By NEIL FRASER
Back in the quiet days of the Thirties, before the avalanche of war roared down on Europe, Belize had a small defense force of irregulars known as "The Volunteers." They would drill, if I remember correctly, once a week. Or perhaps it was once a month; that was such a long time ago.
The Volunteers were summoned to meet at the Drill Hall by a bugler who walked about town blowing assembly at street corners. I can still hear that sound in the depths of my memory. Belizeans, being who they are, made up words to go with the bugle call: "Soldier boy, soldier boy, dress yourself and come to the front." By that little refrain I will always remember the Volunteers.
The rank and file Volunteer soldiers were just ordinary young Belizeans who wanted the uniform and military experience. It was the custom of that colonial period, however, to have British officers. My father, even though he had no military training, commanded the Hill Bank detachment of the force in 1918 when it was known as the British Honduras Territorials. The force had last been activated for defense in 1916 in order to meet border incursions by troops from Guatemala. But its most valuable duty in my time was the imposition of martial law needed to help in restoring order in the wake of hurricanes. The Volunteers did heroic duty when the city was devastated by storms in 1931 and again in 1961.
The author's father, C.N. Fraser, in the World War I uniform
of the British Honduras Territorials, circa 1918.
The original Volunteers, in the romantic context of history, are considered to be the Baymen who repulsed the invading forces of Spain at the Battle of St. George's Caye in 1798. It was in that year, under threat of Spanish aggression, that the Volunteers' future home was erected at Newtown Barracks on the north side of the Belize settlement to accommodate the 6th West India Regiment. The Honduras Militia, however, which was composed entirely of volunteers, was not formed until October of 1814 and by Royal Orders designated "The Prince Regent's Royal Honduras Militia."
I would refer anyone interested in a detailed history of the Volunteers to Donald Fairweather's excellent book: A Short History Of The Volunteer Forces Of British Honduras. Here I can deal only with remembrances of incidents recalled from my own childhood days in Belize during the 1940s when war was raging across most of the world, but reaching Belize primarily by crackling short wave broadcasts from the BBC's Overseas Service.
Being "volunteer" took on another meaning in WWII for the many Belizeans who went to England, Canada, or the U.S. to enlist in the Allied Forces. They volunteered for service, for there was no conscription in the colonies. Some lost their lives, with the news of their deaths coming as heavy blows to so small a community. My cousin, John Biddle, of the Biddle's Store family, enlisted as the war clouds were gathering. He became a pilot flying from aircraft carriers and was killed in a training accident shortly before the shooting started. Two other losses I recall are those of Nick Starky and Dick Fairweather, but there may have been others.
When the war started in September 1939, the British Honduras Volunteers were called to active duty. The area of the Newtown Barracks, which had become a golf course for members of the Golf Club, was transformed into a military tent city with the club as its headquarters building.
Although thousands of miles away from the developing war in Europe, we could feel a sense of urgency in the colony as if Hitler's forces were at our doorstep. This led to some hysterical and tragic incidents. The one I remember most vividly was the midnight arrest of Doctors Friedman and Stein.
Dr. Friedman, a medical doctor, and Dr. Stein, a dentist, were Jewish refugees who left Germany in the 1930s and settled in the apparent safety of Belize to raise their families. Dr. Friedman became our family doctor and, as kids will do, we had great fun mimicking his thick German accent and mispronunciation of English words. Dr. Stein had a son my age who became a new-found friend. Both men were, of course, a great plus to a part of the world where trained medical specialists were always in short supply. But they were also citizens of Nazi Germany, a country with which we were now at war.
When a War Office bureaucrat in London issued an order to have all German nationals in the colonial territories arrested and interned, it was translated at the local level into a dire threat of espionage. We awoke one morning to learn that the homes of both doctors had been raided in the dead of night by police and Volunteer forces. The two families were briefly interned at the Barracks then shipped to a larger internment camp in Jamaica. It was a sad and dark moment for Belize.
A similar incident with comic overtones happened after the U.S. entered the War in 1941. A young American couple, professing to be marine biologists, showed up in Belize and set up residence at Turneffe. Nobody knew anything about them or why they were working at the point closest to the marauding U-Boats which were then taking a heavy toll on Caribbean shipping.
Suspicion about the Americans grew in the midst of the pervasive fear of,German spies. Once again some anonymous order was issued to the Volunteers. I stood with my friends on the Foreshore and watched an expedition to Turneffe atoll set forth aboard the government launches Patricia and Lolette. It returned triumphantly with the American couple in custody. They were quickly released when urgent wireless messages to the U.S. Consul revealed that they were spies indeed... submarine watchers employed by U.S. Naval Intelligence.
The Volunteer Force activated at the onset of war was made up of Belizeans from all walks of life, most with no military experience. Those who could not serve as full-time soldiers were mustered out into a reserve unit and the remaining men formed into the British Honduras Battalion of the North Caribbean Force. Regulars from the British army were sent out to train both groups. The Golf Club was returned to its members, but the golf course was never restored.
Needless to say, in the midst of total war, the military personnel sent from England were not among the best and brightest. One was a little martinet of a sergeant who used to strut around town in immaculate khakis in spite of the tropical heat. He was determined to "shape up" the colonial troops in his charge. His favorite tactic was to shout commands at a soldier while only inches away from his face.
One day a volunteer, who had had enough of this swaggering little man, suddenly lunged forward and bit off the end of his nose. After nasal repairs, the humiliated sergeant was returned to England. I do not know if any disciplinary action was taken against the biter.
The defense forces also had a quartermaster sergeant from England who was a greying old cockney with a perpetually sad expression on his face. He became a regular customer of the coffee shop operated by the Red Cross' Ladies Auxiliary at the Courthouse Wharf, where he was known as "Happy." His favorite delicacy was stale cake, and he would always ask the ladies for a piece of "Style Cyke" with his tea.
"Happy" became a friend to me during his stay in Belize and, in spite of his sorrowful appearance, would always take the time to talk and be pleasant to a teenaged boy interested in learning more about the world.
Fortunately, the combat-readiness of the defense forces was never tested. Although the war was all around, as evidenced by the debris from sunken ships washing up on the reef, Belize remained a tranquil and peaceful place throughout the WWII years.
The volunteer forces did, however, present an impressive spectacle on parade. As children, we loved those parades, and would watch them from windows on the upper floor of Brodies, which overlooked the parade ground in front of the courthouse. A wonderful marching band headed up the parades, led by a white-gloved bandmaster and complete with a drummer swathed in the skin of a jaguar. It was always a thrilling experience to see and hear them come marching up Regents Street and onto the "Battlefield," where the troops would form up in perfect ranks to be inspected by a swagger-sticked British officer and the governor in his white-plumed helmet. The show itself gave us a feeling of security.
Now retired from the advertising business in Atlanta, Neil Fraser was born and grew up in Belize. He has contributed several other historical sketches to BELIZE FIRST.