Race Matters

The World Wars forgotten Black Fighters

Best selling author Ken Follett’s spat with a white former Rhodesian Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who accused the writer of political correctness for basing a character in one of his novels on a black war hero exposed an uncomfortable truth. Few white people know that tens of thousands of African and Caribbean volunteers fought for Britain in the Second World War. Among them was Ulric Cross, a highly skilled RAF navigator - who bombed the Germans 20 times during war - whose character in Follett’s book is called Charles Ford. Cross survived 80 sorties over Germany, landing seven times minus wheels, in a wooden, twin-engine Mosquito aircraft.

It is because of the gross historical omission of the black contribution, and in memory of my Jamaican late father who was a wartime member of the RAF, that I decided to make the documentary film, Divided by race, united in war and peace, which was generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The film focuses on race relations in Britain during and after the Second World War. At its core are the testimonies of 14 surviving veterans, Black and White, particularly those Caribbean and African young men and women who volunteered to join the war effort. These veterans paint a vivid narrative about pre-war life in the Caribbean and Africa and in the 'Motherland', as the UK was known to people living in its colonies.

It seeks to both redress the historical imbalance exposed by the Ken Follett row and explore the sometimes painful evolution of multicultural society from a perspective of gripping personal testimonies. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) executive who commissioned the film after we approached her commented: “It is an important documentary that contributes to a narrative that often leaves out the role of African people in the history of the world.”

BBC Holby City series star Hugh Quarshie, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, lends his formidable skills as the film’s narrator.

Screenings at the Prince Charles cinema, off Leicester Square, central London, and The Ritzy, Brixton, south London, last year were standing room only events.

The SABC, the equivalent of the BBC on the continent, broadcast the documentary, in prime time on Remembrance Sunday in November. The film was shown to critical acclaim at the prestigious Tri-Continental Film Festival held in South Africa, where it was an 'official selection'.  The widely read New African news magazine devoted a five-page feature to it.

In Britain, we have received fulsome praise for the film from TV commissioning editors. Jo Clinton Davis, ITV’s controller of factual programmes, described it as “strong and significant”. The former Vice-President of the History Channel’s Adam MacDonald said it was “a lovely show”

And the BBC’s Chief Creative Officer Pat Younge applauded its “really good stories”. Julia Harrington, in Specialist Factual at Channel Four, said she "loved the idea" of the film.

Carol Sennett, head of Factual Acquisitions at the BBC, remarked it was “a deeply neglected subject” and found the piece “compelling”.

But, so far, they have passed on the opportunity to screen it. The veterans cannot understand why we’ve had to go 6,000 miles away to Africa to get their important hidden history in front of TV viewers before they die.

Excuses executives have made for not taking the film range from “we’ve done enough Second World War this year”, to “not quite right for us” and “we only do two-part historical documentaries”.

Suffice it to say, we did not accept the BBC’s initial rejection and, after protests, the corporation’s history department is now reconsidering. But we’ve been kept waiting months for a definitive response.

It reminds me of the controversy caused by education secretary Michael Gove’s attempt to remove from lessons in British schools two black heroes, the Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole, and slavery abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. After a huge campaign, Gove retreated.

We may need to apply similar pressure on the BBC, which needs to win back public support after its handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal, bloated pay-offs to failed executives, rows over “dumbed down” content and, from a former BBC boss, about its unfair commissioning practices. Corporation chiefs seem to need reminding they work for a national public broadcaster paid for by license fee payers, White and Black.

Let it not be forgotten how many Black people volunteered and died to keep Britain free from Hitler’s Nazis. Historian Stephen Bourne states that nearly 6,000 West Indian men served with the RAF: 5,536 as ground staff and 300 as aircrew. There were many more volunteers from the African continent. Black women served in the military as well. Jamaica and Trinidad donated fighter planes. Trinidad alone provided 252 RAF men during the war, 50 of whom died.

Cross, a black squadron leader, reached the highest rank of any Caribbean. He was highly decorated for bravery. How could any member of the RAF have forgotten him, his tunic emblazoned with the Golden Eagle emblem, his badge of rank on his lapels?

Yet Alan Frampton, who claimed to be an RAF pilot between 1942 and 1946, wrote to Follett from Zimbabwe, to describe the inclusion of the Charles Ford character, based on Cross, as a “sop” to black people who might read Follett’s novel, Hornet Flight.

The author says he was inspired to include Cross in his book after hearing from one of his friends, Cross’s daughter, about the Trinidadian’s operational flights. But Follett was severely criticised by Frampton who thundered: “For the life of me. I cannot recall ever encountering a black airman of any rank whatsoever during the whole of my service, which included Bomber Command.”

He added: “In my book, Charles (Ford) is not a credible character and I suspect he was introduced as a ‘sop’ to black people...He certainly aroused my indignation, remembering as I do, the real heroes of that period in our history, who were not black.”

Frampton went on: “I regard myself as a realist but certainly not an apologist for my race. I have read several of your books and enjoyed them. This one I threw down in disgust.”

Follett’s reply was concise: “I’m afraid you’re mistaken.”

He rebuked Frampton, telling him: “With true-life heroes as he [Cross], there’s no need for a ‘sop’ to black people, really, is there?”

Cross died, aged 96 in Trinidad last year. He was the oldest Caribbean survivor of the Second World War.

His amazing story and the stories of his courageous Caribbean and African contemporaries deserve the widest possible audience among the young and old, black and white.

Marc Wadsworth has an MA in contemporary British history, with distinction, from King’s College London, is a broadcaster, author and editor of www.the-latest.com

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