 'The Whitehall way of doing things is not to answer embarrassing criticism. They will ignore it and I do not expect an apology now or, perhaps, ever. I want people to read our account and to know that we were there in Scotland working for the war. I don't want anyone to take that from history.'
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