Sergeant George Arthur Roberts earned the nickname the “Coconut Bomber” because he could throw bombs in the First World War like he used to throw coconuts as a child. The decorated soldier could essentially “run towards hand grenades and hurl them back at the enemy” during the war. He later became a firefighter in London during the Blitz in 1940, helping to put out fires while German bombs were dropping around him.
The inspiring story of Roberts, who also campaigned vigorously to improve the lives of fellow ex-servicemen, has been captured in a new book, Under Fire, by Stephen Bourne.
Born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Roberts enrolled in the Trinidad Army as a youngster but enlisted for Army service in Britain when the war began and joined the Middlesex Regiment.
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It is documented that during his time in the British Army, he fought and was wounded in the Battle Of Loos and the Battle Of The Somme and earned himself a British Empire Medal, 1914 Star, a British War Medal and Victory Medal.
As reported by the Every Week magazine in 1918, “…he showed great proficiency as a Battalion Bomber, being able to throw his bomb a distance of 74 yards. This extraordinary throw was largely the result of his youthful experience in bringing down coconuts from the palms in his native island.”
In 1921, he went back to Trinidad to help recruit others to the war effort. At the end of the day, he “helped to recruit more than 250 men by his vigorous speeches on behalf of his adopted country,” the Every Week Magazine reported.
A year before going back to Trinidad, Roberts joined other veterans who were abandoned after the First World War to demand better rights and pensions in what became known as The Battle Of Westminster Bridge. Becoming a civil rights leader, Roberts continued to campaign all his life, founding the Camberwell branch of the British Legion, a charity that provides life-long support to members and veterans of the British Armed Forces and their families. In 1920, Roberts spoke about the significance of The Battle Of Westminster Bridge.
“It … brought home to the public the justified discontent of our men, and it played a great part in unifying the various ex-service organisations into the British Legion and bringing nation-wide pressure to bear on the Government to implement the promises made to ex-Servicemen.
“There can be no disputing that what was conceded would not have been won without the militant action that led to the Battle of Westminster Bridge,” he said.
Decades later when the Second World War began, Roberts, who had trained as an electrician, volunteered for the London Fire Service. And when the Germans started dropping bombs on the capital during the Blitz in September 1940, Roberts was around, helping to put out the fires.
It is recorded that the London Blitz destroyed two million homes in Britain, 60 percent of them in London. The large-scale air attacks also caused 1.4 million children to leave their families and move to the countryside.
In 1944, Roberts was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery during the Second World War and for helping create the fire service’s discussion and education group.
“If what I am doing can assist in some small way to bring about a better understanding and a true fellowship amongst the peoples of the earth, I shall be extremely happy,” Roberts said in a BBC interview recorded in 1947.
When asked if he ever thought of going back to his home in Trinidad, he said: “As much as I hate the cold and fog of winter, fuel cuts, food rationing and the prospect of very difficult times further ahead, I feel I shall be happier here with my family. But I hope to see the West Indies again.
“Memories of the grand reception I had on my two short visits in 1921 and again in 1935 linger on. Cheerio West Indies. I am always with you in spirit, and I hope to visit you soon,” the Black soldier and civil rights pioneer said.
In 1945, Roberts was presented his British Empire Medal at Buckingham Palace and a red plaque was unveiled at New Cross Fire Station to honor him 73 years later.
Local historian Bourne, who researched Roberts’ life before writing his book, then nominated him for a blue plaque, which “marks the locations where people of historical importance lived.” On September 11, 2016, it was unveiled at Warner Road, London.
Bourne in 2015 described Roberts as a “forgotten Camberwell hero.”
“He was a Trinidadian from the old British Empire. Britain would have been his mother country. He came to serve in the First World War, which is commendable, but then remained here and had a family here.”
“He continued with that sense of responsibility to the wider community. In the Second World War he then becomes a fireman and serves Londoners in very dangerous circumstances,” Bourne said.
Roberts, a husband and father of two, lived in London in the Lewis Trust Dwellings in Warner Road, Camberwell until he died in January 1970.