Trinidadian war hero told RAF superiors he was African royalty
A Trinidadian airman who became a second world war hero was so struck by the “ignorance of the English” when he reported for duty in London that he and one of his countrymen duped their RAF superiors into treating them as if they were African royalty, a new history reveals.
Ulric Cross and Kenrick Rawlins sailed from the Caribbean to fly daring raids for the RAF in wooden-framed Mosquitos across Nazi Germany identifying targets for bombers. But such was the lack of understanding of people from the West Indian colonies that when they were billeted in 1941 they duped their superiors into thinking Rawlins was an African prince and Cross his spokesperson.
The satirical wheeze resulted in an English corporal making their beds for them in barracks and is included in Pathfinders, a history of the RAF unit by Will Iredale which includes details of how West Indian servicemen fighting for Britain against Hitler’s Germany were relied on for their bravery, but were completely misunderstood.
The story emerges amid calls for greater recognition of servicemen and women from the former British empire military operations. In April, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission apologised for failing to properly commemorate hundreds of thousands of predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British empire in the first world war because of decisions underpinned by “pervasive racism”.
Cross, a navigator, went on to become one of the most decorated West Indian servicemen in the second world war and is credited with helping prevent 200 bombers from being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany in 1943. He and his pilot limped home from that mission after one engine was shot out and their plane crash-landed in a disused quarry in Norfolk. He died, aged 96, in 2013. Rawlins died in 1943 after his De Havilland Mosquito was lost without trace in the North Sea on a subsequent sortie to Berlin.
“I saw him cry twice,” said Nicola Cross, 52, Ulric Cross’s daughter. “The second time was when he was in his 90s and it was [over] the fact that the 250 [Trinidadian airmen in the RAF] had not been recognised.” Fifty-two of them died. She wants the role of servicemen and women like her father to be taught on school syllabuses and says: “There are lots of invisibles.”
“We knew 10 times more about the British than they knew about us,” recalled Cross, who was the son of a post office official from Port of Spain.
“They really didn’t know what to do with us,” he said. “Going through any town in England in those days, any schoolboy was going to stop you and ask you the time. They had never spoken to a black person in their lives. All they wanted to do was hear what language you were speaking.”
In prewar Trinidad, Cross was highly aware of the political turmoil in Europe in the late 1930s. At school he had formed a leftwing book club with some friends.
“We had read Mein Kampf and had Hitler down cold,” he recalled. “We knew of Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Jewish businesses in Germany were attacked and looted …. We were appalled by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the Spanish civil war which started in 1936. The world was drowning in fascism … I suppose we were premature anti-fascists … we were not as ignorant as people in Europe think.”
After the war, Cross qualified as a lawyer, became a judge and a diplomat as the Trinidad and Tobago high commissioner in London. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross.