Flyers of the Caribbean
Kurt Barling visited Holland a year ago for the country's Liberation Day commemoration along with former RAF Lancaster bomber navigator, Cy Grant. The trip rekindled memories for many more people
Cy Grant (l) & Joost Klootwijk
A year on from sharing 89-year-old Grant’s story he finds that it has evoked the memories of hundreds of fellow air crew. Their contributions to the allied war effort are finally being remembered by a permanent online memorial.
Joost Klootwijk never lost the desire to track down the aircrew of the stricken bomber that he saw land in a field near his house in 1943. The boyhood memory of racing to the scene on his bicycle has stayed an important reference point throughout his life.
Joost became one of an army of volunteer researchers in the Netherlands who have spent decades piecing together the untold story of the brave men who ended their lives in the skies over the Netherlands in the war against Nazi Germany.
It’s not so much a national obsession but rather the sense of ongoing debt to those who liberated the country several decades ago.
It is estimated that there are several thousand wrecks of allied aircraft still buried just beneath the top layers of Dutch soil. It’s a peculiarly Dutch way of keeping the memory alive of the national struggle against tyranny.
This time last year we visited Joost with former RAF navigator Cy Grant. It was the first time the two men had met. Their paths had crossed, so to speak, 65 years earlier. By the time Joost arrived at the scene on his two-wheeler the surviving crew had vanished. Cy Grant had set off trying to evade capture. Although within days he was on his way to the infamous Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp (venue for the “Great Escape” memorialized in a film starring Steve McQeen many years later).
For Joost a key episode in his life and the mystery it fuelled was finally resolved. The meeting between liberated and liberator was genuinely emotional. Joost was speechless when I asked him how he felt meeting one of the men whose wreckage he found as a boy. The tears that flowed had been stored up for six decades. Cy Grant was overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude shown towards him.
Present at what you might loosely call the “reunion”, was Joost’s son Hans. He has picked up the baton from his father to carry on the tradition of commemorating those who sacrificed their lives. The occasion had a huge impact on all of us.
Hans recalls, “Hearing Cy’s story made a big impression on me. So much so, that in October I put forward to him the idea to start a website dedicated to the West Indians who flew for the RAF during the war.”
Hans’ idea was simple; to create an online archive of known names of Caribbean aircrew with the possibility for descendants or members of the public to add stories, pictures and other information to the entries.
It perhaps shows how pent up the desire for these hidden histories to be told is; but within months word had spread about the venture. It was met with an enthusiastic response from relatives of the men who served, but also from researchers in the field like Jerome Lee of the Chaguaramas Military History & Aerospace Museum in Trinidad.
War Grave of Cy Grant's aircrew
The site at www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com is now being updated almost daily and has also sparked additional research in the Dutch and British National Archives looking at aspects of the recruitment, training and dispatch of men from the Caribbean.
This fresh research has uncovered documents which give a revealing insight into how previous generations of administrators wrestled with the notion of equality in our public institutions. A confidential document from around 1944 identified in the British National Archives at Kew gives a good insight into the attitudes of the RAF to recruits from the Caribbean, India and Africa.
It’s worth dwelling on because the assessment in this public record of the impact and value of the several thousand Black recruits from the Empire is remarkably candid. Its analysis seems as perceptive today as it must have been revelatory at the time.
In general the comments are positive and the feedback from the units to which these men were attached shows a remarkable even handedness. Despite the bigotry often encountered higher up the ranks its clear that local assessors were often surprised - even pleasantly - by the abilities of these black recruits.
Whilst it is obvious some comments are a reflection of the prevailing prejudices, there is no blanket denial of black talent emerging from the officially recorded attitudes. In general it is concluded from the evidence that there is no obvious difference between Black and White aircrew. This was a far cry from the colour bar and racism faced for example by African-American servicemen.
The overall conclusion reads; “The West Indian personnel selected for training have proved themselves capable of reaching the high technical standard required from operational aircrew and that their discipline, team spirit and general conduct is such as to enable them to carry out the ground duties of an officer or an NCO with complete satisfaction.”
But the document does go on to identify the huge battle that these capable men might have with their fellow crew members if they were to reach the commanding rank of Captain in a bomber crew.
“They have in fact been accepted on their merits and colour has not proved a drawback either to them or in their relations with their fellow officers or airmen except in one respect, they have not proved suitable as Captains of aircraft”.
The reporting official’s job was not to find remedies to this conundrum. It is a problem that was to persist for later generations of policy makers; how to encourage change against prevailing prejudices founded on misperception.
Many of the RAF officers like Cy Grant were to encounter similar bars to their post-war career advancement. Grant, for example, qualified as a barrister but found it almost impossible to practice effectively.
BBC London's Kurt Barling
“However good the individual may be the mere fact that he is coloured may induce a feeling of lack of confidence in the members of the crew. It is a matter entirely beyond the Captain’s control and while the feeling may only be subconscious, it will tend to lower the efficiency of the crew as a whole.”
Last week Joost Klootwijk celebrated his 77th birthday. The fruits of his voluntary labours over the years have now been given a permanent home in a newly refurbished Air Crash war museum in Aalsmeer, close to the international airport at Schipol.
The museum was officially re-opened last week and the New Zealand ambassador was on hand to remind those present about a raid on an Amsterdam Power Plant in 1943 which cost the lives of many New Zealand aircrew. Commonwealth men and women remembered for their courage and sacrifice.
The museum will now become a major repository for future excavations and the research findings associated with them. The museum staff has found that six decades after the end of World War II they are still sought out by relatives of those who died searching for evidence of what happened to their forebears. The wounds of war heal slowly.
Back in the UK the appeal for a memorial to Bomber Command aircrew is still ongoing. It is hoped enough money will have been raised later this year to build it. The Caribbean aircrew website has become an integral part of the campaign to get that positioned somewhere significant in central London.
Commemoration of sacrifice is only part of the picture. Expanding the story to understand its significance for the modern demographic of Britain (and Europe) is also an important function of the sites being developed by people like Hans Klootwijk.
The jigsaw of personal stories collected on the web is beginning to fill in the gaps in the unwritten history of the contribution of men and women of colour in the defeat of tyranny.
Caribbean aircrews finally getting wider recognition can also help us look with fresh insight at the nature of prejudice and discrimination in our public institutions. We have clearly not inherited everything. Many of our modern problems are of our own making.
It is a fresh opportunity to educate younger generations in Britain about the rich ethnic tapestry of our past and how the entitlements and obligations of minorities are rooted in the sacrifices of their forebears just as much as anyone else.
last updated: 11/05/2009 at 10:48