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John Henry Clavell Smythe in his RAF uniform

10 black British war heroes from WWI and WWII

Johnny Smythe was one of only a few West African volunteers that made it into RAF crews during WWII | Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

All too often, history books have overlooked the contributions of black and ethnic minority individuals to the British war effort. Times are thankfully changing, and in the 21st century, more measures are being taken to shine a light on the heroic actions of thousands of selfless individuals.

We celebrate the lives of ten black British war heroes who courageously served their country during either the First or Second World War.

Walter Tull (1888 – 1918)

Not only was Walter Tull the first professional Black outfield footballer in Britain, but he was also the first known Black officer in the British army. Tull enlisted at the start of WWI and soon demonstrated exceptional leadership skills, bravery, and calmness under pressure.

Breaking the colour bar that prevented anyone who wasn’t of ‘pure European descent’ from becoming an officer, Tull earned his commission in 1917 and led white soldiers into battle for the first time in the history of the British army. Walter died on the frontline in 1918, serving his country.

Lionel Turpin (1896 – 1929)

Born in British Guiana (modern-day Guyana), Lionel Turpin typified the story of many black colonials who fought for king and country during WWI. Turpin found his way to English shores as a merchant seaman and when Britain and Germany went to war in 1914, he loyally wished to serve his new homeland.

Turpin enlisted in 1915 at the age of 19 and was sent out with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front the following year. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, for which he’d receive two medals and lifelong wounds, including gas-burnt lungs. He died in 1929 from his war injuries.

Audrey Jeffers (1898 – 1968)

Born in Trinidad, Audrey Jeffers came to Britain in 1914 at age 15. She began studying social science at a north London college where she co-founded the Union of Students of African Descent. At the outbreak of the Great War, she began working among West African troops and set up a West African Soldiers’ fund. The fund aimed to raise money via contributions from fellow West Indians in London. A highway in Trinidad and Tobago is named in her honour.

Robbie Clarke (1895 – 1981)

Jamaican-born Robbie Clarke self-funded his way to Britain at the outbreak of war in 1914, when he was just 19. A year later he found himself in the Royal Flying Corps serving initially as a mechanic. However, Clarke was a trailblazer destined to write his name into the history books. He gained his wings in 1917, becoming the first black pilot to fly for Britain. Posted to No. 4 Squadron RFC, he flew biplanes over the Western Front.

During a reconnaissance mission over enemy lines near Ypres, Belgium, he came under enemy fire. Although seriously wounded he managed to crash land the plane back over British lines. His injuries ended his flying career but he saw the war out as a mechanic and received the Silver War Badge after being honourably discharged in 1919.

Lilian Bader (1918 – 2015)

Lilian Bader was one of a hundred female volunteers from the Caribbean to join the British Armed Forces. 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 but 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.

Johnny Smythe (1915 – 1996)

Although thousands from West Africa volunteered, Johnny Smythe was one of only a few that successfully made it into RAF aircrew during the Second World 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 spent the next two years of the war in the notorious Stalag Luft I before finally being freed by the Russians in 1945. Smythe went on to make history in 1948, serving as the senior officer aboard the Windrush.

Connie Mark (1923 – 2007)

Connie Mark is often listed among the most influential black British women in history. Born Constance Winifred McDonald in Jamaica in 1923, Mark was only 16 when WWII broke out. In 1943. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) Service – the women’s branch of the British army at that time - as a medical secretary in Jamaica, tasked with documenting injuries sustained by soldiers.

Within the space of a year, Mark was promoted twice although no pay rise accompanied the promotions. After the war, she was denied a British Empire Medal and she believed the snub, as well as the lack of a pay rise, was due to racism.

After the war, she moved to Britain where she campaigned for the recognition of black service personnel during WWII, especially black women. She also played a pivotal role in bringing the story of Mary Seacole - the Jamaican-born British nurse who worked behind the lines during the Crimean War - to the public’s attention.

Billy Strachan (1921 – 1998)

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Billy Strachan made his way across U-boat-infested waters to sign up for the RAF. Trained as a wireless operator and air gunner, Strachan joined a bomber squadron tasked with making nightly raids over heavily defended German cities.

Strachan flew 30 raids over Europe; a remarkable achievement considering the average for a bomber crew was around seven. Upon completing his 30th mission, he was 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. Promoted twice, Strachan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant.

Ulric Cross (1917 – 2013)

Ulric Cross is often recognised as the most decorated Caribbean airman of WWII. Born in Trinidad in 1917, Cross joined the RAF aged 24. 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 war’s end, Cross had flown 80 missions over enemy territory and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

Princess Ademola (1916 – death unknown)

Princess Ademola was the daughter of a king in the southern region of Nigeria and first came to Britain in 1935 at the age of 22. She trained as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in London, becoming a qualified registered nurse in 1941.

During WWII, Princess Ademola served in hospitals across London and was even the focal point of a war movie. Titled Nurse Ademola, the silent movie was a part of a series called The British Empire at War, films that showcased the wartime efforts of people across the British Empire. Her film screened across West Africa and was said to have been so inspirational that it inspired many African viewers to help.

For more articles about black history, check out Sky HISTORY's Black History Month hub.