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A mythical beast - a female wargamer! I got back into wargaming in the summer of 2011 after a very, very long break. My current interests are Ancients, ACW, 30YW and SciFi gaming.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Arnhem 75th, Day Four: Black Soldiers at Arnhem

In amongst all of my recent Arnhem reading, I came across the first example I have noticed (I may have read it before, but forgotten) about there being a small number of black and mixed-race soldiers with 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem. The individual mentioned was Trooper Charles Cecil Bolton of 12 section, D Troop, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron. This intrigued me, so I decided to hit Google and see if I could find out anything about the others.

There wasn't much. I found one thread on WW2 Talk which did give the names of four others. Two of those names I have been able to confirm. For the other two, however, it seems that the contributor might have got their names the wrong way round, which led me on a frustrating search until I discovered the name reversal. It also seems that they probably weren't black or mixed-race.

I believe that he had latched onto them having the nickname "Darkie" and assumed that they were black. The nickname "Darkie" was also given to many white soldiers - 21st independent Parachute Company had a Gordon "Darkie" Finglas and 10 Para had Harry "Darkie" Houghton, both of whom were white. It was also true that not all black soldiers were nicknamed "Darkie", an example being Roland "Nocker" West (see below).


Whilst there was undoubtedly some racism in the British armed forces during WW2, there is no evidence that it was present in the units where these men served; they all appear to have been held in high respect by their comrades and superiors.



Trooper Charles Cecil "Darkie" Bolton

Trooper Bolton was a Liverpudlian of Trinidadian descent. He served with 1st Recce in North Africa, Italy and at Arnhem. He was known to the other ranks as "Darkie", to the officers as "Massa".

Whilst in North Africa, his troop took part in a joint exercise with US forces and were to eat at the US base afterwards. On entering the mess, the US cook sergeant pointed at him and said "He eats on the other side". This upset his comrades who remonstrated quite aggressively with the cook to no effect. Captain Grubb, the troop commander, intervened and told the cook that either Bolton ate with them or they wouldn't eat there. When the cook wouldn't allow that, the Troop departed, telling the Yanks where they could stick their food.

After the Italian campaign, when the Squadron returned to England, Trooper Bolton undertook parachute training, gaining his wings. He was part of the Squadron's parachute contingent for Market Garden.

There was one incident earlier in 1944 which is worth mentioning. Bolton was in a work party under Lt Dougie Galbraith comprising members of A and D Troops helping to set up a new military camp near Cirencester. His 21st birthday was coming up and he asked the officer for leave to go to London as his mum was throwing a party for him. Lt Galbraith refused*; however his routine was to turn up late in the morning to supervise the work and to disappear shortly after lunch. Bolton wasn't to be deterred and asked his mates to cover for him, then set off for London that afternoon. The next day his mates did cover for him, leading Lt Galbraith on a ghost-chase around the camp. Bolton returned very early the following morning with a birthday cake, having had a great time in London with his family and friends. While the work party was having a late morning tea break, Lt Galbraith approached Bolton and apologised for not being able to give him leave; Bolton replied "That's OK sir - would you like a slice of my mum's birthday cake?".

* The reason for refusing the leave was that the MPs were out in force in the major towns and cities rounding up deserters. Bolton apparently had several near misses, but avoided the MPs.

When Major Gough was summoned by General Urquhart on the first day of Market Garden, Bolton and Trooper Bert Welham (also from 12 Section, D Troop) were taken along as additional protection (Bolton was a Bren gunner). After failing to find Urquhart, Gough decided to join the 1st Para Brigade HQ elements and head to the Arnhem road bridge, making the two recce jeep parties the only members of the Squadron to reach their original target. Bolton made a big impression on the bridge defenders as he was a crack shot with the Bren and responsible for a large number of German casualties - Gough recalls him saying after one kill "Dere goes 'nother one of dose bastards". Others recall him flipping a V sign at Germans before dropping them. He was among the bridge defenders taken prisoner on Wednesday 20th September. He was recommended by Gough for the Military Medal, but instead was awarded the Dutch Bronze Cross.

At the end of the war he returned to 1st Recce and when it was being disbanded transferred to 21 Independent Parachute Company (the Pathfinders) and served with them in Palestine.


Private Kenneth "Darkie" Roberts

Roberts was with 1 Platoon of 21st Independent Parachute Company (the Pathfinders), so would have been one of the very first paras to hit the ground on 17th September. He was from Stoke-on-Trent; his father was from Sierra Leone and settled in England after serving with the army in WW1.
Interestingly, like Trooper Bolton, Roberts was a Bren gunner. He was a middleweight boxing champion and noted for his sporting prowess.

On the night of Monday 25th/Tuesday 26th September, he was part of the evacuation across the Rhine. there are a number of different versions of what happened to him that night.

One story suggests that he made it across the river in one of the boats, but discovered that a wounded mate had been left behind so got back in another boat, crossed to the north of the river, found his friend and got him in a boat but was then mortally wounded on the crossing back south. This story seems to be a myth as it is contradicted by the accounts of other members of other Pathfinders, all of which say that he chose to swim across the river, but the details differ.

In one account, it is suggested that he attempted the swim before the first assault boats arrived. That is unlikely as the Pathfinders would have arrived at the north bank after the first boats made their crossing

The other accounts all suggest that the swim was around the time of (or just after) the last boats arrived on the north bank, as it was beginning to get light. The accounts differ somewhat at this point, but they all note that he was a strong swimmer.

One account suggests that he got taken away by the strong current (the river was somewhat in flood after heavy rainfall) and drowned. Two accounts suggest that he drowned after being hit by German machine gun fire. The final account I've found seems the most likely - he made it across to the south bank of the river, but was hit by machine gun fire as he made his way up the beach.

He is recorded as having been taken to the temporary hospital which had been set up in the Jonkerbosch Boarding School near Nijmegen, where he died of his wounds. That accords with him having made it across the river. The roll of honour has his date of death listed as 29/09/1944 and his grave is at the Jonkerbos War Cemetery. He was 23 years old.


Corporal Roland James "Nocker" West

West was born and raised in India to black parents. He enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment and volunteered for airborne forces. It is likely that his parachute training was done in India
West served with 5 Platoon, A Company, 156th Parachute Regiment and was KIA on 20th September, aged 22. He has no known grave, but is listed on the Groesbeek memorial.



The two below are the ones where the forum contributor got the names the wrong way round.

Private David "Darkie" Williams?

Williams served in the MG Platoon, Support Company of the 10th Parachute Battalion. I have found a reference to him being wounded during the landings on Ginkel Heath on Monday 18th September, but no details of how badly. He became a POW either when casualties were evacuated from the pocket during the brief truce on Monday 25th or the following day after the remnants of the division had been evacuated over the Rhine.

I have seen a photo of Williams - he wasn't black; could possibly have been mixed-race but was most probably white.


"Darky" Reynolds?

The only information I have for Reynolds is his surname and that he may have been KIA at Arnhem.

I can only find one "Reynolds" on the roll of honour - Corporal Alfred Reynolds of 1 Para who was KIA on the 18th or 19th. I've only found one photo of him - he could possibly be mixed-race, but most probably was white.

For other Reynolds who weren't KIA, I have found a reference to a "Darkie" Reynolds in 2 Para (I haven't found a photo of him or any more info) and a photo of someone (who *might* be mixed-race, but most probably white) in Stalag XVIIIA.

Edit: I've just come across the Johnny Frost episode of "This Is Your Life" on YouTube - Sergeant Alfred "Darkie" Reynolds of 2 Para was definitely white.

There is also a reference to a black "para" taken POW at Arnhem who helped other POWs escape but refused to do so himself as being black and well over 6 foot tall he would be easily recognised as an escaped POW. That could be Trooper Bolton as he was very tall.

There may have been other black soldiers at Arnhem, but these are the only ones I have (so far) found any information about.



Why have I written this post? Mostly because it intrigued me that their presence and contribution in the battle isn't generally noted in the many books about the battle. Also because it means that you can add some variety to the flesh tones of your British Airborne units - if anyone complains about you being a "PC SJW Liberal Idiot" you can simply tell them to read about these people for themselves; just don't paint too many (maybe 1 per platoon/company/battalion depending on what level your rules are aimed at) as that is just five names from a Division of over 10,000 men!

6 comments:

  1. Again a very interesting read and something I wasn’t aware of at all. Thinking about how we (the Germans) treated the black soldiers we took prisoner in france in 1940 I wonder how these boys were treated when captured.
    Would you mind sharing some recommendations on good books for Market Garden?

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  2. It's always interesting to learn something new and I've often wondered why stories like these don't get more traction. I'd love to see a modern movie about a lesser known Commonwealth unit for example. I once saw a photograph of Sikh troopers in WW1 and I wondered what that must have been like for them. A few years ago there was a movie which dealt with the aftermath of the German occupation of Denmark, and how young German men, many of whom were barely more than children, were used to clear out the mine fields the Germans had left behind. It's stories like these that add so much more nuance and context to the war. Nice post :)

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  3. Another cracking read Tamsin, so many stories that I hadn't heard before.

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  4. Tamsin,
    Really enjoying this series. Thankyou for taking time out to tease out all the snippets that are often overlooked- fascinating

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  5. @ Nick - thanks! It wasn't something I was aware of until quite recently.
    Of the three black soldiers I have confirmed, only Trooper Bolton was a POW. I imagine that the Germans wouldn't have dared to treat him badly as he would have been with other Paras and they would have had a riot on their hands. It was also a very different situation in 1944 as defeat was clearly imminent. There is also the fact that he was British, whereas the black POWs taken in 1940 were Africans in French service and Germany was winning at the time.
    As for books on Market Garden, I'll be making some recommendations in a post next week :)

    @ Mattblackgod - cheers, glad you enjoyed it! :)

    @ Moif - thanks! It was certainly fascinating for me to look into this and try to find out more. I've got no idea why these aspects don't seem to get considered; maybe the small numbers involved and lack of records or witness accounts? :)

    @ Michael A - cheers! I just wish these posts didn't take so long to write - I'm having trouble fitting in painting (and cooking, eating...)! :)

    @ Graham C - thanks! This post has probably taken the most time and effort to track down information; the other posts have been easier as I've got the war diaries and some books :)

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