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British Honduras Forestry Unit

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Members of the British Honduras Forestry Unit stacking planks of wood in a forest
Members of the British Honduras Forestry Unit stacking planks of wood in a forest
© IWM (D 6403)

The British Honduras Forestry Unit contained some 800 volunteers who left their homes in the tropical rain forests of British Honduras (now Belize) and crossed the Atlantic, braving U-Boat patrols to arrive in the midst of a Scottish winter.

In June 1941, the Battle of the Atlantic Committee of the Cabinet demanded a radical increase in home timber production in order to lessen the demands on shipping. In response, civilian workers were brought from Newfoundland, Eire, and the Caribbean colony of British Honduras, together with military units imported from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In May 1941, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Moyne, cabled the Governor of British Honduras, Sir John Hunter, asking whether a self-contained unit of 500 skilled woodsmen could be recruited for work in Scottish forests. The Governor’s agreement was cabled a few days later, and terms and conditions arranged. Arriving in August and September 1941, this first unit was stationed at East Linton (East Lothian), Duns (Berwickshire) and Kirkpatrick Fleming (Dumfriesshire). It was reinforced in the following year by a second smaller contingent located in the Western Highlands. The men worked on the production of pit props, pit wood, and wood pulp, and assisted one of the Australian forestry companies.


Source not provided/known

The men were billeted in camps in East Lothian, the Borders, and Sutherland, where they were generally warmly received by the local population but coldly by many bureaucrats, as Whitehall records show:

The foreman in charge of each camp, should be a white man. I think this is most important as we must respect not only the feelings of the proprietors of the estates on which the men will be camped but we must also consider the feelings of the people living in the surrounding villages and cottages.

Such racism was not confined to Whitehall however, as correspondence between the Duke of Buccleuch and Harold McMillan (then Colonial Office Minister) reveals:

Buccleuch: I do feel sorry for these people [but] I also feel unsophisticated country girls should be discouraged from marrying these black men from Equatorial America.

McMillan: We try to protect them from undesirable women, as well as to protect women from undesirable members of our coloured units. This can never be a completely successful policy. All we can do is to mitigate the evil as far as possible.

When the war ended the men could not, as British subjects, be forcibly repatriated, and many were housed in hostels in Glasgow and Edinburgh until they could find their own work and accommodation. But had already found love and friendship, making their homes in the towns close to the logging camps. Defying the efforts of officials to keep black and white apart, marriages were made and children followed.

There have been up to date four marriages… endeavours have been made by notifying the parents and Ministers and pointing out the undesirability of such marriages.

In 2004 a documentary was produced by Asylum Pictures, Tree Fellers, which told the story of the BHFU and featured some of the men who had stayed on in Scotland. The film was broadcast on STV and subsequently screened at film festivals, and at the Imperial War Museum, London. Featuring previously unseen archive footage of the BHFU camp at Traprain Law, near Haddington, it was re-released online during January 2014.[1]

Efforts are underway to create a lasting memorial to the contribution of the the BHFU on the Home Front, in line with that accorded the Canadian, Newfoundland, and Australian Units, and the Lumberjills.

Three gravestones are recorded in Whittingehame, East Lothian.[2]

References

1 Tree Fellers Revisited, trailer Retrieved 12/01/2014.

2 The Scottish War Graves Project :: View topic - Whittingehame, East Lothian Retrieved 12/01/2014.

  • Telling the Truth: the Life and Times of the British Honduran Forestry Unit in Scotland (1941-44), Amos A Ford. London: Karia Press, 1985. - vi, 96p.: ill., frontis., maps, ports.; 22cm. ISBN 0-946918-02-1 (pbk.)

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