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A diverse RAF – part II

Emmett Sullivan and Peter Devitt continue their discussion on the RAF's policy towards recruits from the Empire and the New Commonwealth.
PETER DEVITT: One of the things that these young men, and young women had not seen anything like this. They did not know there were 6,000 volunteers that served in the RAF. They didn’t know that there were around 450, maybe more, aircrew, of whom 150 were killed. That’s 30% of the best and the brightest, the leaders of the future, killed from the Caribbean, and to some extent, from Africa. The survivors, they also were unaware, had gone home and they’d done things. I was talking there a moment ago about people becoming teachers, becoming lawyers, people getting into politics, becoming active in the anti-colonial movement.
People like Dudley Thompson, who arranged the first Pan-African conference in Manchester in 1945 in his Flight Lieutenant in his uniform. He saw no problem with that. He was proud to be an officer of the RAF, he was proud to have played a very active part in defeating Nazis, and he was sure as hell going to have an independent Jamaica.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now I’m going to mention this a little bit later in the course, but the Attlee government in 1948 gives British citizenship to 800 million people within the Empire/Commonwealth. Was the RAF very active in trying to encourage New Commonwealth migrants, or those who are now British citizens to join the service?
PETER DEVITT: It must be understood in the context of the time. There was a colour bar before the First World War. People had to be of pure European descent to go into the armed forces. This was relaxed as the forces expanded and casualties rose. It was quietly reimposed after the war. They didn’t want black people. 1939, again, there was a need for a mass air force, and in October 1939, the colour bar is dropped. Active recruiting begins in November 1940 after the casualties in the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain. A lot of bomber aircrew were killed in this period. The debate goes on. Should it be reimposed, the colour bar, after the war? This goes on from 1944.
The Army and the Navy were in favour of this, they were happy with a homogeneous force. The RAF said it was unthinkable. There had been some disciplinary problems. Some people who had been considered– who were not amenable to discipline. The Air Force said, they can always be excluded when we’re actually recruiting. So it was not reimposed. Again, it sounds shocking to us now that you would actually think that, but we’ve come really, really far in a very short period of time. In my lifetime, people were hanged, abortion was illegal, and homosexuality was illegal in my lifetime. So we’ve come a great deal. 1948, because there’s a labour shortage here, and there’s a need also to staff a large global system.
With the Cold War beginning to crystallise, shall we say, there is now active recruiting for West Indians. The Empire Windrush ties up at Tilbury on the 21st of June 1948. It is seen as the harbinger of widespread black immigration in this country. What is often forgotten is, a third of the 492 people on board were ex RAF going back into the service. They went down the gangplank, back into a service that respected them and needed them. And they emerged a few years later as real community leaders. People like Sam King, who organised the partner scheme, whereby black families could buy houses.
Another person who’s one of the quieter, and I think one of the more impressive people, is a chap called Baron Baker. Baron Baker was an RAF policeman during the Second World War. He stayed here. He said when there was an attempt to repatriate him he said, I’m not going, I’m British. Do you want to make a case of it? So he left here. He was employed by the Colonial Office to meet the Windrush. He arranged for accommodation at Clapham, there were disused air raid shelters there. For those who couldn’t find accommodation, they went in there. The nearest labour exchange was Brixton, which is why there was a black British community in Brixton. Baron Baker, he took the RAF very seriously.
He learned a lot from it. Just as Sam King. Sam King, who opened the exhibition, said to us when he was asked, did you learn anything from the RAF? He said he learned two things. I learned the importance of honesty, and the importance of discipline. He also said I can fix any late Mark Spitfire. But Baron Baker, when we talk about the 1958 race riots, they are really pogroms, that community wasn’t defended by the police. Now in those days, police wasn’t necessarily Babylon. We’ve learned from people very often policemen were sympathetic, and they would escort people home to make sure they were safe. But they were targeted by Mosleyites, young Teddy Boys, a young Carribean guy was stabbed to death.
Had a white girlfriend which is often– miscegenation was the spark. He went to the police and said, what can we do? They said, there’s nothing we can do about this, Notting Hill. We suggest that you are in by six, and you lock your doors. That’s was a curfew. Baron Baker’s an ex policeman himself, and so an effective neighbourhood watch was arranged. It was organised, with military precision, of Army, Navy, and above all, RAF veterans defending that community. Shortly after, you get Carnival. Sam King is also involved in Carnival, which is showing that there is a gentler, warmer side, that isn’t about tension and problems necessarily. And the British people have been invited there from the Caribbean.
They are British, and they will stay there as long as they choose to stay there.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much for that, Peter. When I lecture on this to my own students I make the point that London Transport actually had recruiting offices in Barbados, and I think in Jamaica as well.
PETER DEVITT: And in Dublin where my father came in after being in the British Army.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: That’s right. So this side, we actually have a very positive and welcoming environment in certain circumstances. And the post-second world war boom leads into this. As you said, the labour shortage, the works through. It’s only 1962 we start getting a turning back on this. But you were talking about a welcoming force.
PETER DEVITT: I would say one other thing. In the Royal Air Force, there were very strict rules on racial discrimination, harassment, and abuse that were not seen in the workplace until the 1970s.
DR EMMETT SULLIVAN: Understood. That’s great. Peter, thank you very much for your time. Thank you for filling us in, in something that many people may not have been aware of. Hopefully that gives you some pause for thought for what the nature of the RAF was coming out of the Second World War and going into the Cold War period.

An air force of the Empire.

In this video Peter and I continue our discussions following questions, which we gave in the previous video step:

  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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