Airmen and ground crew from the Caribbean

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November 2023

Black people from African and Caribbean communities have been part of British history since long before the first large groups of West Indian migrants began to arrive in 1948. As Black History Month draws to a close and we anticipate Remembrance Day, the archives of International Bomber Command Centre give an insight into black personnel who served with the RAF during WWII.

As many as 6,000 people from the Caribbean, Africa and Britain volunteered to join the RAF: 5,500 as ground staff and over 400 as aircrew. Black personnel served with all UK-based RAF commands except Transport Command, whose personnel visited countries intolerant of integrated crews. Four-fifths of the African-Caribbean aircrew served in Bomber Command. 

The stories of several of these airmen are told in the exhibition galleries of IBCC.

Contingent (Main photo)
Back row: C.P. King, J.S. Partridge, A.A. Walrond, J.L.L. Yearwood, M.R. Cuke, E.W. Barrow; Front row: G.D. Cumberbatch, A.P.C. Dunlop, H.E.S. Worme, G.A. Barrow, A.O. Weekes, B.F.H. Miller.
Killed in action were: Sgt. Charles Parnell King, Sgt. Arthur Adolphus Walrond, Pilot Mark Radford Cuke, Sgt. Grey Doyle Cumberbatch, Flying Officer Andrew P.C. Dunlop and Pilot Officer Bruce F.H. Miller.
Errol W. Barrow, who survived the war, entered politics and eventually became Barbados’ first Prime Minister (1966-1976).

Cyril E L Grant
Cy was in Stalag Luft III and one of his buddies in there was Les Rutherford, who formed a band with him whilst in the camp.  Les has written a book, My War, which covers this subject and is on sale exclusively through the IBCC. Les lived in Lincoln and sadly passed away in November 2019, aged 101. Below is an extract from the book: ‘One of the guitar players was a West Indian called Cy Grant who was to become very famous in the ’50s and ’60s as a folk and calypso singer as well as an actor. He starred in several movies, one alongside Richard Burton. He became the first black person to be featured regularly on television in the UK, mostly due to his appearances on the BBC current affairs show Tonight.’

Billy Strachan
With £2.10 in his pocket and a suitcase containing one change of clothes, Billy Strachan arrived in England on a wet Saturday in March 1940. In 1941 he joined a squadron of Wellington bombers.
When Billy had survived 30 operations, he was entitled to a job on the ground. But when asked what he wanted to do, he replied at once: “Retrain as a pilot!”

In 1942 Billy Strachan became a bomber pilot. Pilot Officer Strachan was famous for his hair-raising but clever way of escaping German fighters. “The trick,” he explained, “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.” Billy Strachan also nearly wiped out Lincoln Cathedral.

John Henry Smythe QC MBE
John Henry Clavell Smythe QC MBE (1915-1996) was born a Sierra Leone Creole into the British Empire and served as a navigation officer in the Royal Air Force. He was shot down over Nazi Germany and spent two years as a prisoner of war. After liberation and return to Britain, he was a huge role model to those at the beginning of the Windrush Generation. He retrained as a lawyer, returned to his birthplace, and served as Attorney General of Sierra Leone.

Akin Shenbanjo DFC
Flying Officer Akin Shenbanjo served as a wireless operator/air gunner with 76 Squadron. In December 1944, the Nigerian was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Shenbanjo is pictured with his crewmates who named their Halifax bomber “Achtung! The Black Prince” in his honour.

Akin’s story features on the immersive displays in the IBCC’s exhibition. The young man who plays him is a Pilot Officer Cadet from the Nigerian Air Force. He was visiting the Centre along with RAF College Cranwell Cadets, for their ethics training, the day before auditions closed, and we had to seek permission from the Nigerian Government to allow him to take the part.

IBCC Annual Service of Remembrance: Sunday 12th November, 10.30am

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Calling all UK young artists!Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition Doddington Hall and Gardens, Lincolnshire invites submissions from UK-based sculptors and 3D artists, aged under 30, for an exciting new open exhibition to be held this summer. Doddington is looking for pieces to be exhibited in the historic working Kitchen Garden, which complement the Garden and its surroundings. The Doddington Young Sculptor Exhibition will run alongside the main bi-annual Sculpture at Doddington exhibition and is an opportunity to exhibit alongside some of the finest contemporary sculptors selected from across the country and further afield. Prizes: 1st prize – £750, 2nd prize – £250Submission deadline: Sunday April 21st 2024Further details about eligibility, terms and conditions can be found at: apply, please email your submission as a PDF document to ... See MoreSee Less