The untold story of the RAF’s black Second World War fliers over Europe
While the United States could boast the black fliers of Tuskegee, few people are aware of the important contribution made by 500 RAF aircrew recruited from the Caribbean and West Africa. Overcoming the legacy of the official British Colour Bar to serve over Europe as pilots, navigators, flight engineers and air gunners, these men were pioneers in the truest sense. After suffering a loss rate of more than 30% and, in some cases, incarceration as black PoWs in Nazi Germany, the men returned to their countries of origin and were lost from the historical record. Mark Johnson has spent 17 years researching this tale, based on personal interviews with survivors, one of whom was his Jamaican great-uncle, a former navigator with Bomber Command’s No 102 (Ceylon) Squadron and a holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross. He outlines their backgrounds and motives for joining up and also describes their combat experiences and explores the possible significance of their legacy for integration and race relations.
Mark Johnson is a former soldier, a cyber-security writer and historian. His first history title, which tells the largely unknown story of the black RAF aircrew volunteers, is Caribbean volunteers at war (Pen & Sword). The author posts regular updates on his website at www.markjohnsonbooks.com.
Well, good afternoon and welcome back to those of you I’ve met before and welcome to those I haven’t. So what I’m going to do for the next 45 to 50 minutes is walk you through the history of the contribution made to the Royal Air Force during the Second World War by Caribbean volunteers – not all black, but the ones I’ve focused on are the black Caribbean volunteers, for reasons that are probably obvious and which I will dive down into in the next few slides.
The Caribbean volunteers, however, were not the first black fliers to make a contribution to Britain. There were actually black airmen active during the First World War, who are rarely mentioned. There were quite a number, probably about a dozen, but there are three in particular who are best known.
[Shows image] The first, as you can see on this slide, entitled ‘World War One Black Fliers’ was Eugene Bullard. Eugene Bullard was actually a half…he was Creek Indian and half Southern US black, who left America because of racial prejudice and became a boxer in Scotland, and then eventually settled in France and joined the Lafayette Squadron in France during World War One as a pilot. And if anyone has seen that film – and suddenly the name has escaped me! – about Lafayette’s Squadron during World War One, which features the black pilot, if you have seen the film, you will recognise that. Most people dismiss that as politically correct nonsense, but in fact, it’s based on Bullard, who was in fact a black pilot. He was very successful, he shot down a number of enemy aircraft.
The very sad ending to his story – he was never accepted in the US. He stayed in France until the start of the Second World War. He voluntarily served in combat against the invading German forces and was shot through the spine. He returned to the States after the war, still badly injured, attended a theatre in New York and was beaten up for being a black man attending a theatre. And he died of his injuries a few years later. He was then posthumously honoured by the French, but never by the Americans.
The second character in the centre there is Robbie Clark. Robbie Clark was a chauffeur in Kingston Jamaica, apparently working for somebody fairly influential, but just a chauffeur and nothing special in his own right. And he was either assisted or made his own way to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, initially as a mechanic, based on his chauffeur experience. In those days, anyone who drove a car had to know how to maintain a car. But he then volunteered for flying service and the story that’s told (I’m not sure how true it is!) is that he was befriended by one of the pilots, who took him up in the air and discovered that he had some talent and he then became a pilot himself.
And he flew an RE8 reconnaissance aircraft over the Western Front, was shot through the spine again – there’s a lot of shooting through the spine going on – by a German aircraft that pounced on them, and managed to land his plane, before passing out, thus saving his observer. Of course, there were no parachutes in those days. And he survived, spent many months in hospital, was repatriated to Jamaica with full pension and lived until his 80s. Of course, forgotten by all, including most Jamaicans. I don’t think many Jamaicans have ever heard about him. We certainly never heard about him in school.
But the first known black military flier was actually half-Turkish, half-Nigerian, Ahmet Ali Çelikten I think is the correct pronunciation, who flew with the forces of the Ottoman Empire, having been trained in Berlin. And I’ve got a wonderful photograph on the next slide, which actually shows him… [shows image]. So you can see these Turkish officers in the centre and on the right, and then there’s a German engineer and what seems to be a German officer on the left and of course our black pilot, who actually flew the aircraft that they are gathered around is in the background, almost hidden but certainly there. And he flew throughout the First World War. So there’s a history there, it didn’t start with World War Two.
So let’s look briefly at the Caribbean in1939, the beginning of the Second World War. What I want to do is just give you a sense of the culture that these people were coming from, because there are a lot of misconceptions about the Caribbean and about the black volunteers. Two key misconceptions is that the Caribbean is a place where people lie in hammocks and drink rum! And this is one of the comments made by RAF recruiters when it was proposed that black volunteers be sought, that basically they would be untrainable because that’s all they did.
Of course, that’s nonsense. The Caribbean in 1939 was actually a region with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. In Guyana for example, adult literacy was running up 87%, which was better than most parts of Europe and people focused on, you know, Tony Blair’s mantra, ‘education, education, education’ before Tony Blair was born!
And, one slide up [shows image], that’s my grandfather – very serious Victorian, school headmaster, and later, school inspector, he used to come to our house and inspect me [laughter]. I had to sit on his knee and I read to him and my father used to be in panic for days before hand. He came from Jamaica and we were in the UK and would fly out from Jamaica with boxes of oranges and bananas – this was the 1960s – those were amazing gifts, to give boxes of oranges! And then I had to sit on his knee and he would test my reading skills. It was a terrifying period of my life, from which I’ve not yet recovered! Even looking at that photograph now worries me! [audience laughs].
And that was his school [shows image], in the mountains of Jamaica, in Saint Mary, and this is his class [shows image]. He was a very proud headmaster of this school, and you can see that all the children were barefoot. And my great uncle, who was on the first slide and whom you’ll see more of later, attended that school.
So this is the other myth, that the black volunteers from the Caribbean were coming from a particularly privileged part of society. Some of them certainly did, but many of them did not; I would say that the majority of them did not. They came from very, very normal, humble backgrounds. What made them stand out was their focus on educating themselves, their hard work and commitment that they put in and that’s what qualified them for RAF services; nothing to do with their social standing or anything along those lines.
[Shows image] This is my aunt, by the way, another very intimidating character, who you did not want to get ill. You certainly would not pretend to be ill and then approach her. And that’s the Blair family. My grandmother was a Blair, the sister of the headmaster you saw previously, Blair family at the beach. And this is the cottage that my great-uncle grew up in, so little more than a shack. So I’m just making the point that people were volunteering from the humblest of backgrounds and achieving great things, as we’ll see.
So that’s where they were coming from, and there’s a lot more obviously we could talk about there, but [there is] limited time. Let me give you some context about what was happening in the Second World War at the point when these volunteers were asked to step forward.
So the RAF in 1940 was a battered and bruised organisation. Hundreds of pilots had been killed in the Battle of France, which was been lost. And of course, the Germans were now sitting on the other side of the English Channel and they had attempted to conquer the skies over England so they could launch their naval invasion. But they had just barely been defeated by the Royal Air Force, and it was now time to strike back.
A new Bomber Force was needed. The decision was made that Britain was going to build a 1,000 strong bomber air force. They wanted the capacity to put a thousand bombers on the skies over Germany in a single night, which meant having more than a thousand aircraft.
So they needed thousands of new aircrew and they were already losing a significant amount of their bomber aircrew. Over five per cent fatalities on a nightly basis. The statistical chance of surviving the compulsory tours for volunteers, which was 30 missions in the first tour, followed by a second tour of 20 missions. The chance of surviving the first 30 was zero, statistically. Crews did survive because it was the newcomers who tended to get shot down fastest, but statistically, you had zero chance of survival. It’s an incredibly bloody…it’s something like World War One in the trenches in terms of rates of loss and rates for survival. And that’s what they were facing, and these were people…as I say I lived with my great-uncle for 40 years and these are the sorts of things that they faced. Quite incredible now to think about it.
So that was the RAF. In the Caribbean itself, you would sort of think that the Caribbean was remote and not affected by the War, but in fact, the Caribbean was the scene of a battle called the Battle of the Caribbean, in which a German U-boat wolf pack comprising ten U-boats, supported by five Italian sub-marines, operated for about 18 months, during what was called Operation Newland, which you can Google if you’re interested, there’s quite a lot online about it.
They focused on the oil tankers that were moving from South America, particularly Venezuela, to the gulf coast of the United States and the east coast, bringing oil into the US. And they sunk about 60 ships, many of them oil tankers. 15,000 West Indians, by the way, served as merchant crews on those and others during the war; one third of those men died. So there’s another story to tell there, which hasn’t really been told there.
So the Caribbean was part of the war and people in the Caribbean were very aware they were affected by these operations, the battles took place very often just off the coastline, there was shelling of facilities by U-boats with their guns, they were shelling oil terminals, American aircraft were sinking U-boats, survivors’ crew were sinking ships and the U-boats were being brought ashore in the case of the German being interned in Jamaica and other locations. So the Caribbean was very, very involved in the war already.
Now, up until this point in time, even if a black man in the Caribbean wanted to join the British Forces, he could not join as an officer (or she could not join as an officer). The British official policy, written policy, stated that only British-born men of British-born parents, of pure European descent, could receive offers as commissions in any of His Majesty’s armed services. This of course also disqualified South Africans, Australians, anybody who was not British-born and of pure European descent. I mean, not a lot to choose from between that statement and what we were fighting against in Germany, to be honest, other than the fact that there were no camps, but the mind-set behind the policy was very similar.
Suddenly, in October 1939, before the Battle of France, before the losses had been suffered – a very important point – but just after the war had been declared, two or three weeks after the war had been declared, that bar was lifted. The Navy and the Army did not move particularly quickly to allow officers of colour to join their ranks, but the Air Force moved very quickly and organised a recruiting drive. And as a result, most volunteers from the Caribbean entered the Air Force. The Air Force was actually…it’s actually a really, really important success story in terms of integration and acceptance, when in 1939 the Air Force opened its arms to volunteers from both Africa and the Caribbean.
The result was that we’ve identified 495 five Caribbean volunteers who joined from these nations, primarily from these seven listed here, with Jamaica and Trinidad having the largest numbers. [Shows image] And here you can see the amount of volunteers killed from those groups of volunteers are just about a third, about 30% were killed and some of the men are shown here. Both these men were killed and half the men in this picture, for example, died. So they had the same casualty rates as the other RAF crews; there was no special treatment and they were flying the same missions.
Why does a subject of an imperial power join that power’s army and fight when they’re not obliged to do so? Because they were volunteers, they were not conscripted. And when I interviewed survivors, including my great-uncle, they were very, very clear. This was not about King and country or any sort of brain-washing that they might have undergone. They understood that there was a straight line relationship between that character on the left making his speeches about the Jews and Eastern Europe and Nazi plans for what they would do with conquered Europe. The concentration camp system, the persecution of Jews, and Gypsies, Russians and Poles, 2.5 million Russians died of starvation in German captivity, another crime that’s not really spoken about much, and slavery. And they knew that if Hitler defeated England, I quote my uncle:
‘Many people don’t think about what would have happened in Jamaica if Hitler had defeated Britain, but we certainly would have returned to slavery’
And what you’ve got to remember is that slavery only ended in 1834. My uncle was born in 1919, so my great-uncle sat on the knee, or the knees, of old people in his village who had been born in slavery. And I sat on his knee. So, that’s how close to us slavery is today and it was that much closer 70, 80 years ago. So they were very clear as to why they were going to fight for His Majesty. They were not fighting for His Majesty, they were fighting for themselves and for their families.
So who were these men? What sort of men were they? A really good example here is Billy Strachan – they say ‘Strawn’ in Jamaica, some people might pronounce that ‘Stra-chan’, but we pronounce that ‘Strawn’. Born and raised in Kingston, he made his own way to Britain by ship when war broke out. So he’s making his way across the Atlantic, infested with U-boats by the way. On arriving in London, he went on foot to the Air Ministry and knocks on the door at seven in the morning and said, ‘I’ve come to join to join the RAF’, and the Corporal inside told him to ‘%@@£ off, okay!’
But he was undeterred and persisted, and he later flew 30 missions as a wireless bomber in Wellington missions over Germany and the Low Countries. And he then re-trained as a bomber pilot and flew another 15 missions over Europe, piloting a Lancaster. He survived the war and returned to Jamaica and here is the gentlemen himself standing on the left [shows image]. This is his Wellington Crew, so this is when he was a wireless operator. He refused to be left out; these were dogged, determined individuals. They were not going to be put off a few racist corporals; they were going to insist and they demanded to be allowed to risk their lives.
He talked about racism quite extensively and one of the stories he told was about his own attitude. So when he arrived from Jamaica, he encountered his ‘Batman’, a very smooth Jeeves-type, he said, exactly the type of character he’d been led to expect. Meanwhile, he described himself, these are his words, as ‘just a little coloured boy from the Caribbean’. So when he first met this Batman, he instinctively called the Batman, ‘Sir’. Coming from the Caribbean, encountering a white person, there’s a lot of complex issues going on there in terms of the relationship and to have somebody white acting in a subservient way to you when you’ve just come from the Caribbean in 1940 was a very challenging adaption to make. ‘But no, sir’, the Batman hastily added, ‘it is I who call you, ‘sir’’.
And again, think about the period, think about the era, and think about the change in attitudes that this man had to make in a matter of hours, having been told that he was now going to be the Batman to a man from the Caribbean and he had to call him ‘Sir’. And he had to make a huge change as well, and that’s a really important part of the story.
And so you have these volunteers, like Basil Johnson from the Bahamas, who had to insist on being allowed to join. He volunteered four times, before being accepted on the fifth occasion. Interacting with your tally-hoe chaps types on the left and your chaps types on the right, all in the same unit. And a really important point here is that whereas for example in the American forces, they had segregated black units, the famous Tuskegee Airmen for example, in the RAF none of that happened. Everyone was mixed in together. So you would have a New Zealander gunner, a navigator from Jamaica, a bomb-aimer from Newcastle; they all flew in the same aircraft, they all lived in the same quarters, they all fought and served together. There was no segregation enforced whatsoever, despite the fact that the colour bar had only been lifted the year before.
Recruitment was also attempted in West Africa was also far less successful. So whereas the Caribbean, with a population at the time was about six million people was able to put forward, 500 aircrew, in the whole of West Africa, only 50 aircrew were identified, although there were thousands of volunteers. There are conflicting reasons cited.
So the Air Ministry claim that the presence of malaria contravened the medical policy, which was that any candidate had to be malaria-free for a minimum period of six months before being accepted for service. And therefore West Africans were by and large ruled out, because almost everybody had been exposed to malaria within the last six months.
Unofficially, it’s been said that it was in fact fear of African independence movements, which were already becoming very active. It was fear of training Africans in military skills, which could then be used against British colonial rulers at the end of the war. It’s debateable; I suspect that this makes more sense. Anyway, the end result was that only 50,000 volunteers were selected from Africa.
Johnny Smythe, joined from Sierra Leone was shot down – we’ll talk about that again a little bit later – was shot down over Europe and spent two years in Stalag Luft I, the prison of war. [He] survived that experience and returned to the UK and became a judge. So they volunteered, they’d been accepted, they’d arrived in England in some cases or had been recruited in the Caribbean and now they went to train.
My uncle was sent to Monkton in Ontario in December, having never left Jamaica; he’d never flown, never been on a ship, never left St Elizabeth, Jamaica and now he found himself in Monkton under three feet of snow, ‘cold as the devil’, as he described it. They travelled by ship to the US and then to Canada by train.
When John Blair and his party boarded their American Merchant ship, they were not allowed to use the hammocks that had been provided for them, the crew insisted that they had to sleep in the hold. So these were officer volunteers for the Air Force and they took the whole journey in the hold, and it wasn’t the direct journey, because that ship went all the way round the Caribbean picking up more volunteers, putting them all in the hold, where they squatted for about two weeks. So that was their welcome.
However, they moved on from that; they learnt their trades. Here’s John Blair on the left [shows image] with his group of all white RAF volunteers, and there he is as a Jamaican volunteer, very much part of the team:
‘I never felt that the RAF training and selection processes were conducted on the basis on anything other than merit’
They trained as pilots, as navigators, flight engineers, wireless operators, about half of them became air-gunners. They then crewed up; this involved very large groups standing in a hanger, a hanger that could accommodate a couple of bombers. Then the pilots would come in and they’d have a group of wireless operators, gunners over here. The pilots would come in and they would walk around and they would literally just like the look of people and pick a couple of gunners because they liked the look of them and ‘I like you, there’s a navigator’.
All the African and Caribbean men were selected, there’s no case that I’ve come across of a black man being left standing in the room when everybody else had left. And not only were they not ‘not selected’, they were adopted in some cases as ‘mascots’. I know it sounds racist to say it, but that’s the first fact – here the aeroplane has been named after its black navigator, who was from Nigeria. The aircraft has actually been named the ‘Black Prince’, so there’s an actual adoption taking place, not people being forced upon the white crew and the white crew being forced to work with them. They’re actually embracing this change. I do suppose that I’m over-selling that point, but I really think that it’s one of the most important lessons of this whole story: that it’s possible to implement changes like that effectively.
There weren’t only bomber pilots or bomber crew men. There were fighter pilots, there were spitfire pilots and hurricane pilots and typhoon pilots from the Caribbean. This is a really important photograph [shows image], because here we have Flight Lieutenant, Vincent Bunting, originally a Panama, but originally of Jamaican parentage, who grew up in Kingston. And the famous South African ace, Sailor Milan, if you’ve heard of him at all. What fascinates me is that Sailor Milan went back to South Africa and very few people know that he then became a driving force in the anti-Apartheid movement. And I look at that photograph and they served together in the same squadron – Sailor Milan was his boss. I think there must be a connection between his anti-Apartheid stance and his experience of working with a Caribbean airman. He must have gone home and thought, ‘this is not right, because I have worked with black people and I know that they’re doing just the same as us’, and I take that away from that picture. He survived the war.
Flight Sergeant James Hyde of Trinidad did not. He was shot down not long after this photograph was taken over Nijmegen. But again, he’s on our website [http://www.markjohnsonbooks.com/]. We had contact with a Dutch person who visited the website and lives near the Jonkerbus cemetery, where Hyde is buried. He then went to the cemetery about two weeks ago, took photographs of the grave, posted in Dutch and then lots of other Dutch people commented and thanked James Hyde for his service. So again, these guys are still building bridges across cultural barriers 70 years later through their sacrifice.
And there were others: Sergeant Tucker, Sergeant Dowdy, Flight Lieutenant Kelsick from Montserrat. Tucker was killed in a sweep over France, Dowdy became a bomber pilot, Kelsigg survived the war, flying typhoons after D-Day, shooting up enemy troop and train movements. Sergeant Joseph, on the right, [was] shot down and killed over Europe from Trinidad; Weeks, of Barbados, survived the war: both of them spitfire pilots. There were dozens and dozens of spitfire pilots engaged in operations and paying the ultimate price.
In addition to the airmen, we had 6,000 Caribbean ground crew personnel. I mentioned my boss earlier, this is my boss, Carl Shantrell, lovely gentlemen still alive. I interviewed him last summer and I’ll be taking a copy of my book to him in a couple of weeks’ time. 6,000 became trained in Yorkshire at Filey and then worked as coders and ground crews, engineers, loading up bombs, and so forth.
There were female volunteers from the Caribbean, about 100 in total. Lillian Bader, on the left [shows image], became the first black woman to serve in the British Regular Forces in a technical capacity. Sonia Thompson, from Kingston, was just one of many Caribbean women who came and served, mainly in technical capacities.
They were accomplished fliers, the men who flew: they were no different from their white counterparts. The RAF official reports that were produced on their performance said that there were no suspensions, the ground and air percentages of above average and below average suggested that they fall very much in line with the white trainee. So there was no difference in terms of the performance between the Caribbean men. And you can see here the declarations that they were wearing and this was at the end of the war. These were survivors.
Has anybody read the book, To Sir, With Love, or seen the film, To Sir, With Love? The author, ER Braithwaite, is here [shows image].
But there was racism; Billy Strachan said, ‘when you arrived anywhere as the first black man, you were treated like a teddy bear, you were loved and fated. Two they coped with; it was when three or more arrived that things got sharp’. So an interesting observation.
They joined, they trained, they’d been crewed up; now they had to fly. They had to get into fragile, four-engine bomber aircraft, carrying 9,000 pounds of high explosive and 2,000 pounds of aviation fuel and seven people and fly them over a military territory, through anti-aircraft fire, the night fighters and everything else, to drop those bombs on their targets.
Cy Grant from Guyana: Cy Grant became a musician after the war on BBC television and he was the voice of one of the Captain Scarlett characters. He was Captain Green, so: ‘Even amidst the deafening drone of scores of other aircraft, the muffled explosions below, the glow of the target area, the flat with sweeping searchlights and the sudden bumps as the aircraft rode the frenzied skies, I never questioned what I was doing there’. They knew what they were doing there.
What were they doing there? What they were doing there was truly terrible. The aim of bomber command should be unambiguously stated: ‘the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany’, and that’s according to Arthur Harris, bomber commander.
So there was no hiding the objective of this campaign. This campaign was intended to slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians. That was the strategic aim, as stated by its commander. And that’s what the Caribbean men and the British men and the Australians and the New Zealanders and the Poles were engaged in.
The bombs had awful effects. And they were designed to have awful effects. Some of them weighed as much as 20,000 pounds [for] a single bomb. They obliterated cities. A thousand-bomber raid would be sent out and its goal was to kill a city. Many nights, another city would die.
This is the centre of Cologne [shows image]. An archaeologist who looked at Dresden, where one of the worst raids took place, a German archaeologist has written, ‘we can see that the temperatures must have ranged between 1300 and 1400 degrees centigrade in the area and the area around it’. This is from the soil samples, so this is [the] belowground temperature. ‘Above ground, the temperature must have been even higher, perhaps as high as 1600 degrees centigrade. Human beings were transformed into ashes’. People melted in the street. That’s the effect of our bombing campaign. And you can see the remains, this is Cologne Cathedral [shows image]. So if you’ve been to Cologne, you can imagine what that must have looked like and felt like.
The US Strategic Bombing Survey of 1945 concluded that there were 305,000 German civilian deaths, that 780,000 people were wounded and 7.5 million were made homeless. But other sources claim that there were up to 600,000 dead, stating that 300,000 died in Dresden alone. And I find the second figure more convincing.
It’s reasonable to question the ethics of such a campaign, but I actually think it’s justified, despite those figures. And it’s justified for very simple reasons. Nazi Germany invaded and subjugated Europe; this was an unprovoked and illegal invasion. Germany then proceeded to perpetrate the Holocaust and other crimes, killing ten times more people in concentration camps alone than were killed during the bombing campaign. She triggered overall the deaths of at least 40 million people; some say 50 million. Bombing was the only response available to the West. There were limits on its accuracy and thus Germany cities were the only viable target. Thus, I believe that for all its horrors, this was still a justified act.
The men who flew were not just dropping bombs from safety, they were facing terrible threats; as I’ve said, a third of them died. They faced a range of threats: they faced the night fighters coming in. And the reason why the inexperienced crews tended to be killed off very quickly was that you wanted to fly in the bomber stream.
So you’d have a stream of 1,000 aircraft – it’s a dozen aircraft wide and hundreds and hundreds of aircraft long striding through the night air. And you want to be in the middle of that to be safe. If you’re inexperienced and you’re too low or too high, or off to one side, that’s when you get shot at by the night fighters, because the night fighters not going to fly in amongst 20 bombers, all of bristling with machine guns. He’s going to pick off the guys who are outliners and it tended to be the new crews who got themselves into that position and then got shot out of the sky.
You’ve got the flak coming up, you have bombs from above. Many aircraft were destroyed by ‘friendly bombs’ being dropped by ‘friendly aircraft’ above [because] they couldn’t see each other in the dark. They flew into each other; about half of all losses were results of either bombs from above or collisions and the other half from enemy action. So they were flying into each other- there would be huge explosions brighter than the sun. Other aircraft would then explode as a result and you’d have these 2-3-4-9,000 pound explosions going up in the sky around you. Accidents on the ground: weather, icing, wind, cloud. All of these things added up.
They were flying against tremendously well-trained aces who had been fighting and flying since 1939, in some cases since 1937. They had flown in Spain, these are just some examples of night fighter pilots who were very successful. This one in particular, Heinz Schnaufer, shot down 121 aircraft, of which 114 were four-engine bombers, mostly RAF bombers, each one containing seven men. He survived the war and inherited his father’s wine estate and was killed two years after the end of the war when a barrel of wine fell off a lorry and hit him in his open sports car.
If you were in an aircraft, if you’re one of the 55,000 bomber command crewmen, in a four-engine aircraft and that aircraft was hit, your chance of jumping out or bailing out of a Lancaster is one in ten. Because they made the hatch too small and they never fixed that.
So they were piled up at the hatch, desperately trying to get out, fighting the forces of gravity and the flames that had overtaken the aircraft, trying to get out through this little hatch. You can imagine the panic. One man might get out and the others would die, or two men might get out. In Halifax, two in ten [got out because there was] a slightly bigger hatch.
[You were] most likely to die on missions one through four; as I said, stats for surviving a tour equalled zero. The night fighters were coming in: Lincoln Lynch, DFM, tailgunner from Jamaica, who served with 102 Squadron, shot down a Messerschmitt night fighter on his first operational flight.
He was a gentleman. He shot the night fighter’s engine with his machine guns, then he realised it was on fire and he then held fire while the German pilot and his crewmen climbed out and jumped off the back of the aeroplane and then he resumed firing and shot the rest of the aeroplane out of the sky. So [he was] quite a nice man. He survived; he actually passed away very recently.
Lesley Guilts of Trinidad, Sergeant Dickinson survived. Guilts when down and [was] lost at sea, his body was never recovered. [There is] a fabulous photograph [shows image]. That’s not a posed picture, these men are friends working together, facing the same challenges.
And so they finished their tours. This, as John Blair said, was a war that had to be fought. Some men had been shot down and taken prisoner. John Esme of Stalag Luft I, Cy Grant in Stalag Luft III, the scene of the famous Great Escape. There’s a black character in that film and everybody said, ‘This is just ridiculous, political correctness, where have they got a black character?’. There was actually a black prisoner in Stalag Luft III. So that character’s based on Cy Grant.
When he arrived at Stalag Luft III, he was met by the commandant, Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav von Lindeiner gennant von Wildau, who I will now call Lindeiner, whotook pains to ensure that Grant was well-treated and in fact, he met him at the gate. He’d been in the newspaper, this is the newspaper clipping and everybody was expecting this man at Stalag Luft III. And the commandants stood at the gate with some of his officers, waiting for his arrival. He said [puts on German accent], ‘Welcome to Stalag Luft III, it’s wonderful to see you, where are you from?’. And he said, ‘Guyana, British Guyana’. He said, ‘excellent, I’ve been there! Now, you and you, take care of him’.
And from that point on, he was looked after very well, had no issues of racism from the Nazi authorities. The only challenged he faced was with a man from the southern states of the US, who kept calling him the N-word and just couldn’t factor into his world, his reality, the existence of a black RAF officer. He just couldn’t handle it. So that’s the only problem he faced. He was actually rescued by the Soviet Red Army, as was Smythe in 1945; again, [he] had no issues, was well taken care of by the Soviets and repatriated to Britain.
So things are nuanced; it’s not as cut-and-dried as we might think. There was racism of course and millions of people died as a result, but at the same time, the same culture that was perpetrating the Holocaust was looking after a black man in Stalag Luft III. So there are individuals who acted with honour and in fact when the commandants of Stalag Luft III were put on trial for war crimes, his former prisoners came and gave evidence in his defence and he was acquitted. So there was good and bad obviously on all sides.
80 missions; the compulsory number was 50. Ulrich Cross did his 50 and then he volunteered for another tour of 30 and completed 80 missions as a navigator in Mosquito aircraft from Trinidad. [He] passed away last year and became the highest decorated black volunteer. And John Blair and Arthur Wint from Jamaica, who served together as a navigator and a pilot, both volunteered for the Elite Pathfinder Force, were accepted, and went into training but the war ended before they flew. Blair became a lawyer after the war. Wint became a two-time gold medal winner for Jamaica at the Olympics and then a doctor. He was the only doctor in a parish of 76,000 people. [They were] hard-working men.
Again, this misconception of these men as being puppets or dupes or brainwashed people who were subject to colonial education [is] so wrong, I think. They were extremely proud. They became involved in the independence movements of their countries. Many of them became leaders. Errol Barrow, former RAF officer, became the Prime Minister of Barbados, for example. Michael Manley, and Norman Manley, his father had served before him in the First World War. These were very left-wing, in many cases, very focused ideologues, who believed in independence but they still served during the war. They remained proud of it. So when you look at Errol Barrow’s tomb stone, [it says], ‘Flying officer Errol Walter Barrow, navigator Royal Air Force World War Two’, and incidentally, ‘Prime Minister of Barbados’ [audience laughs]. That’s a man who was proud of what he’d done.
And I give the last word to Johnny Banks, my uncle’s best friend, a former Mosquito navigator, shown here in 1995 at the Victory Over Japan Day celebrations [shows image]:
‘I went to fight for freedom, for Jamaica and for all the little countries of the world that would otherwise be controlled by bullies’.
I think there he sums up the entire story. So I thank you for your attention and I’d be happy to take any questions or comments.
Transcribed by Claire Oxlade as part of a volunteer project, March 2015