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A graphic composite image showing a WWII RAF plane and a map of the Caribbean

Pilots of the Caribbean: The most influential Black RAF pilots from WWII


In this guest article, Tony Warner, the founder of Black History Walks and author of Black History Walks Volume 1, explores the Caribbean RAF pilots who helped to secure victory in World War II.

While the importance of the RAF in World War II is well known, the importance of Black aircrew in that war has been consistently overlooked. In particular, there are hardly any films about their heroic exploits. With the 78th anniversary of D-Day in June coinciding with 75 years since Windrush arrived, here are a few that deserve cinematic treatment.

Squadron Leader Ulric Cross (Trinidad)

Ulric Cross was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1944 for his bravery during WWII. While serving as a Pilot Officer with Jamaica Squadron, he flew over 80 bombing missions across Nazi-occupied Europe. He was the highest-ranking and the most decorated Black man in the RAF at the time. He later became a barrister, then a judge and spent 15 years in Africa practicing Pan-Africanism.

In 2018, Trinidadian-Canadian Frances Anne Solomon made a movie about his life, Hero, starring Nicholas Salcedo. The film had a very successful UK tour using grassroots organisers.

Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant (Guyana)

Cy Grant was a navigator on Lancaster bombers. He was shot down over Holland and was a prisoner of war for two years. He became the first Black person to sing the news on BBC in 1957 and was a lawyer, actor and author. Despite being a qualified barrister, he found it very hard to get work and was forced into acting to make a living. He co-starred alongside Roger Moore, Joan Collins and Richard Burton to name a few.

He wrote several books and his wartime experiences feature in A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race. He set up the Drum Arts Centre in Birmingham and used the arts to fight racism. He also established the Caribbean Aircrew website to record and promote the actions of overlooked Black airmen.

Despite his on-screen career, there is no drama or documentary about his life. There is a Nubian Jak blue plaque in his honour on his home at 54 Jacksons Lane Highgate, North London N6.

Flight Lieutenant John Henry Smythe MBE (Sierra Leone)

John Henry Smythe was shot down on his 28th bombing raid over Germany. He survived shrapnel wounds in the stomach and groin, escaping from a burning smoke-filled aircraft, a 3000-foot parachute jump and then capture and torture by the Germans. He spent two years in a prisoner of war camp where he was on the Escape Committee planning escapes for the other inmates. He himself never even tried to escape as he stated, 'I don’t think a six-foot-five Black man would’ve got very far in Pomerania [rural Germany], somehow.'

Smythe was also on the Windrush 1948 voyage and was responsible for the selection of some of the Jamaican passengers. He later became a lawyer and Kings Counsel then returned to Sierra Leone and was appointed the Attorney General in 1961 by the newly independent nation. This is the short version of his story!

Flight Lieutenant Dudley Thompson (Jamaica)

After Dudley Thompson's wartime service in the Royal Air Force, he studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He became a barrister and later defended Jomo Kenyatta, a freedom fighter imprisoned by the British who later went on to lead Kenya to independence.

He returned to Jamaica in 1955 and entered politics. He was; Jamaican Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for National Security and also Natural Resources, Jamaican Ambassador to Nigeria and Ghana. He was awarded Legend of Africa by Organisation for African Unity and also served as President of the World African Diaspora Union.

Flight Lieutenant Errol Barrow (Barbados)

Errol Barrow flew 45 missions over Germany in Mosquitos then studied law at the LSE before returning to Barbados and leading the country to independence in 1966. As Prime Minister, he instituted free healthcare and free education. He is a national hero to this day.

Flight Lieutenant Edward Scobie (Dominica)

Edward Scobie (PhD) of Dominica piloted bombers during the war and then wrote the ground-breaking book Black Britannia: A history of Blacks in Britain. The book uncovered a vast amount of little-known history from the 1600s to the 20th century. Barely known, even now, it was explosive at the time.

Scobie was an expert on the Black presence in Western Europe and exposed the Black history of Queen Charlotte Sophia and the influence of the Moors in Spain. Scobie was a correspondent for the American Jet and Ebony magazines. He was also a publisher himself and focused on Black-British civil rights. He specifically tried to unite the black community via the print media. He later became a Professor at Rutgers and New York City University where he taught Black Studies.

Flying Officer Arthur Wint (Jamaica)

'RAF Pilot. Doctor & Diplomat. Gold Medal Olympian.' The brief description on Arthur Wint's Nubian Jak plaque sounds like a pitch for a film. Wint studied medicine after his wartime service where he flew Spitfires. Both of his brothers flew in Bomber Command.

In 1948, while studying, he won an Olympic gold medal in the 400m race. It was Jamaica’s first ever gold medal. After decades as a doctor in Jamaica, he was appointed High Commissioner to Great Britain.