From Sierra Leone to the Short Stirling: the Story of Johnny Smythe

Johnny Smythe in World War II uniform, standing confidently, wearing a peaked cap with insignia and a military jacket with wings and other badges.

Johnny Smythe in military unform, image courtesy of Eddy Smythe.

Jonny Smythe’s life story has all the makings of a movie script. One of the first black RAF serviceman, he was navigator of a Short Stirling bomber who was shot down and captured in Nazi Germany. Smythe not only survived becoming a POW, but also had an astounding post-war career as the senior officer on the HMT Windrush before retraining as a barrister and setting up his own practice.

In this blog, we delve into the pioneering life of Johnny Smythe.

John Henry Smythe was born in 1915 in Sierra Leone in West Africa.  When he was 25, he responded to a call to the colonies from Britain for recruits.  His high scores in the mathematics tests meant he was selected to train as a navigator following initial training as a pilot.

A smiling Black pilot in World War II era uniform,standing in front of an airplane and holding a cup."

Johnny pictured in front of an aircraft, image courtesy of Eddy Smythe.

Johnny became a navigator with the 623 Squadron and would take to the skies across Britain, France, and Germany. Johnny’s son Eddy recalls his father had ‘a good experience in the RAF.’ He says Johnny was ‘treated very, very well and he was very successful. I think he was one out of four or five men from the training camp that were immediately promoted to an officer.’  When Eddy asked his father how he was treated in the RAF, Johnny always said ‘he didn’t experience any form of racism. He enjoyed his time there.’ Though that wasn’t the experience for many black servicemen at the time.

A group of World War II airmen in uniform, standing in a row in front of a plane. The pilot on the far right is Johnny Smythe

The crew of the 623 Squadron stand in front of a Short Stirling bomber, image courtesy of Eddy Smythe.

The life expectancy of an RAF bomber was very short, and few made the promised 30 missions that would lead to a safer desk job. While he had been hit by enemy fire before, Johnny was on his 27th flight when his luck ran out. On 18 November 1943, he was shot down while on-route to Berlin. The crew had managed to drop their bombs but were hit by anti-aircraft fire damaging the engine. The plane was abandoned in order of rank, and Johnny made a successful parachute jump, landing in some woodland.

Johnny had been hurt by two bits of shrapnel which pierced his abdomen and groin. In pain, he sought shelter in a barn. His lit cigarette gave away his position and he was captured. Johnny was taken away for questioning where he was badly beaten and interrogated. He was transferred to hospital and his wounds treated before he was moved to Frankfurt. He was then sent to prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I. For his first year in the POW camp, he was the only black prisoner. United by their situation, race was no longer an issue. Smythe recalled that unless he looked in the mirror, he no longer remembered he was black. He spent 18 months imprisoned and woke up one morning to find the guards had fled. The war was over. The Soviet army arrived on 30 April 1945 and within weeks Johnny was back in Britain. He received an MBE for his wartime efforts.

World War II prisoner of war identification card featuring a Black man named John Henry Smyth, with his service details and a black-and-white photo.

Johnny Smythe’s prisoner of war identification card, image courtesy of Eddy Smythe.

Many would consider that enough adventure for one lifetime, but that wasn’t the end of Johnny’s outstanding career. Eddy recalls his father was often ‘in the right place at the right time or sometimes the right place at the wrong time. He took advantage of whatever situation he found himself in. He was very intelligent, very articulate, very eloquent, very charismatic, he had the ability to get along with all different types of people.’ After the war he was offered a post with the Colonial Office where he was tasked with caring for demobilised Caribbean and African airman. This could be difficult as many of the young men were experiencing a culture shock after leaving the structure and discipline of the RAF. In 1948, he was a senior officer on the HMT Windrush. The ship was sent to take former personnel back to their homes in the Caribbean. On arrival he realised there were no job opportunities available and recommended to the Colonial Office that the men be allowed to return to the UK. Eddy tells how his father didn’t realise that he was once again making history, ‘That was the start of the Windrush generation, and my father had no idea that this was going to be an important time in history. None whatsoever. When the ship arrived back in Britain, there were crowds waiting outside.’

As part of his role with the Colonial Office, Johnny was required to defend ex-servicemen in court martial situations and his eloquence and ability to carry out research and mount a credible defence would lead to their acquittal. A judge he had appeared in front of a couple of times suggested that he should consider a law career and wrote him a letter of introduction to the Inns of Court. He trained as a barrister and once qualified, he returned to Sierra Leone where he initially worked for the government, becoming Solicitor General and later attorney general. In this capacity he would later meet Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the White House. He subsequently set up his own practice and became a Queens Counsel.

Johnny Smythe in a traditional judicial robe and wig, with military medals pinned to the chest, standing in a formal setting.

Johnny had a successful post-war career in law. Image courtesy of Eddy Smythe.

A final cinematic moment took place at a party at the British Ambassador’s house in Freetown. He had been talking to the German ambassador and revealed the date and place he had been shot down. Turning pale, the ambassador revealed that on that date and time he had shot down a British bomber. Instead of feeling anger at meeting the man who may have shot him down, they embraced each other as survivors.

When Johnny retired, he returned to the UK, settling in Thame in Oxfordshire near his sons. He was reluctant to speak to them about his experiences and threw out his uniform and the logbook he kept in the prisoner-of-war camp when he first returned to Sierra Leone. The injuries he sustained during the war did take their toll and an x-ray he undertook in his 70s revealed he still had shrapnel in his intestine. Johnny Smythe died in 1996 and was buried in Thame.

When asked what the most important takeaway from his father’s life is, Eddy states ‘I think to me, perhaps the most important thing is that, up until 1939 the RAF had a colour bar. So, if you’re black, you weren’t allowed to join because there’s a perception that Africans didn’t have the cognitive ability to be able to fly a sophisticated aircraft. They didn’t have the physical ability and they wouldn’t be able to integrate into a white crew. That was the perception.

Even after the colour bar was lifted, there was this reluctance to recruit black people – they only recruited 60 men from the whole continent of Africa to join. So, there was this young man. He had never left the shores of Sierra Leone and given the opportunity he excelled and proved that it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, it didn’t matter where you came from, if you have the right ability you can succeed. That that’s the most important thing for me.’

About the Author

Jay Sullivan: Digital Marketing Manager

Jay is the Museum’s Digital Marketing Manager. In charge of all things web and social media, she loves to engage audiences through great content and storytelling. Jay’s specialism is the cultural history and literature of the Fin de Siècle, but she is interested in modern history too.