Why We Had to Tell the Story of the RAF’s Caribbean Heroes

HistoryHit Podcast with Peter Devitt

4 mins

11 Oct 2018

It all started with a photograph. It was a bleak Tuesday afternoon in February 2011 and I’d been asked to give a presentation to some youngsters who were described as disadvantaged. We weren’t told anything about them but I established that they were black.

When they came in they were a little bit older than I had expected, probably about 19 or 20.

There were 11 of them, a young woman and 10 young men. They took in the museum, had a close look at the aircraft and tried on uniforms.

It was electric. All the pious things we say in museums about access and ownership, they were all suddenly very tangible with this group.

As far as I could tell they had a really good time It was and interactive presentation and they asked plenty of intelligent questions.

I then produced a photograph of two black Spitfire pilots, Collins Joseph, who was from Trinidad and was killed in ’44, and Arthur Weeks, from Barbados, and they went silent. Absolute stony silence.

I thought that I’d lost them. I didn’t know what was going on.

Then, suddenly, the questions came in. I was bombarded with questions. “Who are they?”, “Are they Americans?”, “Are they Red Tails?”

And I said, “No. They were RAFs, with 122 Squadron.”

Luftwaffe ace Hugo Broch takes to the skies in a British Spitfire, 72 years after the end of World War Two. From the programme The Luftwaffe Ace and the Spitfire on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

It was electric. All the pious things we say in museums about access and ownership, they were all suddenly very tangible with this group.

The mood was a curious one. One young man just looked up said, “I thought we just dug trenches and peeled potatoes.”

Another looked me in the eye and he was angry, and said, “Why haven’t I heard this before?”

That was a good question.

It was a very curious thing. One minute they were happy, the next minute silent, and then a truly electric atmosphere filled the room. I didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Two years later we found out they were former gang members and I thought, if it had hit former gang members as hard as that, then surely this story will have an impact on others.

It was decided that we’d put an exhibition on.

Spitfire pilots Arthur Weeks and Collins Joseph.

A universally popular project

We decided we couldn’t attempt to tell this black story alone, so we worked with the Black Cultural Archives and they were very helpful.

We also knew that we didn’t have enough material in our archives to tell the story properly. We have splendid archives, but we knew that we didn’t have enough.

We appealed to the public and got a brilliant response.

A lot of people responded to the fact that there was a national museum that had the humility to ask for help, because we could have gone our own way and got it wrong, but we didn’t.

We asked for help. And we received artefacts, letters, diaries and a lot of guidance and contacts. But the most valuable thing we received was goodwill.

The exhibition was a huge success. It opened on November 1 2013 and, nearly five years later, people are still talking about it. We’ve had so much  goodwill from everyone – black, white and every age group and class. Everyone seemed to want it to succeed.

Important stories

Errol Barrow was a socialist and a radical. He was also the first Prime Minister of an independent Barbados.

He kicked and screamed against colonialism and was a constant thorn in the side to the American State Department. He sent a rocket when Grenada was invaded.

But when he died, Errol Barrow’s headstone read as follows:

“In memory of Flying Officer Errol Walton Barrow, Navigator RAF World War II and Prime Minister of Barbados.”

He had no love for the Empire, but he had a very profound love of the Royal Air Force and what it had done.

There’s something about the RAF. It doesn’t seem to have any negative associations.

It was all put together very quickly in the summer and autumn of 2013. But, even in that short time, we uncovered so many people and stories.

People like Cy Grant, who was a navigator in 103 Squadron. Cy was shot down on his third op and went into Stalag Luft III, the Great Escape camp.

Cy’s insights into the real Great Escape experience, and how they compared to the much-loved Steve McQueen film, were fascinating.

He was able to confirm that the commandant there was indeed a good man, as is shown in the film.

He met him at the gate, and the commandant said, “I’ve heard about you, where are you from?”

Cy told him he was from British Guiana, to which the commandant replied, “Lovely. I’ve been there.”

He then turned to the two guards at his side and said, “You make sure you look after this officer.”

Cy’s insights into the real Great Escape experience, and how they compared to the much-loved Steve McQueen film, were fascinating.

Cy claimed that the only man he had a problem with was a Texan who couldn’t get his head around the fact that there was a black officer.

Overall, he was remarkably positive about his time in the notorious prison camp, telling me that it had been like his university, because he learned so much there.

There were so many very gifted people living together at Stalag Luft III, and they didn’t really have enough to do. So they dedicated themselves to trying to escape and educated themselves.

Stalag Luft III veteran Cy Grant, pictured here on the cover of his album Cool Folk!

Cy Grant’s story is only now being discovered. He’s hugely important, a real unsung hero. He went on to become an actor and singer of some repute and got a blue plaque only last November. He did extraordinary things in the arts and politics in this country.

He was always his own man, which is perhaps why he was never properly recognised. He said what he thought, no matter who it was to.

His pride in the RAF never left him. He was a black power activist and, by his own admission, “a very angry black man in the 1970s”. But he was also a very proud Royal Air Force veteran.