The Second World War,
1939 to 1945 : Recruitment

Grenadian aircrew cadet, J.E.N. Scoon, Westminster, London, 26 March 1942 (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum) With the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, Britain needed manpower and in October 1939 the ‘colour bar’ was again lifted. The RAF began recruiting for aircrew in the Black colonies in November 1940, but despite the formal end of discrimination Black people still found it difficult to enlist. Some therefore travelled at their own expense to join the RAF in Britain while others joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

In 1939, the population of the Caribbean stood at less than three million people. From this, some 6,000 Black Caribbean men volunteered for the RAF, 5,500 as ground staff and over 400 as aircrew. Another 80 women joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The largest Caribbean contingent came from Jamaica, and in February 1945 there were over 3,700 Jamaicans in air force blue. In Africa, the colonial authorities obstructed enlistment and only 60 volunteers were accepted. A further 5,200 entered the West African Air Corps, a local auxiliary force supporting RAF units based in Nigeria, Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and Gambia. A number of Black Britons are also known to have served.

A thousand Caribbean airmen arriving in Britain by troopship, 1944 (Courtesy of IWM)

Once the volunteers arrived in Britain, they found that the RAF took the issue of racism seriously. An Air Ministry Confidential Order of June 1944 stated:

“All ranks should clearly understand that there is no colour bar in the Royal Air Force…any instant of discrimination on grounds of colour by white officers or airmen or any attitude of hostility towards personnel of non-European descent should be immediately and severely checked.

Having abandoned the ‘colour bar’, the RAF was now more advanced regarding race than civilian employers of the day. 

Flying Officer Jellicoe Scoon later flew Spitfires with 41 Squadron and Typhoons with 198 Squadron.

Caribbean airman after being kitted out, RAF Cardington, 27 January 1944 (Courtesy of IWM)Member of the West African Air Corps working on an aero engine, Gambia, circa 1944 (X002-9326)