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During the course of WW2, countries from across the globe sent pilots to fly for the RAF. Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, South Africa and Australia to name but a few all sent over recruits to fly in the light blue uniform. Often forgotten and overlooked are the contributions of black and Asian airmen and women in the war.
During the First World War, black soldiers like Walter Tull had broken a colour bar that the British armed forces had in place that prevented anyone who didn’t come from ‘pure European descent’ from becoming officers. Other trailblazers from the Great War included Jamaican born Robbie Clarke who became the first black pilot to fly for Britain and Indra Lal Roy who was the first Indian fighter aircraft pilot, serving for the Royal Flying Corps as well as its successor the RAF.
However, little changed over the course of the next two decades and it wasn’t until just weeks after Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939, that the colour bar was finally lifted once and for all. The armed forces needed as many men as possible and whilst the Army and Navy were slow to welcome black servicemen into their ranks, the RAF quickly went on a recruiting drive.
John Jellicoe Blair
Soon, the RAF welcomed and trained nearly 500 black Caribbean aircrew into its ranks, along with around 6,000 Caribbean ground crew. They trained as pilots, navigators, air-gunners, flight engineers as well as wireless operators and all of them had joined voluntarily. John Jellicoe Blair was one such recruit.
Originally from St Elizabeth, Jamaica, Blair joined the RAF in 1941 and became a navigator in Halifax Bombers flying from Yorkshire. Under the most intense pressure and conditions, the navigators had to make critical calculations by hand using maps, rulers and compasses to ensure the aircraft remained on track.
Talking to HISTORY, Blair’s s great-nephew Mark Johnson described how John had an added pressure on top of all of that, ‘My great-uncle flew 33 operational missions over Europe during the war and each time he climbed in that aircraft he knew that if they went down, whereas his white crewmates would most likely be taken to a prisoner of war camp, he would be shot on the spot. A black man landing in those circumstances had almost no chance of survival.’
Unlike the USA at the time who had segregated black units like the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the RAF had fully integrated aircrew in their planes. ‘Everyone was mixed in together, ‘Mark remarks. ‘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.’
However, for Blair and many others from the Caribbean, King and Country was not their sole motivation for joining the ranks of the RAF. ‘He made one thing clear,’ Mark says of his great-uncle, ‘if Britain lost the war we would return to slavery. While we didn’t like the British Empire, we certainly didn’t want the Nazi Party coming down and running Jamaica for us.'
Blair survived the war and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945. He would stay in the RAF until his retirement in 1965.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Billy Strachan made his own way across U-boat infested waters to sign up for the RAF. Although the RAF wanted new recruits, it often took many volunteers a number of attempts to finally be accepted.
On his first try, the recruiting officer bluntly told Strachan that he wasn’t welcome. Undeterred, Strachan eventually found his way into the RAF and trained as a wireless operator and air gunner, joining a bomber squadron tasked with making nightly raids over heavily defended German cities.
After just seven hours of training, the fast-learning Strachan was allowed to fly solo
He flew 30 raids over Europe; a remarkable achievement considering the average for a bomber crew was around seven. Upon completing his 30th mission, he became entitled to a desk job, one that he refused, instead requesting to be trained as a bomber pilot.
After just seven hours of training, the fast-learning Strachan was allowed to fly solo and became known for his daredevil antics. ‘The trick was to wait until the enemy was right on your tail and, at the last minute, cut the engine, sending your lumbering Lancaster into a plunging dive, letting the fighter overshoot harmlessly above,’ Strachan once recalled.
Promoted twice, Strachan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant. Although he was respected for his achievements, Strachan acknowledged the prevalent racism of those times. ‘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’.
Ulric Cross is often recognised as the most decorated Caribbean airman of WW2. Born in Trinidad in 1917, Cross joined the RAF aged 24 in 1941. He trained as a navigator and joined 139 Squadron, gaining the nickname ‘The Black Hornet’.
Cross became an expert in precision bombing and joined the ranks of the elite Pathfinder Force, often flying missions at just 50 feet instead of the normal 25,000 feet. After 50 missions, Cross was given the option to rest, he refused and volunteered for a further 30 missions. By the end of the war, Cross had flown 80 missions over Germany and occupied Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1945. The awards recognised his ‘fine example of keenness and devotion to duty’ and ‘exceptional navigational ability’.
After the war Cross studied law and went on to have a distinguished legal career in his home country.
Lilian Bader was one of a hundred female volunteers from the Caribbean to join the British armed forces. Bader’s route into the RAF, however, had not been easy.
Born in Liverpool to a British mother and Barbadian father, she was orphaned at a young age and raised in a convent. Racism made it hard for her to find a job and even after she joined the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) at the onset of WW2, she was dismissed just seven weeks later after her father’s heritage was discovered.
Eventually, Bader became one of the first black women in the RAF after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941. She was trained in instrument repair, working on Airspeed Oxford light bombers and was promoted up to the rank of Corporal.
Following the war, Bader raised a family and began a new career as a teacher.
Mohinder Singh Pujji
Few people know about the remarkable contribution and sacrifice of Indian pilots who flew for the RAF during WWII. One of the most distinguished of those was Mohinder Singh Pujji, who was one of the few Indian pilots to fly in all three major theatres of the war. In late 1940, Pujji was amongst the first 24 volunteers from the Royal Indian Air Force to attend RAF training school. He would progress onto advanced fighter pilot training before receiving his wings in April 1941.
Flying mainly Hurricanes, Pujji began active duty in June of the same year. During his RAF service, he escorted bomber offences over occupied France as well as many patrols and operations in defence of Britain. He scored two kills, damaged three enemy fighters and was himself downed twice – once over the English Channel and once in the Middle East.
He survived the war and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with the citation highlighting Pujji’s ‘outstanding leadership and courage’.
Treated as a hero in wartime Britain, the contribution of Pujji and his countrymen was appallingly forgotten for a long time after the war. In 2014, a statue was erected of Pujji in Gravesend, Kent, after the local community raised 70,000 for its construction to raise awareness of all those ‘from around the world who served alongside Britain in all conflicts 1914-2014.’
Although thousands from West Africa volunteered, Johnny Smythe would become one of only a few that successfully made it into RAF aircrew during the war. Born in Sierra Leone, at the time a British colony, Smythe’s mathematical talents made him the perfect fit to be trained as a navigator.
He successfully navigated 26 bombing missions over Germany before being shot down on his 27th mission.
Smythe managed to parachute safely to the ground and quickly hid in a nearby barn. 'Men in uniform came into the barn where I was hiding behind some straw,’ Smythe would later recount. ‘Then they opened up, raking the place with automatic fire. I decided to give in. The Germans couldn't believe their eyes. I'm sure that's what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man – and an officer at that – was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing.’
Smythe spent the next two years of the war in the notorious Stalag Luft I, a prison camp for Allied airmen captured by the Germans, before finally being freed by the Russians in 1945. Smythe would go on to make history in 1948, serving as the senior officer aboard the Windrush.