Why everyone’s talking about C4’s powerful documentary shedding a light on ‘secret war babies’

Channel 4’s Britain’s Secret War Babies features the stories of two British people who want to find out more about their Black heritage, having been born to white British mothers and African American GIs during the second world war. 

In the wild world of documentaries, we have everything from true crime, scandal, social media, scams and everything in between. But sometimes, we forget that historical documentaries are an age-old favourite, providing information and context about time periods many of us know little about.

A new history-based documentary that’s making waves online is Britain’s Secret War Babies. The Channel 4 docufilm is a one-off special diving deep into the world of ‘illegitimate’ children born during the second world war. 

We follow Mary and John, who were born to British women and never knew their dads, who were African American GIs. In Britain’s Secret War Babies, they embark on an emotional journey to learn about their fathers and their Black heritage. Journalist Sean Fletcher – who appears on Good Morning Britain – leads the documentary and aids the pair in their search for answers, providing similar anecdotes about his experience growing up as a mixed-race man in a majority white UK village.

Presenter Sean Fletcher with Mary Phillips holding a photo of her father.

So, what is the true history at the heart of this documentary? 

Well, nearly 3 million US soldiers passed through Britain during the second world war, with 240,000 of those soldiers being African American. Approximately 2,000 mixed-race children were born illegitimately to white British mothers and African American GIs between 1942 and 1946. Subsequently, Britain’s Black population shot up by 30%. But many of these mixed-race children never knew their fathers and grew up hardly knowing anything about their cultural identity and ancestry. 

John Stockley and presenter Sean Fletcher in Channel 4’s Britain’s Secret War Babies.

In the Channel 4 documentary, we’re introduced to Mary, who was raised in south Wales and had spent a staggering 20 years searching for her father. Her story, much like the tone of the docufilm, is a sad one and she explains that as a child, she felt different to those around her. She was bullied and had racial slurs thrown at her regularly, even scrubbing her face with bleach so as to change the colour of her skin.

John’s story is an equally harrowing one. Like some of the other stories mentioned in the documentary, many white British women had short relationships with GIs, but John’s mother actually had an affair with a GI who was living in her guesthouse. When her husband eventually returned from the war, he began violently beating his mixed-race stepson. 

Britain’s Secret War Babies is available to watch on All4 now.

But the documentary also turns into a story of hope and reconciliation. Fletcher finds John’s birth father as well as Mary’s and then introduces them both to their living relatives. Much like an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? or Long Lost Family, the documentary has many a tear-jerking moment with some staggering facts about how the Home Office expressed fear around the growing population of “semi-coloured” children in the 1940s.

Having aired last night (Wednesday 17 August), it’s safe to say that the documentary left an impact on many viewers. 

Many viewers praised Fletcher’s role as presenter in such an emotionally charged film. 

It left many reflecting on the racism of the time. 

The reunion scenes may have caused us to shed a (happy) tear or two. 

The happiness for John and Mary was very, very real. 

The documentary has also prompted some viewers to contemplate getting their own ancestry tests. 

Once again, Channel 4 provided us with a thought-provoking documentary that we’ll be mulling over long after watching. 

Britain’s Secret War Babies is available to stream on All4 now. 

Images: Channel 4

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