Unsung forestry heroes to be recognised

MA1RMC West Indians in Britain during the Second World War Men from British Honduras, who have volunteered for service in British forestry units, pictured after arriving by ship at Greenock, Scotland.

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The men of the British Honduran Forestry Unit (BHFU), who travelled 5,000 miles to keep Scotland’s timber supplies alive during the Second World War, are to be recognised for their heroic contribution.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing has written to the Belize High Commissioner to thank the country’s citizens for their efforts.

He has also asked Forestry Commission Scotland to explore ways to celebrate the work of BHFU, along with other Commonwealth citizens, who all rallied to help manage Scotland’s forests during the war.

In the letter to Her Excellency High Commissioner Perla Perdomo, Mr Ewing said: ‘As part of the recent events to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women involved in the two world wars and later conflicts, I was informed of a particularly interesting and largely untold chapter of the people of Belize.

‘I therefore wish to formally acknowledge on behalf of the Scottish Government the contribution of the citizens of Belize for their selfless service that the countrymen gave during the war. Importantly, I want to say thank you to them and to your country for this key contribution to our joint war effort.’

Maintaining timber supplies was vital in the war effort. Supply routes by sea from other countries were cut off so home timber needed to be felled, but many men were abroad fighting.

In 1941/42, around 900 men made the perilous journey from British Honduras (now called Belize) across the North Atlantic to a wintry Scotland to work in the forests.

They were billeted in a number of camps, including in the western Highlands. The men had to endure harsh weather and very basic living conditions but were welcomed by the local communities.

One such man who rallied to the UK’s call for help was Sam Martinez. At the age of 32, Mr Martinez travelled from British Honduras in 1942 to work in the forests of Scotland.

He believed that if anything happened to the ‘mother country’ then this would have a real impact back at home and in other Commonwealth countries. He worked in the forests in the Highlands with others from his homeland until the BHFU was disbanded in 1943.

Mr Martinez decided to stay in Scotland and he saw the rest of his years living in Edinburgh until the age of 106. He was a local celebrity where he lived, partly because of the way he bonded so well as a member of the local community. He was a huge Hibs fan and celebrated as the first, and oldest, ever Hibernian supporter from Belize.

His grandson, Yutsil Hoyo Diaz Martinez, lived with Sam for the last five years of his life and was able to document his experiences through video.

News that the British Honduran Forestry Unit’s story is to be celebrated next year was welcomed by Yutsil. He said: ‘It is great that this part of Scottish history is being recognised and mentioned by the Scottish Government.

‘I think it is important to be able to look back on these events and share them with our citizens and the world, since it’s not only the families who lived this but almost 1000 men who served with pride their “mother country” as my gramps used to call it.

‘This year, as his grandson, I have had the pleasure of sharing his life stories by giving a talk during black history month in October and making a small appearance on BBC ‘s Home Front Heroes – it’s something I’ll always treasure.  Hopefully, small steps like these will get this story out for everyone to know.’

In 2019, to celebrate 100 years of public forestry in Scotland, the Scottish Government will be celebrating the work of the BHFU and the contribution of other Commonwealth citizens in keeping Scottish timber supplies open during the war.