Join us

Odyssey of a ‘Windrush Generation’ soldier

On the 22 June 1948 the motor vessel Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury. Aboard were two stowaways and 1027 passengers, 800 of whom gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean. It was, of course, the first large scale arrival of West Indian immigrants who had answered the clarion call from the British government to come to Britain and help rebuild the bruised and battered shell of a country that had emerged from the carnage of World War Two.

Yet these early arrivals were simply in the vanguard of the many thousands who would make that long trek from the Caribbean to British shores and continued to do so up until 1971, when the government of the day imposed qualifying criteria for those wishing to immigrate here. That 23-year window of West Indian migration would change the face of Britain. Not only did it bring the skills and much needed labour to get the country’s transport network back on its feet and to help launch the fledgling National Health Service, but it also introduced a grey and austere Britain to the infectious and vibrant character of the Caribbean. A cultural change would permeate through Britain, becoming the building blocks of the multi-ethnocultural country we live in today, and it is for that reason we fondly remember them as the ‘Windrush Generation’.

As mentioned previously, it is well documented how many of those Windrush Generation found themselves working in the transport industry and the NHS, yet for some it was the allure of Britain’s armed forces that sent them on their way. Step forward 18-year-old Norman Harris who had been accepted into the Jamaica Defence Force’s National Reserve. As a young soldier his company commander was a seconded British officer from the Royal Hampshire Regiment who told him he could do well in the British Army. The officer arranged to have a package of British armed forces brochures sent and after studying all the options, Norman decided he liked the Royal Navy as the ships and submarines really appealed.

Norman chose the Royal Navy, and he was sent a letter offering him a settlement visa and instructions to go to the British Embassy to complete the necessary entry application, but he would have to pay so, his family cobbled together the money somehow and Norman made plans to come to Britain.

Waving goodbye to his family, Norman boarded a plane bound for London Heathrow in the May of 1965. He described his arrival, “At Heathrow Airport I had my first experience of what you call, how can I put it politely, immigration control. I arrived with my little suitcase and my hat on my head – I was dressed for the occasion; at border control I handed in my passport and in it was stamped settlement from the British Embassy. The border guard took the passport and asked where I was going? I said I’m coming to join the Navy. He went off and came back an hour later with a very horrible look on his face and chucked the passport at me and said, okay you can go Mr Harris.” Little did that guard know the skinny kid he appeared reluctant to allow entry into the country would rise to the rank of Sergeant Major and his yet to be born son, a Brigadier!

Reporting to the Royal Navy recruitment office in the Old Kent Road, Norman was told he didn’t have to join there and then – Big mistake on the part of the Navy! Norman took time out to get a taste of London and what life was like in Britain. “It was a beautiful summer with long days, I was used to the sun going down at six o’clock in Jamaica and here I was at nine o’clock and it was still shining. I thought this is what it’s all about, how can they say England is so cold, I didn’t believe a word they said.” Oh, how he would come to regret thinking that.                                                

During this period Norman got work as a general handyman in Peckham Rye Market and at the Lyons Corner House in The Strand, but soon got bored with that. Happening across an Army KAPE set up (Keeping Army in the Public Eye – a public awareness/recruiting stand) on his way home he was intrigued by all the soldiers walking around and the big guns and missiles. Norman thought to himself, this is what he wanted. “I went in and there was this Jamaican guy who spun me a yarn about how wonderful life was serving in Germany with the Gunners.”

In November of 1965 Norman walked into Camberwell Green Army recruiting office and signed on the dotted line. He got sent to Oswestry where he got a shock; first, as it was now November winter had arrived and second, Norman had wanted to be an infantry soldier and believing it was all just one big army thought that’s what he’d be doing; little did he know at the time he had enlisted into the Royal Artillery. He went to see his sergeant and said, “Sarge, I really don’t want to be here. I want to join the infantry.” According to Norman the sergeant replied in a torrent of words not to be repeated here, but the gist of which was, ‘Well Harris, you have no choice, you are in the Royal Regiment of Artillery now and this is your lot.’  The only way back was to buy his way out and as he said, “I had no money and there was no way I was going back to Jamaica as a failure.”

Norman decided to earn himself a green beret by selecting to join 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, and so it was that Gunner Norman ‘Snowy’ Harris completed his initial training amidst one of the harshest winters on record. “In Oswestry I was so cold my skin was turning grey.”

After finishing his All-Arms Commando Course at Lympstone and being presented with the famed green beret Gunner Snowy Harris was posted to 79 Battery part of 29 Commando Regiment RA. There was only one other black guy in the regiment and he was in 145 Battery. When it came to prejudices against skin colour, Gunner ‘Snowy’ Harris encountered a very limited amount of racism in 79 Battery. “There were individuals who I got to know who had problems in dealing with race, but generally speaking I made an abundance of friends, and they are still friends to this day. I can say without any reservation the regiment was good for me in every aspect. It helped me to build character, strengthen my belief and to deal with the challenges I faced as a person of colour. The individuals who had a problem with me as a black person, I dealt with them.”

One of the means by which Gunner ‘Snowy’ Harris confronted any prejudice was to take on challenges that commanded respect from his peers. Gunner Harris did this through representing his regiment at boxing and running. Later he added to this by forming a regimental band called ‘The Fugitives’ which also had the added bonus of getting him out of weekend duties!

Gunner Harris went on to serve in several overseas posting. In 1967 he found himself in the far-east in Singapore where he continued performing with a band in the nightclubs and at one point entertaining a brigadier and his wife. After a short stint back in England he found himself travelling out to Malta only this time accompanied by his new wife. Again, it was a short stay, and he was back to UK in time for the Northern Ireland troubles to start and Gunner ‘Snowy’ Harris found himself on the streets of Belfast. It was during this period that Karl, now Brigadier Karl ‘Snowy’ Harris, was born.

Having been told that he needed a change in career direction in order to progress Harris, now a sergeant, moved to Germany where he served with several different Royal Artillery Regiments. He became a Battery Sergeant Major then Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant, before personal circumstances meant his military career came to an end with him leaving the Army after 22 years’ service in 1987.

That was by no means the end of the ‘Snowy’ Harris connection with the British Army. The legacy of that young skinny kid that signed on in the Camberwell Green recruiting office in the summer of 1965 is very much alive today in the form of Brigadier Karl ‘Snowy’ Harris.

Brigadier Karl explained, “I am a proud son of the Windrush Generation. It’s part of my heritage, it’s part of this country’s story and the Commonwealth’s story; it’s a feature I’ve enjoyed getting to know more of in recent years.” His father’s 22 years’ service clearly seared a sense of belonging to this military and the armed forces more generally. “The sense of adventure and opportunities to travel really appealed and so I went to Welbeck College (The armed forces’ 6th form college) and then on to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.”

Of his intake at Sandhurst in 1993 Karl was the sole British ethnic minority. “It didn’t trouble me, like any minority of any description you are used to being in the minority simply by definition. I had been to five secondary schools as a result of the mobile military life; very often arriving as the new person in the class and looking around I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”

In his early military career, Brigadier Karl often experienced being socially stereotyped. On one occasion having been asked where he came from, he replied “Plymouth Sir”, and the immediate retort was “which Plymouth?”, to which he affirmed the one down the road in the west country. Another time, he was asked to rap about himself – he was quick to point out “I wasn’t a rapper then and I’m not a rapper now.” Now thirty years later he says, “I’ve got a spring in my step and a smile on my face, and part of that was commanding the Ethnic Minority’s Recruiting Team. It gave me a perspective outside of the military bubble. How other iconic institutions were looking at race and ethnicity issues.” He came away from that command with an immense pride in the Army and an institutional self-confidence that the British Army was willing to recognise its flaws and address them.

Brigadier Karl was instrumental in establishing the Army’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network (now the Army Multicultural Network) in 2015. Per chance Karl bumped into a colleague at the MoD who worked in the Army Employment Branch who informed him that he, along with another Gunner, was soon to be the highest-ranking direct entry ethnic minority officer at lieutenant colonel. It was quite a revelation for him to think that in 2015 that was as good as it got in the British Army for ethnic minorities. In fact, Brigadier Karl recounted that all through his career he never once had anyone from a minority background as a superior officer in his chain of command.

The Army’s problem was that it had become less connected to British ethnic minority members of the public. As Brigadier Karl pointed out, “I was a commanding officer of a cracking regiment as a second generation soldier, Dad had 22 years and I had at the time 22 years. It was not my story to keep to myself.” He felt compelled to reach out and tell his and his Father’s story and pursue initiatives; to try and inform, empower and inspire the chain of command and all ranks - ethnic “majority” as well as “minority” groups.   

Speaking of the differences between his and his dad’s experiences of serving Brigadier Karl said, “The socio-political context of Dad’s time and mine has shifted, as it has in the Army. The main thing that is different then to now is the ability for minority voices to be heard and unacceptable behaviours to be challenged.”

It is hard to fathom who has the greater respect for each other or who is prouder of whom, but it is all too patently obvious that it is us as the British people who owe a great debt of gratitude to Norman who through his vision and perseverance as a member of the Windrush Generation has resulted in over half a century of military service to date for the country.

PS. I suspect some of you sensed a degree of unease when you read of the nickname Norman acquired whilst at Oswestry. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the complexion of his skin and I’ll let him explain. “It was one of the coldest winters, I’d never seen snow in my life, I was outside looking at it and the other guys asked what I was doing, and I said I had never ever seen this. I then said to them, how come you guys have got all these different names: Taff, Jock, Scouse, Brummie? They said it was because they were all from different parts of the UK and then wanted to know what I was called back in Jamaica. No bloody way was I telling them that, it was Weedy because I was very thin. So, we agreed I’d be known as Snowy on account of my fascination on seeing it for the first time.” He carried that nickname throughout his 22 years of service and, through the Gunners, passed it on to his son Karl who to this day is affectionally known as Snowy.  That sense of unease, albeit for all the right reasons, was unconscious bias tapping you on the shoulder. During the interview for this article, I too was guilty for I had assumed and not thought beyond the ethno-racial insinuations.

The Army is recruiting

Now and Always