This article is an edited transcript of Pilots of the Caribbean with Peter Devitt available on History Hit TV.
Earlier this year there was a huge public outcry about the treatment of some of the Windrush veterans by the British Government. What’s not often talked about in relation to the Windrush generation is how many of those people who arrived in 1948 had served in the RAF during the Second World War.
Of the 492 passengers that came from the West Indies, about a third were ex-RAF veterans, many of whom were returning to service after serving in World War Two.
The RAF’s role in abolishing the ‘colour bar’
Between 1944 and 1947 there was a battle going on in Whitehall between the RAF, the Army, and the Navy about the re-imposition of the colour bar, which had been lifted in October 1939 to support the expansion of the Air Force, the Army and the Navy, and because there had been so many casualties.
They needed people, so they lifted the colour bar. Prior to that you had to be pure European stock.
After the War, the question of whether the colour bar should be reintroduced in peacetime came up for discussion. Citing reasons of unit cohesion, the Army and the Navy favoured its formal re-imposition, but the RAF dismissed it as unthinkable.
They fought tooth and nail against it and, in 1947, they won.
The following year, they began recruiting in the West Indies again and some of the original West Indian pilots who had served in the war returned to service. People like Sam King, who went on to become the first mayor of Southwark, and Vidal Dezonie, whose son later became a Harrier pilot and a group captain.
They were going back into a service that respected them.
Corporal Baron Baker, a Jamaican who had stayed in Britain after the war having served as an RAF policeman, greeted the Windrush on behalf of the Colonial Office.
Baron Baker found accommodation for those who didn’t have it, making use of air raid shelters in Clapham.
A stone’s throw from there is Brixton, where Windrush arrivals went to find employment with the labour exchanges. That’s why Brixton has long had a large black community, because Baron Baker suggested the Clapham air raid shelters back in 1948.
How London’s best loved party emerged from a time of simmering racial tensions
In 1958, London’s simmering racial tensions boiled over into what became known as the Notting Hill race riots.
Black people had become the targets of racially motivated violence and abuse. Very often the trigger was miscegenation – the notion of a black man having a white girlfriend was apparently too much for some people. The black community also had Oswald Mosley supporters, fascists and Teddy Boys to contend with.
During the riots ex-servicemen were involved in what might be called an effective neighbourhood watch. It worked very well and there was no need for it to be called out again.
At around the same time, Carnival was being started, initially at St Pancras town hall and then, in 1964, Notting Hill, where it went on to become one of London’s most popular annual celebrations. There was a direct RAF involvement by way of Sam King who co-founded the event.
Carnival showed that, despite the tensions, the Caribbean community had a proud and positive attitude to life in Britain. They had been invited to this country, they were British citizens and they were going to stay here as long as they wanted.