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A diverse RAF – introduction

Peter Devitt and Emmett Sullivan discuss the RAF's policy towards recruits from the Empire and the New Commonwealth.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now, this week we’ve talked very much about the global role of the RAF, but let’s put this into another context. The RAF itself is not a unitary force, so to speak. And I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to welcome Peter Devitt to join us from the RAF Museum at Hendon. And, Peter, you curated the Pilots of the Caribbean exhibition that took place at RAF Cosford earlier this year.
PETER DEVITT: It opened here, and has moved to Cosford. There’s an online version. It was curated in partnership with Black Cultural Archives. Very different organisation to us, very different dynamic. They produce things that we couldn’t do, we produce things they couldn’t do, and together, we produce something unique. And it’s been very, very successful.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: I’m going to come back to that in a second, but if we’re talking about the RAF itself after the Second World War, the popular image of the RAF is of quite a homogeneous force that is coming from a common ethnicity. How false an impression is that?
PETER DEVITT: Well, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. During the Second World War, there were over a million people serving in the RAF. And you would have seen, with largely a white organisation, largely male. But it is very exciting times at the Royal Air Force Museum, because we’re finding other stories. So, for example, in February 1945, towards the end of the war, we know that there are nearly 30,000 exiles from occupied Europe. Czechoslovaks and Poles, free French, Norwegians, people who, from very different cultures, very different languages, coming over here being integrated exceptionally well in the RAF. Which becomes a very diverse, very successful, very effective force.
We’ve also learned that the Royal Air Force itself was surprisingly progressive in the way it went about this. And an easy way to see how people reacted is, what they did after the service. You’ll find the loyalty that people showed to the RAF often quite surprising. We’re also, of course, looking at over 180,000 women serving. And we’re also, we are aware now of some of the stories, though they’re harder to tease out, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. We are now seeing that the Air Force, while it was illegal to do that, it was a serious offence, it could turn a blind eye. So it’s quite a surprising thing we’ve learned.
One of the most surprising things, was that the number of people, black people, from the Caribbean, from Africa, who served in the RAF in the Second World War, who remained fiercely loyal to the RAF while systematically dismantling the British Empire. They were committed to independence, and they played very active roles in the anti-colonial movement. Taking, for example, Michael Manley, who was, at one point, a radical prime minister of Jamaica, Royal Canadian Air Force, didn’t see action, was spitting nails as a result. Ulric Cross, people who became judges, became educators.
The most, I suppose the most surprising example, is looking at the career off Errol Barrow, who was a navigator, Bomber Command, a very good navigator, who was a thorn in the side of the State Department. He was a socialist, he was a radical, he kicked and screamed against American influence in the Caribbean. The American invasion of Grenada he protested very forcefully against that. When he died, his headstone read as follows, in memory of Flying Officer Errol Walton Barrow. Navigator Royal Air Force Second World War, and prime minister of Barbados. We’re seeing this, there was an attachment to the RAF when there wasn’t necessarily an attachment to British colonial imperial rule.
Seeing that also with southern Irish people who would come, people like my grandfather, who would come and volunteer to fight in the RAF and be very proud to do that. Not for king and country necessary, but because Britain was the only country that was doing the right thing.
INTERVIEWER: I understand the perspective. Thank you very much for that. Now, we’re standing in front of the Spitfire Mark VB, and it plays a role, to a certain degree, in the development of the Pilots of the Caribbean exhibition. Would you like to tell us about the impetus behind that?
PETER DEVITT: It was an extraordinary moment. It sounds like it was scripted but it actually happened. It was in February, 2011 and we were told, I was told on Friday afternoon, you will be doing a talk on diversity and the Air Force Tuesday. We couldn’t find anything out about the people we were supposed to be talking to. We were told they were disadvantaged youngsters. I asked if they were black, they said yes. That’s all we knew. And a group of 10 young men, young woman, came and had a day at the museum. They got close to the aircraft, they tried on uniforms, and had a good time.
We were standing in front of the Mark V, and I produced a photograph of two Caribbean Spitfire pilots, Arthur Weeks of Barbados and Collins Joseph of Trinidad, who, alas, was killed 1944. And they’d been a very lively, and good natured group. And it suddenly went deathly quiet. And then I was bombarded with questions. They wanted to know everything. Were they Americans? Were they Red Tails? Can you fly a Spitfire? Are they segregated? No. One young man said, I thought we just dug trenches and peeled potatoes. Another looked me straight in the eye, and with this curious expression on his face, which I can only say, had anger in it, why have I not heard of this before?
I was told that some of the young men become emotional. We showed them other photographs as well of bomber crews. They hadn’t realised that the first black pilot we are aware of served in 1917, William Robinson Clarke from Kingston, Jamaica. Flew RE8s, was wounded over the Western front, survived, went home, didn’t seem to talk about it. I spoke to a Jamaican pilot this morning who’d never heard of him. So that’s one of those things– he was fascinated by that. They were unaware that 6,000 volunteers had come from the Caribbean. Only 60 from Africa, because the colonial governments did not want people to come to England and return radicalised.
There was a future for Africa as the British saw it, and they didn’t want any kind of contamination. They were absolutely right, because that’s exactly what happened. As soon as black people came to this country they got talking to each other. There was that strong shot in the arm to Pan-Africanism. You see that in the postwar period.

An air force of the Empire.

In this video Peter and I considered the following questions:

  1. The popular image of the RAF is of a (broadly) homogeneous service. How false is that impression?

  2. What was the impetus behind the ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition?

  3. Was there a conscious decision in the Cold War era to encourage New Commonwealth migrants to Britain to join the RAF?

We would welcome your comments on these and other points.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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