Black History Month: Celebration of Black British Achievements

by Akeem Iginla

This month’s blog coincidentally falls on Black History month, which celebrates the lives of black people and other ethnic minorities in the UK for their outstanding and immense contribution to the development of the British society.

In celebration of the Black history month, Urbanissta joins in the spirit of the celebrations of the many black individuals whose achievements and successes never get mentioned or appreciated.  We’re exploring the life and achievement of one of such individual, John Smythe, fondly referred to as ‘Johnny’ who was born in 1915 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 at the age 25, after Sierra Leone, as at the time a British Colony, was asked to nominate six young men who would be trained as pilots. Hundreds of young men applied for the position with Johnny being one of those that was successful.

Johnny was selected to train as a navigator, due to his high scores on mathematics tests. He was then assigned as a navigator with the 623 Squadron where he flew 26 missions as a short Stirling bomber crew member. The flights would take him over the English Channel, France and Germany with immense risk to his life.

The life expectancy of RAF bomber crews was alarmingly low. On 18 November 1943, as his plane approached Berlin, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. One engine exploded and Johnny was struck twice, in his side and groin. The crew managed to drop their bombs, but their aircraft had become an easy target. Unable to get away they were shot down by a German fighter plane.

Johnny jumped out of the burning plane, hiding his parachute when he landed and tried to find somewhere to hide. But despite an attempted escape on a stolen bicycle and hiding in a barn, he was forced to give himself up after German soldiers began firing on the barn. Johnny was taken to the local German police station where one officer kept hitting him with the butt of his rifle in the ribs where he’d been shot.

Only later, after Johnny had learned a little German, did he understand that the officers had been saying ‘Let’s kill him`. Military police intervened and took him away for questioning, where he was beaten once more during his interrogation before being transported to hospital to be treated for his shrapnel wounds. While in hospital, Johnny was questioned by injured German airmen about why he was fighting a war in Europe. Johnny replied that “Sierra Leone is part of the British Empire and I’m fighting for my King”. More questioning followed for Johnny in Frankfurt, where he was threatened with execution if he didn’t co-operate. Johnny refused, but fortunately it turned out to be a bluff and he was transferred to Stalag Luft I, which was a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Germany that would be his home for the next 18 months.

Johnny would remain a prisoner until 1945 when one morning the inmates woke to find that all the guards were gone. The German’s had fled at news that the Russian Army was approaching.

Johnny returned to London and was offered a post with the Colonial Office looking after the welfare of demobilised airmen from the Caribbean and Africa. In 1948, he was deployed as a senior officer on a captured German troop ship, which had been renamed the Empire Windrush, and which had been tasked with taking former military personnel back to their homes in the Caribbean. On arrival in Jamaica, they were told that the economy was struggling and that the returning men would have a hard time, so could the ship take the men back to Britain.

The Colonial Office told Johnny that as senior officer he should come up with a plan. Johnny, with the help of the Windrush crew, interviewed each of the men aboard to learn about their skills and qualifications. He explained what going back to the UK would mean, the men aboard agreed and after informing the Colonial Office the Empire Windrush made its way back to the UK.

His work with the Colonial Office continued and after winning a court martial case defending a demobilised man from the RAF, despite having had no prior legal training, the presiding judge gave Johnny a letter of introduction to the Inns of Court. Johnny qualified as a barrister in London, before returning to Freetown where he would go on to become Queen’s Counsel and Sierra Leone’s attorney general, before then setting up his own legal practice.

Johnny’s work took him round the world and in the 1960s as part of a US tour to promote African culture he was invited to the White House where he met President John F Kennedy.

At a later cocktail party at the British ambassador’s residence in Freetown, Johnny was discussing the war with the German ambassador only to discover that the ambassador had shot down his first British bomber at the same time. There was no animosity however, and Johnny and the ambassador hugged and embraced each other.

It was only in his later years that Johnny spoke about his experiences in the war. According, to his family, they had noticed that whenever they would have to wake Johnny, he would wake with a scream or say that his toes were painful. He had contracted frostbite after the Germans took off his shoes and made him walk barefoot.

In addition, other war injuries began to take a toll as he aged, and an X-ray done when Johnny was in his 70s revealed that he still had pieces of shrapnel in his intestine. After retiring Johnny moved back to the UK, to Thame in Oxfordshire, to live with his son until he passed away in 1996 and was buried in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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