The Royal Air Force Museum highlights the diverse nature of Britain’s flying services over time. We do this because we are entrusted with telling the story of the RAF Family, which has strong and vibrant branches all over the world. We are, moreover, conscious of the need to provide exhibitions and outreach that are inspiring and relevant to all sections of Britain’s cosmopolitan society. What emerges clearly from our work is the success with which the RAF has embraced integration; and how this has enabled it to get the best from its people.
Launched in the spring of 2018, the RAF Museum’s ‘Hidden Heroes’ project has explored and shared inspiring, and little-known, stories with our communities, our business partners and our RAF colleagues. The project has witnessed close co-operation between Museum departments to harness our unique collections; and dynamic partnerships with external organisations and individuals willing to support our fundraising activities.
‘Hidden Heroes’ has been masterminded by Renee Coppinger, the Museum’s Development Manager. Renee hails from New Jersey, and has brought some of her native ingenuity to bear on a project as complex as it is rewarding.
In 2013, the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ programme brought actress Minnie Driver to the RAF Museum to find out about her late father, Ronnie. As Aircraftman 1st Class Charles Ronald Driver, the front gunner of a No. 9 Squadron Wellington bomber, Ronnie displayed outstanding bravery during the disastrous Battle of Heligoland Bight on 18 December 1939. Although Minnie’s father was immediately awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, she knew nothing about this chapter of his life. It was then that the phrase ‘Hidden Heroes’ was coined. Minnie now acts as an ambassador for the RAF Museum, promoting our work and raising awareness of people, like her father, whose stories need to be told.
On 22 March 2018, the Harmony Club of New York City, in cordial partnership with the RAF Museum’s American Foundation, provided the venue for the inauguration of the ‘Hidden Heroes’ project. Joshua Levine is an author and broadcaster, and was a historical adviser on Christopher Nolan’s feature film ‘Dunkirk.’ He is also an RAF Museum ambassador. In New York, Joshua gave an inspiring presentation that described how, during the Second World War, 20,000 Jewish men and women – some six percent of Britain’s Jewish population – joined the RAF to fight against tyranny, racism and anti-Semitism. Joshua showed how these people served shoulder to shoulder with comrades of all faiths in every Branch of the Service, and how they earned a reputation for exceptional courage and devotion to duty.
He also stressed that throughout the war, Jewish airmen and airwomen volunteered for the front line fully aware that they risked torture and execution if captured. Over 900 of their number sacrificed their lives in defence of their families, faith and tradition and for what they believed was right.
Here are some of the ‘Hidden Heroes’ Joshua was pleased to introduce that evening:
Sam and Doris Miara, were a Cardiff couple who responded to Kristallnacht (the pogrom on Germany’s Jewish communities in November 1938) by selling their clothing business and joining the Air Force. In April 1941, Sam, a No. 38 Squadron wireless operator, was killed on board a Wellington in the Middle East. The loving, and sometimes heart-rending, letters the Miara’s exchanged while apart are held in the RAF Museum’s Archive.
Bernard Kreger, was a young Londoner who volunteered for the RAF as soon as he came of age. An Air Ministry clerk misspelled his surname “Kregor”, but so strong was Bernard’s desire to take the fight to the enemy, he cheerfully accepted the new name and used it for the rest of his life. Kregor became a mechanic, but later applied to train as a bomber navigator. When asked by a Wing Commander why he wanted such a dangerous job, he replied ‘Sir, I am a Jew, and my war with the enemy began long before September 1939.’ In 2003, Bernard gave the Museum the Forces Jewish Prayer Book he had carried with him for comfort and guidance throughout the war.
Andrew Mamedoff, a United States citizen of Russian parentage, flew Spitfires with No. 609 Squadron. One of 34 Jewish pilots to serve in the Battle of Britain, he later became a founding member of No. 71 (Eagle) Squadron: the first of three RAF units composed of American volunteers. Lively, witty and brave, Andy Mamedoff was killed on 8 October 1941 when his aircraft crashed on the Isle of Man in poor weather.
After proving to be a skilful pilot in training, Lawrence ‘Benny’ Goodman was retained as an instructor for much of the war. Benny eventually persuaded his commanding officer to release him to a front-line unit; and in August 1944, he was selected to join No. 617 Squadron, the celebrated “Dambusters.” In the last months of the war, he flew Lancasters on daylight missions delivering 12,000lb Tallboy and 22,000lb Grand Slam earthquake bombs. He participated in the raid that finally sank the Tirpitz on 12 November 1944, and attacked Hitler’s mountain residence at Berchtesgaden on 25 April 1945. Benny is a Londoner by birth and is in his centenary year.
Alfred Huberman, who lives close to the RAF Museum, flew as a Lancaster rear gunner with Nos. 576 and 83 Squadrons. Although Alfred completed 38 bombing operations against targets in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, he told his family he was serving with a training unit so they wouldn’t worry. Advised to change the religion stamped on his identity tags before flying over the Reich, Alfred politely refused, saying ‘I’ve lived my life as a Jew and I’ll die as a Jew.’
Joshua’s thought-provoking paper went over exceptionally well with his American audience, who were surprised and delighted by these new stories. On 16 April, he successfully reprised his presentation at the Beverley Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard; again, embracing the heroism, comradeship and success enjoyed by Jewish people in RAF blue. He was joined in Los Angeles by Minnie, who spoke movingly about her father’s battle with PTSD after experiencing the death of his close friend, Walter Lilley, the rear gunner on the ill-fated mission in 1939.
At the start of 2018, the Governor of Gibraltar, His Excellency Ed Davis, and the CO of RAF Gibraltar, Wing Commander John Kane, invited the Museum to mount a ‘Hidden Heroes’ event there to commemorate the Service’s centenary. On 8 May 2018, Wing Commander Sophy Gardner MBE, a retired RAF officer, researching a PhD with the Museum’s support, gave a presentation about the RAF and Gibraltar attended by 90 people. Sophy writes:
‘Anyone who has flown to Gibraltar airport for the first time will have been impressed by the dramatic views of the Rock from the air. I remember the boss of the RAF detachment had obtained an enormous RAF100 banner which he hung close to the border crossing so that it would greet every person who arrived in Gibraltar, on foot, by plane or by car that year! I discovered during my research at the Garrison Library that a Short Type 184 Seaplane made the RAF’s first flight from Gibraltar on 9 May 1918. I gave my talk on the eve of this one-hundred-year anniversary and it felt very special to be able to share that news with our lovely audience.’
Another, perhaps strange, coincidence is that General George Augustus Eliott, who successfully defended Gibraltar during The Great Siege of 1779 to 1783, has a connection with the RAF Museum. It transpires that one of ‘The Cock of the Rock’s’ direct descendants was Air Chief Marshal Sir William Elliot, the head of RAF Fighter Command from 1947-1949. Sir William’s personal Spitfire Mk. XVI, RW393, is currently on display in Hangar 3 at the RAF Museum in London.
Word of ‘Hidden Heroes’ travelled far and wide, and there was a buzz of anticipation when the project at last came home to the RAF Museum on the evening of 15 November 2018. In an enjoyable and well-attended event at our London site, Joshua again gave his inspiring presentation, and again, it was well-received. Five proud Jewish veterans were guests of honour: Lawrence ‘Benny’ Goodman; Alfred Huberman; Bernard Carton, a former Bomber Command flight engineer; Jack Toper, a Bomber Command wireless operator who survived being badly burned and became a plastic surgery ‘Guinea Pig’; and Ralph Levy, who served as a ground engineer during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. These Jewish airmen were warmly applauded by a grateful audience.
Gibraltar has been described as a ‘beacon of tolerance’ and it has a large and long-established Jewish population. A partnership between GIBRAEL, the Gibraltar-Israel Chamber of Commerce, and the RAF Museum, brought ‘Hidden Heroes’ to the territory for a second time on 20 February 2019. Joshua addressed an enthusiastic audience of 75 people which again included His Excellency Ed Davis and Wing Commander John Kane, representatives of Gibraltar’s Jewish community, and several British military personnel. All responded warmly to Joshua’s presentation, which had been refreshed by the inclusion of new stories generated by the Museum’s pro-active PR work and collecting policy. The ‘Hidden Heroes’ project was by now well established and growing in popularity, and in autumn came more exciting news.
On 13 November 2019, it was announced that the Royal Air Force Museum and the Chelsea Foundation would work together in a partnership sponsored by the owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich. This partnership would support the RAF Museum’s development of the Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ project, and would be timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2020. Maggie Appleton MBE, CEO of the Museum said:
‘We are tremendously grateful to Roman Abramovich and Chelsea FC for supporting the RAF Museum’s Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ project. The Battle of Britain was the RAF’s defining moment, when they stood firm against Hitler and fascism. With many Jewish RAF personnel playing crucial roles, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2020 provides the perfect opportunity to remember these incredible people. By highlighting their stories, we want to play our part in calling out the rise in anti-Semitism – and wider racism – in our society.’
Bruce Buck, Chelsea FC’s Chairman said in turn:
‘We are delighted to be able to support the RAF Museum with this project. Chelsea FC is committed to tackling anti-Semitism through education and the Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ [project] tells important stories about the bravery of Jewish RAF personnel during the conflict.’
The partnership was formally launched on 4 December 2019 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea FC’s ground in West London. Before the game that afternoon, Benny Goodman and Bernard Carton were introduced to the appreciative crowd. The Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ project has generated much positive media coverage, with features appearing in the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times of Israel and RAFA’s ‘Air Mail’ magazine.
The RAF Museum and Chelsea Foundation are now inviting people from all over the world to submit their own stories – as well as those of families and friends of Jewish personnel in the Second World War – so that they can be preserved and shared online at the Museum’s public sites. Stage One of the Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ project involves the collation of stories from Jewish personnel within the Museum’s RAF Stories digital site. The project will eventually include: video interviews with Jewish veterans and family members; animated videos of Jewish stories drawn from the Museum’s archives; and screenings of these videos in its galleries.
Let the last words be those of Joshua Levine who has explored and shared what it meant to be Jewish in wartime in New York, Los Angeles, Gibraltar and in London. Joshua concludes:
‘The received wisdom that Jewish people were the victims of the Second World War has eclipsed any evidence that they fought back. But Jews did fight back. Jews, men and women, desperate to hit back at the Nazis, joined the Royal Air Force. This project is hugely important, and as the nephew of a wartime Wellington pilot, I’m exceptionally proud to be involved.’