Thousands of British West Indians served in the British armed forces during World War II. When Britain declared war on September 19, 1939, the Royal Air Force (RAF) itself was compelled to overcome the prejudices of the time. After the defeat of France in 1940 and the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, Britain found itself in dire straits. With advocacy by progressive Britons and British West Indians who spoke out against segregation, the RAF, to its credit, integrated its ranks. Around 7,000 British West Indians rallied to freedom’s cause and served as fighter pilots, bomb aimers, air gunners, ground staff and administration. No other colonies, or group of nations, contributed more airmen to the RAF during World War II. This is even more remarkable, and their commitment more profound, given the small populations of the islands. Several Africans from Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone also became officers in the RAF, with the most notable being RAF Flight Lieutenant Johnny Smythe of Sierra Leone, who was shot down over Germany on his 28th mission and survived imprisonment in the famous Stalag Luft One.
The British West Indian Airmen, like their Tuskegee Airmen allies who served in the US Army Air Corps, came from societies that had once set severe limits on the liberty of those of African descent. After the war, both the Tuskegee Airmen and the British West Indian veterans — in particular those from the RAF — became leaders for beneficial social change for their countries. Their successes spurred the cause of self-determination in the British West Indies, and assisted the independence of Africa. RAF Pilot Officer Errol Barrow led his island of Barbados into independence. Flight Lieutenant Dudley Thompson became Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs after successfully defending Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta during that country’s independence struggle. Thompson also assisted the formation of Tanzania’s Independence Party led by Julius Nyerere. Pilot Officer Milton Cato became the Premier of St. Vincent. RAF Squadron Leader Phillip Louis Ulric Cross, DSO, DFC of Trinidad & Tobago became a judge in Ghana, a special emissary of Kwame Nkrumah’s government to Congo’s new President Patrice Lumumba, and Attorney General of Cameroon. He finally retired as a judge from his nation’s highest court.
And RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant of Guyana, an internationally known thinker, writer and entertainer, became the first person of African descent to have his own show on BBC television. Grant’s legacy was the creation of caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com, along with webmaster Hans Luutwik, the son of the Dutch farmer who assisted him after his Lancaster Bomber was shot down over Holland. His capture in 1943 in the uniform of the RAF caused consternation, as his presence contradicted the Nazi philosophy that persons of African origin were subhuman and incapable of handling aircraft. Grant’s photograph was shown on the front cover July 1943 issue of the Nazi party’s national newspaper, Volkischer Beobatcher, with the caption “We have captured an officer of the Royal Air Force of unknown race.”
By overcoming barriers erected by man’s inhumanity to man, these veterans — like the Tuskegee Airmen — ushered in a new and better world. Their sacrifices opened the way for others to rise. And so, today, we celebrate those who, by taking flight in freedom’s cause, allow humanity the opportunity to pay tribute to the Second Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
This historical rendition, in salute of the Tuskegee Airmen and their allied British West Indian flyers that volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force in World War II, was brought to you with the compliments of the West Indian American Military Members Association of Andrews Air Force Base.