The RAF

“I was trained as a radar operator during the war, and in the immediate post-war period I was trained in London by the RAF as an electrician. In 1948 I was demobbed in Jamaica.”  George’s cv.

 

 

 

The RAF Museum has conducted important research on the contribution that Commonwealth Serviceman and women who were, incidentally, all volunteers, made in World War II.

 

 

RAF Recruitment

 

Answering the call

 

"As the Second World War raged through the early 1940s, Britain looked to the Caribbean for volunteers to train as ground crew for the Royal Air Force (R.A.F).  Thousands of men answered the call, with approximately 5,400 volunteers arriving in Britain to serve between June 1944 and the end of the conflict in 1945.  Four thousand of these men did their initial training at R.A.F Hunmanby Moor, Filey [...]

 

In the Autumn of 1943, recruitment for ground crew duties for the R.A.F began in the Caribbean.  Immediately, articles appeared in popular newspapers such as Jamaica’s Kingston Gleaner urging men between 18 and 32 to sign up and help the war effort."

 

 

Kingston Gleaner

22 September 1943

 

 

Kingston Gleaner

28 April 1944

 

 

A thousand Caribbean airmen arriving in Britain by troopship in 1944

(Courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

 

 

The Times

11 July, 1944

 

(Extract:  African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire, Ground Crew)

 

Thousands of volunteers came forward and were given some basic training in Jamaica for a number of months before they sailed to the UK.  Crossing the Atlantic during the latter years of World War Two was a very dangerous venture, as there was the threat of being torpedoed by German submarines.  The ships were very cold and the food was quite monotonous.

 

One thousand of them came over in June 1944 on HMS Esperance.  They landed at Glasgow and were then taken to Hunmamby Moor in Yorkshire, where they were accommodated in wooden huts, built by in 1939 by Billy Butlin, who intended to open a holiday camp.

 

 

George told me a few things about life on the troopship.  I’m not sure whether he had any previous experience of going to sea, but he told me that at one time when he was younger he had an ambition to beome a ship’s steward in the Merchant Navy.  He said he was never seasick, so maybe he refused the split pea soup!  He described the experience of sleeping in a hammock, and having to get used to the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, swaying motion caused by the movement of the ship.  He makes mention of the engagement with a German submarine in an interview with Panya Banjoko for the Nottingham Black Archive book, No Tears for Me, My Mother.

 

George’s RAF records

 

After George died, I sent for his RAF records from RAF Cranwell.  These documents, much folded and creased, must have been carried by him throughout his period of service.

 

 

The 17 year old recruit

 

George's certified Copy of Attestation was signed on July 28, 1944, and lists his personal details, giving his birth date as August 11, 1925.  His actual birth date was August 11, 1926.  Page one of these documents, the Notice, clearly states that he offered to join the RAF on June 16, 1944, and includes the following warning.  “You will be required by the Attesting Office to answer the questions printed on pages 2 and 3, to take the Oath shown on page 4, and you are warned that if at the time of your Attestation you wilfully or knowingly make any false answer to him you will thereby render yourself liable under the Army Act to a maximum punishment of two years imprisonment with hard labour.”  Page four of the document, the Oath, states that: “The recruit above named was cautioned by me that if he wilfully or unknowingly made any false statement to any of the foregoing questions he would be liable to be punished as provided by the Air Force Act.”  It was signed by the Attesting Officer, and countersigned by the Approving Officer.

 

The officer clearly ignored that warning.  Both parties in this exchange were guilty of being economical with the truth.  It could be thought somewhat remiss of the RAF if they did not request any proof of identity.  If the Attesting Officer needed proof of George’s age, he could have requested sight of a birth certificate, and should have noted the discrepancy.  George, and many others, was risking severe punishment if his true age had been revealed.  Under-age recruitment had also been a factor in the First World War, and it is common knowledge that this practice, in both world wars was knowlingly entered into by both parties.  As always, if the truth came out, the risk was dispropertionately with the recruit, since he signed the paper, and the Attesting Officer and Approving Officer signed below the Oath that they had cautioned the recruit.

 

Sometimes, late in life, he said that he joined up in 1943.  The shoe brush he used throughout his time in the RAF was marked by him “1943-1948”.  When was this wording added?  Obviously it must have been after he was demobbed.  I wonder if his frequent mention of joining up in 1943, was based on a simple arithmetical error, by subtracting 17 years from the then current year.  He was indeed 17 years old in 1943, but, significantly, not until the August.

 

 

RAF Form 543 page one shows that he was enlisted in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 28, 1944.  Four months later he arrived in England.  He was sent to Filey, Yorkshire on November 12, 1944, and by then was just over 18 years old.  The form records his personal details, including his Official Number 714779.  His mother is given as his next of kin, but in her maiden name.  His date of enlistment and commencement of service, July 28, 1944, registered in Kingston, Jamaica, ties in with the Certified Copy of Attestation.  It also states:  “On arrival in the U.K. this airman is to be posted to units south of the Midlands.  He may be posted to any situation in England or Wales after six month’s service in the U.K.”  He was sent first to Hunmanby Moor, for basic training.

 

  

He was designated as Aircraftsman 2 on December 31, 1944.  On December 31, 1945 he had the status of Aircraftsman 2, and from December 31, 1946 he was described as a Leading Aircraftsman.  His trade was as a radar operator and his character was rated as very good throughout his service.

 

 

After his initial training, he was sent to Unit 9RS, a radio station at RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire, to receive training in radar.  In a re-mustering exam, in March 1945 at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire, he had a pass mark of 46%, and was not recommended for Radar Mechanic Training.  He then joined 78 Wing, Ashburton (Signals) in Devon on March 17, 1945 as a radar operator.  He continued in this role with a spell attached to 75 Wing, also at Ashburton, which was renamed “Southern Signals Base HQ” in November 1946.  He was released from the RAF Section 5 (2) and transferred to Class G III Reserve by an Air Ministry Order.  He was recalled to RAF Filton, near Bristol, in March 1948, and then sent to Burtonwood, Warrington, Cheshire, on May 3.  Four days later, on May 7, he set sail for the British West Indies, and disembarked at Kingston, Jamaica, on May 24, 1948.  On the same day the Empire Windrush set sail from Kingston to Tilbury Dock, London.   

 

At this point it is useful to refer to George’s birth certificate.  It is a copy of the original, and was issued on August 14, 1946, in Kingston, Jamaica, three days after his 20th birthday.  I wondered why he would have needed it when he was stationed at RAF Ashburton, Devon.  Eventually I remembered something which could explain this.  He had told me a long time ago, that when he was in Devon he was intending to marry a local girl.  As he was under the age of 21, and away from home, the RAF were apparently in loco parentis.  I imagine he would have had to produce his birth certificate as proof of identity and age.  He was interviewed by Learie Constantine, the famous cricketer, who was acting as a Welfare Officer for the RAF.  The interview did not go well.  George was told that he was far too young to be married, and that permission was denied.  At that point George stormed out of the room, and there was no wedding.

 

 

He was discharged on August 22, 1948, under the Provision of the Kings Regulations (Termination of Engagement), 11 days after his 22nd birthday.  Squadron Leader T.E. Maxwell, RAF Headquarters, Filton, signed his discharge paper, commenting. “Has received training as Electrician and Metal Worker whilst in the UK, and hopes to secure employment in this capacity.”

 

Impressions of British society and life in the RAF
 

 

The  shoe brush he used in the RAF,

clearly dated 1943-1948, together

with his service number 714779

 

 

Statement written by George in 2008

-----------------------------------

 

This is brief statement to supplement what has been written already about my experiences during my time in the Royal Air Force and my post-war involvement in society.

 

I joined the RAF in Jamaica in 1944 and came to Britain for the first time on a troopship, landing in Scotland.  I was trained as a radar operator in Wiltshire and transferred to Cornwall, where I was stationed at Lands End.

 

I spent the war in RAF bases on the coast in Devon, Cornwall and Kent, tracking enemy aircraft and guiding RAF planes in and out.

 

My impressions of British society and life in the RAF were quite mixed.  There was overt racisim in both arenas, and we had to deal with offensive remarks and sometimes quite crude violence.  We were able to mix freely with the local population and had some good experiences as well as some which were not so pleasant.

 

There were some groups established to make the environment more comfortable for the non-white armed service personnel in terms of entertainment and leasure activities.

 

Also, the RAF provided educational facilities for all who were interested.  Civilian tutors were employed and School Certificate courses were designed aorund the 1944 Education Act, partly as an experiment to see how effective they were before they were introduced into the schools in 1948.  Some of the Caribbean people in the services took advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered and were able to qualify as academics, professionals, or craftsmen.

 

After the war I had to stay in the RAF until 1948 when I returned to Jamaica to be demobbed. I chose to make the journey back to Britain later that year as a civilian, and have lived here ever since.

 

 

Oswald George Powe, radar operator, 1944-1948

 

 

The 17-year-old recruit

 

 

At home, interviewed by Panya Banjoko

 

 

No Tears for Me My Mother was a Nottingham Black Archive project celebrating the contribution made by black servicemen and women in and around Nottingham who served in World War II.  It resulted in a portable exhibition, a book, a DVD, and several events.  The project was launched in 2013, but George died shortly before it was completed. The project was then dedicated to his memory.  The item below was recorded during an interview by Panya Banjoko, and is included in the book.  Panya has given permission for the full version to be used here.

 

“People in my age group they never thought about time.  They joined the Forces because some of their friends had joined and also out of curiosity.  A lot of them might say they were patriotic and they were doing something for ‘King and Country’ but people like myself we never thought about that.

 

You were in the Forces because you were youths, you know rebellious, not in the sense of creating trouble but you wanted something different and you weren’t afraid.  Leaving Jamaica and coming to Europe I found the experience a little like an adventure, like playing a game.

 

I joined the Forces at about seventeen years old as a Radar Operator.  Radar Operators plot the flight of aircraft and give directions where necessary.  For example, if a set of enemy bombers were coming in to bomb some part of Britain we’d pick them up on our radar screen.  We’d plot the course and direct our fighter pilot to attack and shoot it down.  We also guided flights from one destination to another.  It was a twenty-four hour thing because there was always something up there trying to attack.  So that’s the radar occupation to plot flights, to guide planes and especially fighter planes and fighting.

 

The first place I was stationed was Filey in Yorkshire.  The thing that struck me when I came here was the different colour hair that people had.  When I came I never saw that in Jamaica.  When I came I saw multi-coloured blondes and I wondered where the hell they were from.

 

After I signed up and I’d done my square bashing as they call it, I was stationed at many places, Cornwall, North Devon, South Devon London and in Wales too.

 

In the Forces they taught you how to kill with your bare hands, to kill with knives, to kill with bullets, you name it.  The main weapon was the Enfield rifle.  That’s why so many people were affected by war.  I know guys that when they did their training and the gun kicks they’d drop the gun, which is a crime, but they excused that because they knew why.  So you may think that anybody can be effective with a gun but not everybody can because firing the gun felt like somebody kicking you in the shoulder.

 

You were well-fed in the Forces and if you were not fighting you were given emergency rations.  The emergency ration was the size of, or a little bigger than, a digital camera, and believe me even if you were ten feet in height it would be enough to fill you up.  You’d have a little soup and a little flame thing to heat it up on.  You’d have cigarettes, chewing gum, some meat stuff, some cob or hard biscuit but believe me when you eat one of them you’ve had enough.  If you were going on a mission you may have three packets to take with you. 

 

There was only ever one occasion when I was frightened, and it was the first time that I went on guard duty.  Obviously the order was to shoot, and shoot to kill.  The Forces never taught you to shoot to maim.  I remember every little sound that I heard that night, I looked and I couldn’t see anything.

 

The night was cool and I was perspiring.  I must have lost some weight that night!  I was so afraid, and after that I was never afraid again.

 

I remember when there were submarines around and to get rid of the submarines they used depth charges.  The depth charges were a big barrel like an oil drum and it was sent down into the water. When it exploded it was so powerful that the troop ship that I was on, I think there was about two thousand five hundred troops, it just lifted out of the water like a little box of matches.  That was the first time I saw fear in people’s eyes.  But I was never afraid apart from that one time on guard duty. A lot of the ex-servicemen were traumatised by something like that.  You cannot believe despite how adventurous you felt that people can become so frightened.

 

I’ve heard people say that it was when we were dismissed from the Forces that racism really affected us.  When we were in the Forces racism did affect us but it was a little different.  While we were in the Forces we were not competing for jobs or houses, so people didn’t have to say we were taking away their houses or taking away jobs like they did when we were civilians.

 

The nationality prejudice was vile because if you were a foreigner you’d be abused from a nationalist’s point of view.  They’d say “Go back to your country.” The names you’d be called because there was free speech, you’d be called Sambo, Sam, nigger, all sorts of things.  So you’d stand up and fight because you could not take people to court because the Race Relations Act didn’t come into effect until 1975, and then you didn’t have any powers until about 1976.

 

We had problems with the white Americans too.  They’d call you names, see it as fun to call you names and want to fight you.  The white Americans used to abuse the black Americans and abuse them so badly that the government had … legislation to stop them from doing so. 

 

I can remember a fight with two Americans at Penzance.  I and a guy by the name of Rex Thame were waiting for a train from Penzance to London . There was a white girl standing about six feet from us, me and Rex were talking, next thing we saw two American soldiers come along and they went over to the young lady and said loudly so that we could hear, “Are those niggers molesting you?”  She said “No.”  They said, “Are you sure those niggers aren’t molesting you?“  They were talking loud so we could hear.  They kept on calling us.  I can’t remember if it was me or Rex but one of us asked them who the hell they were calling.  We said “Who are you calling niggers?”  And one of them decided to come over but of course we were prepared because I never called people names, never.  I was ready when one of them came up.  I gave him a right cross and he staggered and when he staggered I used my left foot to trip him and give him a kick.  Anyway they ran because they came to beat us up but we got the first punch in.

 

The majority of the young men that returned from the war were not suitable for industry.  Whether it was in the Air Force, Navy or the Army a lot of the young men never worked before they left school, college or university.  They went straight into the Forces.  They were skilled military-wise but not suitable for civilian occupation.  Also jobs were advertised, but when we applied for them they’d say, “We don’t employ niggers.“

 

There was one thing for sure and that was that nobody left the Forces illiterate; we had civilian instructors to lecture us and to teach us mathematics and a few other subjects.  After leaving the Forces I became a mathematician and taught in schools.”

 

 

Pilots of the Caribbean

 

 

SO, YOU’VE BROUGHT ALONG SOME PHOTOS TO SHOW ME OF YOU.  IF YOU DON’T MIND ME SAYING, LOOKING A BIT YOUNGER THAN YOU DO NOW, WHEN WERE THESE PHOTOS TAKEN, AND HOW OLD WERE YOU?  Well officially I was supposed to be 18 but I was really 17.

 

HOW COME, HAD YOU LIED ABOUT YOUR AGE TO JOIN THE RAF?  Well, they didn’t question it.  When I filled out the form and it was accepted, and I was sent for my medical and I passed the medical and that was that.  I was a student then and some of my friends joined up and those that were a bit older than me.  I decided to follow fashion.  I didn’t really have any serious thinking about allegiance and all that.  All I know, my friends had joined and I followed fashion.

 

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE IN JOINING UP, WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?  Obviously we had to be introduced to what they call square bashing.  Square bashing is how to teach you how to bear arms and it’s rather surprising that the rifle that we use was the 303 Lee Enfield rifle, and how it felt like a ton, but within about a fortnight it became light like a piece of feather!  Anyway when I remember the first meal we had when we were about to leave, they said they were introducing English food. 

 

YOU’RE PULLING A FACE AS YOU SAY THAT. WAS IT NOT A NICE EXPERIENCE BEING INTRODUCED TO ENGLISH FOOD?  I didn’t like it.  I can remember some of the meal.  It was roast potato, boiled potato, vegetable and roast beef. I didn’t mind the beef so much, but I just didn’t like the vegetables, and I never had another English meal until I came to England.

 

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE BEFORE JOINING UP AND COMING TO ENGLAND?  Say about six weeks. 


THAT’S QUITE QUICK.  Yes six weeks, yes, because obviously they want you to fight. 

 

WHEN YOU CAME TO ENGLAND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE?  Well, when I came to England obviously it was raining.  It was Greenock in Scotland that we landed and it was raining,  and the buildings were something strange, all those chimneys and so on.  I wondered what the hell were they, you see? 

 

WHAT CHIMNEYS WERE? HAD YOU NEVER SEEN A CHIMNEY BEFORE?  I thought, because I had read a little about industry and all these kinds of things, and I thought they were all factories.  I can’t remember who I spoke to, but I spoke to somebody who was around, not in my squad. They said “Oh, they are houses.”  I said “Houses?” and they said yes.  And that was the first experience I had.

 

WHAT DID YOUR JOB IN THE RAF INVOLVE?  Well obviously everybody do their square bashing, that is, learn to bear arms, but I was on radar.  Once I completed my training I used to go on duty, plotting across, help to guide fighters and so on, because you know, often what you find is very often that the fighter plane was attacked, and in many cases you had to help and guide them and say look you are so many miles away or so many thousand feet away from the enemy, and you give the directions. 

 

DID YOU EVER FEEL AFRAID?  Only once.  I was so afraid that I thought I would have passed out.  The first time I went on guard duty, and obviously the order was shoot and shoot to kill.  You get the password and when you challenge, say if someone, you hear somebody, you use the password to challenge where the sound is coming from, and every sound I heard that night, and I couldn’t see anything, it was quite cold, but I must have lost about 10 lbs that night. 

 

DID YOU FACE MUCH RACISM IN YOUR TIME IN THE RAF?  Oh, it was terrible.  Now you cannot believe, looking on England today, what racism was like.  You were walking on the street, and we used to have a lot of fights on the street.  People challenged you, call you names, and ask you when you were going back, and about the tree, and are you comfortable sleeping in a bed, and all these sort of things, and if you are comfortable eating cooked food.  Yes, they asked you questions like those.

 

WERE YOU SURPRISED TO FACE THAT GIVEN YOU HAD COME TO THE COUNTRY TO FIGHT?  I don’t know if I can use the word surprise, but to me, I didn’t expect it, but what it means, it gives you impetus to fight back, because there were places where you couldn’t go to.

 

CONSIDERING THE SORT OF RACISM YOU FACED, DID YOU EVER RECONSIDER YOUR DECISION TO FIGHT FOR THE RAF AT THAT TIME?  No, you would never consider that, but one thing you must not do, you would never accept insults and you’d fight the mate, the white mate beside you, if he started being insulting, right?  But you’d never say, no, I am not fighting.

 

LIVING IN NOTTINGHAM TODAY, DO YOU MEET MANY WEST INDIAN EX-SERVICEMEN? There are not many around today, but when I came here there were a few, and we got together to found the West Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Association.  The standard is at a church in the Chase (Robin Hood Chase, Nottingham).

 

DO YOU THINK THERE IS MORE TO BE KNOWN ABOUT THE PART THAT WEST INDIAN SERVICEMEN PLAYED IN FIGHTING FOR THIS COUNTRY?  More should be known, because it is like they didn’t recognise that we did exist.

 

(Pilots of the Caribbean:  honouring the RAF servicemen - requires BBC online registration)

Transcribed by the interviewer.

 

This interview was broadcast two days before he died.  We missed this and so he never heard it.  But many people did, and as a tribute it was re-broadcast a week later.  The photo above was the last one taken of him.