On Friday 18th April 2014, my family and I made an unscheduled visit to the Royal Air Force Museum in London to visit the Pilots of the Caribbean: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force exhibition which was about to close. I only learned about the exhibition recently and did not want to miss this so we quickly went to the museum before closing time.
This exhibition, curated in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives, the Royal Air Force Museum will tell in ‘Pilots of the Caribbean: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force’ the inspirational story of these volunteers, commemorating and celebrating their vital contribution to the defence of Britain, her Empire and Commonwealth. The exhibition also highlighted the RAF’s success in embracing diversity and also demonstrated how the rich, cosmopolitan nature of modern Britain owes much to the black men and women who wore air force blue.
We arrived at the exhibition with less than an hour to visit the exhibition but I was glad to learn the following:
• 15,600 Black volunteers joined the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)
• The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) Battalions served in France, Palestine, Egypt and Italy and suffered 1,325 casualties
• Soldiers from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Kenya fought with the British against German colonial forces.
• The first Black volunteer to qualify as a pilot in the Royal Air Force was Sergeant William Robinson Clarke from Kingston, Jamaica who flew R.E.8 biplanes over the Western Front in the Summer of 1917.
• British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) veterans joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and organised strikes and political demonstrations.
• In 1939, 6000 Caribbean men volunteered for the RAF and 80 women joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The largest contingent came from Jamaica.
• Some 372,000 African soldiers fought for Britain in the campaigns in East Africa, the Middle East and Burma. An estimated 15,000 were killed.
• A legacy of the war in the Caribbean was the development of steel drums or ‘pans’ which were made from oil drums discarded by the US Navy in Trinidad.
I hope that this exhibition finds a permanent home in the museum as there is enough spare wall space in the museum to accommodate the boards I saw.