The Second World War,
1939 to 1945 : The Record
It is hard to tell exactly how many Black personnel served in the RAF and in which units. This is because the volunteers were fully integrated into the Service and their ethnic origin was not entered on their personal records. For this reason their contribution cannot meaningfully be separated from that of their white comrades. Nevertheless, official records show that together the Black volunteers constituted a valuable asset to the RAF and that they played a full part in defeating Hitler’s Germany.
Black aircrew veterans have referred to a lack of prejudice in the RAF and emphasise the Service’s genuinely meritocratic nature. Jamaican bomber pilot Flight Lieutenant Billy Strachan recalled:
“If by any reasonable calculation, one might have expected me to have suffered, if not discrimination, at least a constant barrage of racist jokes; I can confirm that this did not happen.”
Black aircrew were drawn from the best and the brightest of the African and Caribbean colonies and they were trained to uphold the high standards of the RAF. Indeed, most of the 100 volunteers commissioned as officers, and the 103 decorated for gallantry or exceptional service, were aircrew. More than 400 volunteers flew with Bomber, Fighter, Coastal and Flying Training Commands and over 150 of these men were killed.
While the aircrew tended to mix with white people less likely to hold or express racist views, this was not always the case for those who served on the ground. And although the rules regarding racism were clear, a minority of white ground staff continued to discriminate when they could get away with it. As a result, a number of Black volunteers suffered verbal and even physical abuse while others were unfairly passed over for promotion. Some of the volunteers responded by taking the law into their own hands and fights were not uncommon.
Despite the misbehaviour of a few, Black and white personnel got on well for the most part and the integration of the volunteers into the Service must be adjudged a success. This reflects well on the volunteers, on their white comrades and on the RAF itself.