During the Second World War volunteers from across the British Empire played their part in fighting Germany and its allies. In the air, at sea and on land, they risked their lives, yet very little attention has been given to the thousands of black British, West Indian and West African servicemen and women who took part.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 the colonies rallied enthusiastically to support the mother country. The statistics produced by Stephen Bourne are quite staggering and demonstrate in stark facts the enormous contribution made by the African and West Indian countries of the Empire. For example, thousands of West Indians served in the Merchant Navy and in civilian war work in Britain and approximately 700 British Hondurans worked as lumberjacks in Scotland. However, the most significant contribution was in the RAF.
Nearly 6,000 West Indians served with the RAF: 5,536 as ground staff and 300 as aircrew. Between 1940 and 1942, 3,000 enlisted in the RAF and between June and November 1944 nearly 4,000 ground staff arrived in Britain. A further 1,500 came over in March 1945. Of those serving in the RAF and RCAF 103 were decorated. On a smaller scale West Indian women also played a part. The reluctance of the War Office to recruit black women from the West Indies explains the relatively small number but eighty joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and thirty the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). The total number of Africans who fought for Britain in the Second World War is approximately 372,000.
To exemplify the contribution made by black servicemen and women Stephen Bourne details the lives of particular individuals. Amongst the most notable was Nigeria’s Peter Thomas. Whilst Babatunde O. Alakija was the first African to be selected for training as a pilot with the RAF, it was Peter Thomas who was to be the first African pilot to be commissioned.
Peter, or Deniyi as he was known to his friends, was born in Lagos in 1914. Peter had all the right qualifications for entry into the RAF. He was a long distance runner and had enrolled in the Territorial Battalion of the Nigerian Regiment at the time of his application.
Normally courteous and gentlemanly, he would let himself go at social events such as Mess parties and, having been persuaded to have a few drinks, would demonstrate wild African dances in a “most impressive manner”. He did, however, have a tendency to be involved in mishaps and accidents rather more frequently than one would have expected. It was rumoured that whenever he “bent” an aircraft his father would always foot the bill!
On 12 January 1945, during a routine exercise over the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, 30-year-old Flight Lieutenant Thomas was forced to make a crash landing in the mountains. He did not survive the crash.
In 2002 the best-selling author Ken Follett included a black RAF squadron leader called Charles Ford in his wartime espionage thriller Hornet Flight. Follett says that Ford was inspired by the real life RAF hero Ulric Cross, a Trinidadian who flew eighty sorties over Europe and reached the rank of Squadron Leader. He was awarded the DFC in June 1944 and the DSO in November 1944.
Cross volunteered for the RAF after he witnessed the defeat of the British at Dunkirk. In 1941 he began his training at RAF Cranwell and, after he graduated as a Pilot Officer, Cross was assigned to Bomber Command. He served as a navigator in 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, though he was the only West Indian in the squadron: “I was on Mosquitoes, Pathfinder Force, bombing and target marking pathfinders, and I did almost eighty operations. I was lucky. I crash landed five or six, maybe seven times and the strange thing is that when you’re really young you feel immortal. That may well be a defence mechanism, but you do feel immortal, and you knew that the possibility existed that every time you got up in an aeroplane and flew over Germany you wouldn’t come back. But the young feel they will live forever and I felt I was doing the right thing in trying to stop Hitler.”
The Motherland Calls is an important reminder of Britain’s debt to those countries of the Empire that now form that wonderful institution, the Commonwealth.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.
- 1914: Voices From The Battlefields – Matthew Richardson - February 2, 2014
- Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe – John Buckley - February 2, 2014
- The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen & Women 1939-45 – Stephen Bourne - July 30, 2013