HISTORY: Guyana During the Second World War – 1939-1945

Credit: www.guyana.org. — with Carl Morgan and Maxwell Hinds.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Guyana, like other British West Indian colonies, gave full support to the war effort. Some Guyanese men volunteered to fight and they formed part of the British Caribbean Forces. In addition, Guyanese volunteered to serve overseas with the British Navy, Royal Air Force, and the Women’s Corps. Some also travelled to Britain to work in the munitions factories.

In Guyana, for the purpose of defence, the Government organised two militia companies and a garrison. A Voluntary Civil Defence Organisation was also established.             

The United States at first remained neutral but agreed in September 1940 to provide 50 old World War I destroyers to Britain. In return, Britain leased to the United States a number of sites stretching from Newfoundland in the north to Guyana in the south. These locations, to be used as American military bases, were leased for a period of 99 years.

In Guyana itself, the war resulted in a shortage of imported goods from Britain and North America since many merchant ships were utilised for military transport. Some which ventured out to sail from those parts of the world faced the danger of being attacked by German submarines.

The effects of the shortage of imported goods were felt throughout the country. For example, there were no new bicycle tyres and inner tubes, so owners of bicycles had to improvise by using discarded pieces of rubber to patch holes in existing tyres. There was also a severe scarcity of flour, and petrol for vehicles and kerosene for domestic use were rationed. The Government controlled the prices of goods, especially food items, and provided subsidies for necessary imports. However, the people quickly readjusted to the situation and there was no serious lack of food since Guyanese farmers produced large quantities of food crops including rice, cassava, plantains, sweet potatoes and eddoes, as well as vegetables.

The decrease in trading activities initially led to a rise in unemployment and caused economic hardships throughout the country during the early period of the war. Despite this, the Government agreed to allow some Jewish refugees displaced by the war to stay in Guyana during the war years. In July 1942, the Government agreed to house 50 Jewish refugees who came from Spain but who had moved first to Curacao to seek refuge from the Germans. They lived in Mazaruni on the site of the prison and were maintained through funds provided by the British Government.

Even before the United States entered the war in December 1941, the Americans commenced the building of an air base at Hyde Park on the east bank of the Demerara River, 25 miles south of Georgetown. The forest was cleared and hills were levelled and a long concrete runway was constructed in 1941. This air base was soon after named Atkinson Field after the base commander Major Atkinson. Later in the year, the 44th Reconnaissance Squadron of the US Air Force was stationed there to protect the base, and to make regular air patrols between Panama and Guyana.

Soon after, American planes began arriving with munitions and other goods which were ferried by other planes across the Atlantic to West Africa. From there these supplies were transported to north Africa for the British forces fighting against the Germans. War planes purchased by the British from the Americans were also ferried to North Africa through Atkinson Field.

From around the same time, a huge cigar-shaped American airship, a Zeppelin, passed along the coast of Guyana daily to keep a lookout for German submarines.

By the end of 1941, 95 Guyanese had joined the British forces, of whom 22 were in the Royal Air Force and 42 were in the navy. The remaining 31 were recruited for other specialised work. Scores of Guyanese were also working in the merchant navy. In 1943, 32 Guyanese enlisted in the British armed forces, 20 travelled to the United Kingdom to serve as munitions workers in factories, and 48 joined the Trinidad Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Although the first batch of Guyanese had received training in Britain, others were sent to be trained in Canada. Six men were sent to Canada between 1942 and 1943, followed by five others in September 1943. Some Guyanese students in Britain also volunteered for military service. Among them was E. R. Braithwaite, who later wrote the classic To Sir, With Love; he served as crew member in the Royal Air Force.

The local newspapers reported on the Guyanese casualties. Mention was made of Stanley Roza who died when a torpedo struck his ship in 1943. Mohamed Hosein was disabled during the war and had to return home. T.R.R. Wood received the posthumous award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for services rendered as a pilot. Sergeant Pat Nobrega sent a letter to his family from the Japanese camp where he was imprisoned. He was captured by the Japanese during the Battle of the Malay Peninsula, but was finally released in 1945.

A Rose Hall, Corentyne, resident, Private Clarence Trim of the Canadian Army Corps, died in a battle in Germany on April 27, 1945. And a Berbician, Leslie Augustus James of the Royal Air Force, died in a hospital in England on May 19, 1945. These were just a few examples of Guyanese casualties during the war.

When the war ended in 1945, some Guyanese in the military forces decided to return home, but many decided to remain in Britain.

Despite the economic constraints caused by the war, infrastructural works were carried out in various parts of the country. From 1940, for example, drainage and irrigation projects valued $8 million began on the East Coast and West Coast Demerara, in West Berbice, and on the Corentyne coast. Large-scale rice production by the Government also began at Burma in the Mahaicony-Abary area. The use of farm machinery was introduced at this location, and work began on the building of a modern central rice mill in the area.

Planning for a census also began during the war years. This census was eventually conducted in 1946 and the count showed a population of 375,819 persons living in the country.

Politically, the Legislative Council elected in 1935 continued in office since there were no elections during the war years. Elections did not take place until 1947; as a result the Legislative Council of 1935-1947 was dubbed the “Long Parliament.” In the meantime, Sir Gordon Lethem arrived as the new Governor in December 1941.

Significantly, British Guiana was a major supplier of high-grade bauxite to America during the war years, when there was an increased demand for bauxite. The aluminium produced from this bauxite was used by the military in the United States. Significantly, roughly two-thirds of all allied aircraft manufactured during the war years used aluminium made from Guyanese bauxite. As a result of the demand for Guyana’s bauxite, exports increased from 476,000 tons in 1939 to 1,902,000 tons in 1943. This enabled the Guyanese economy to benefit greatly from the revenue obtained through these exports. The monetary worth of bauxite exports rose from approximately $2.9 million in the early 1940s to $6.7 million in 1947. This resulted from the developments in the Demerara Bauxite Company when it opened two mines at Mackenzie, thus creating from around 1943 more jobs in that sector for the Guyanese people. At the end of the war, the Treasury had a surplus of more than $6 million mainly due to the revenues earned by the bauxite industry.

Credit: www.guyana.org. — with Carl Morgan and Maxwell Hinds.

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