Interview with Mark Johnson


Interview with Mark Johnson


Mark Johnson reminisces about John Blair. He discusses family life in rural Jamaica as a mixed-ethnicity person, highly respected by everyone. He was a qualified teacher, a lawyer, and a farmer. Reminisces other Caribbeans who volunteered and served in the Royal Air Force and other armed forces during the war. Mentions Winston Churchill’s and King King George VI’ speeches; stresses the ethical dimension of the bombing campaign and discusses the differences between American and British air forces in dealing with ethnical minorities. Mentions Arthur Wint, Jamaican Olympic gold medallist who joined the Royal Air Force and became a pilot.




Spatial Coverage




01:33:57 audio recording


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CB: Chris Brockbank and today we are in Witchford in Cambridgeshire and the date is the 30th of August 2016. And we’re speaking to Mark Johnson about Flight Lieutenant John Blair DFC and his life and times. Mark, could you just introduce how you fit in to this and the earliest recollections that you have of John Blair.
MJ: So, John Blair was my great uncle. My grandmother’s brother. And he was born in Jamaica. In the parish of St Elizabeth which is a rural parish and in those days extremely rural. I first met him, well I had met him as a child but I have no memory of that. The first, the first recollection was meeting him when I moved to Jamaica with my family. With my parents and my brother. I was aged eleven, and Uncle John was really the sort of senior figure I would say, in the family. He was highly respected by everyone. Former RAF course, a qualified teacher, a lawyer and did a little bit of farming on the side. And I can remember as kids we’d go to his house and they had the sort of what we called the veranda culture. You know, you would arrive at someone’s house and the adults would immediately be presented with a tray of rum and coke. And ice would be clinking away in little glass containers. And we’d run around in the back garden as kids. Play with, with our cousins, his children. And he was always very very kindly. Fairly serious. Very quiet man. Almost Victorian in a way but without the severity and just the sort of impressive figure. I didn’t know anything at the time about his air force service but I did spend a lot of time in the region where he’d grown up because we have other cousins down there. Relatives of his who still farm down there. And so I spent a lot of time in St Elizabeth as a child during the school holidays and got to know the area quite well. So I’ve got a good sense of what it might have been like when he was a child. A lot of the structures there were built almost of wattle and daub back in those days and they had thatched rooves. Very reddish. The soil is very red because of the Illumina content. There’s a lot of, or there has been a lot of bauxite and illumina mining there in the past decades. They grow watermelons, peanuts. A lot of goat farming. Mango trees scattered around. And then fishing is quite important down on the, on the coast. Areas like Treasure Beach. A lot of fish is consumed. Lobster. A lot of bammy which is a bread made from [pause] from a root, of what’s the name of the root again.
Other: Cassava.
MJ: Cassava. Cassava root. Which is poisonous unless properly prepared. Achi. Cashew from trees. And so it’s a really good, good way to grow up. Healthier perhaps then they realised. I think people felt impoverished. And they were impoverished. In 1919 when he was born there was no electricity. No such a thing as an aeroplane flying past. No trains. Very few vehicles. A lorry would have been quite a sight. But a good old fashioned healthy lifestyle with a good diet. And that shows in the people. The people are physically robust. And Uncle John himself with a very successful athlete. As were many of his relatives. So, now he, he didn’t grow up with his natural parents. He was sent to live with my grandfather. And he was raised by my grandfather and grandmother. So he was raised by his aunt. And my grandfather was a headmaster of a rural school at the time. In the parish of St Mary and Uncle John attended that school as a child. And I’ve got a photograph of my grandfather. Another very Victorian gentleman. And another separate image taken at the same time, in the same chair, of my grandmother. And it’s the sort of image you would associate with a Victorian grammar school. Dark suit and tie. Serious face. Not quite holding the bible in their laps but almost. You wouldn’t be surprised if they had been. And Uncle John. I don’t have a photograph of Uncle John in the school but I do have a picture of the school with my grandfather and his class. And most of the children are in short pants, shirts and bare foot which was quite notable. So they’re running around at the ages of eleven or twelve. I think that most of the schools in rural Jamaica in that period were a single room. And you would have all the children sitting in that one room working on their various assignments as handed out by the teacher. Now, Uncle John started school a few years earlier than he was supposed because his older sister was also a head teacher in a small school and she made sure that he was in the class. And then the school inspector used to come by occasionally. He was an Englishman. The Jamaican school system was managed by the Colonial government and was actually a very good system, they were – Jamaica had the highest level of literacy in the Caribbean and it was a higher level of literacy than the UK at that time. I think somewhere around an astounding eighty three percent if my memory serves me correctly. And so English school inspectors would come by and Uncle John would be pushed into a cupboard when the inspector arrived just to make sure he wasn’t discovered because he was only three and a half or four and the age in those days was, I believe it was a bit older. I believe five or six. So, so those are some of the sort of early memories. Things I was told by him or things that I witnessed and I can extrapolate from those experiences and have a sense of what life might have been like when he was growing up. There would have been a certain class division at play. If you were a nurse, a doctor, well you wouldn’t, you were less likely to be a doctor in those days but if you were a nurse, a police officer, a school teacher — an educated member of the middle class, you were quite separate from the mass of people in Jamaica and there would be certain tensions I suspect. They’ve always been there and they probably existed in those days. There may be certain attitudes that your family might have towards working people. And there’d be certain attitudes that working people would have towards you. And I think that’s significant. Becomes more significant later when you look at the selection process for the RAF and who joined the RAF as opposed to those who didn’t. So I’ll mention it now in passing but we’ll come back to that when we get to that stage of the things. But it’s important to recognise that class and race and mixed race family background are factors in the story. So those are some of the earlier pieces of information. John Blair decided to follow in his, the footsteps of many members of his family, if not most members of his family and become a teacher. So he went to Kingston where he attended the teacher’s college at Mico which was a highly regarded regional institution. Produced many many teachers. Many of whom ended up in the UK in fact. A large number of Jamaican educators were recruited to the UK education system. And he was at Mico along with one of his cousins. No. Correction. His brother, Stanley. His brother who won a track medal there and John ran as well and was very successful as an athlete. Later running for the RAF’s track team. And he made friends at the time with Arthur Wint who was a Jamaican Olympic gold medallist in ’36. Yeah. And they joined the RAF at about the same time and maintained that friendship. They trained together in Canada. I’ll come back to that later. So he was very much into athletics and sport and building up a good circle of like-minded friends. He graduated as a teacher and he started teaching in Kingston. I know exactly where he was teaching. It’ll come back to me in a minute. There a small airstrip there today near downtown Kingston.
Other: Greenwich. Greenwich Farm.
MJ: Greenwich farm. There’s an airstrip nearby which I think is actually the same as the name of the school.
Other: Tinson.
MJ: Tinson Pen. He started teaching in Tinson Pen and he was teaching there when [pause] is that incorrect? [pause]
CB: We’ll stop just for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: Starting again.
MJ: So while he was teaching in Kingston war broke out in Europe. People in Jamaica were very aware of Hitler, Nazi Germany and the politics of Europe. The school curriculum given that we were a British colony at the time focussed very heavily on European history in any case. But the radio would broadcast clips of Hitler’s speeches. Of course the Queen’s annual address, or the King’s address in those days would have been, was widely listened to and still, the Queen’s Speech is still highly listened to today. And I’m assuming there was an annual address in those days but certainly there was a lot of awareness and a very, in some circles a closeness to the British system and the Mother Country as it was known. In other circles, hostility. There was a very active and strong independence movement already entrained. Communism of course was a factor around the world and there were left wing thinkers active in the Caribbean. But there are others who were very pro the colonial system. A lot would probably have depended on the circumstances of individuals and types, types of exposure they’d had. Family. Family attitudes and education. Incidentally, in case I forget to come back to it later many of the people who ended up joining the RAF from the Caribbean subsequently after the war became active in The Independence Movement. And in fact the later Prime Minister of Barbados Errol Barrow was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. Michael Manley, I believe, was a member of the Royal Air Force. And many others. Dudley Thompson who was a Minister of National Security in the PNP government in the 1970 ‘s was was also a former flyer. And many many others. In fact the former RAF volunteers took up a whole range of positions in society. Not only in politics but in business. Karl Chantrelle who I worked with at the Jamaica Telephone Company, later Cable and Wireless was a president of Cable and Wireless and he had been a decoder. A Morse signals decoder on the ground in in the UK as a member of the RAF as well. So they joined the RAF for reasons we will come on to in a moment. They performed very, very well. RAF reports into the performance of black Caribbean and other Carribean aircrew commend them as being of a high standard. And then they came back home in many cases and used that experience and exposure and perhaps the confidence that they’d developed through having those roles to move into lots of key positions in local society and become the engine, I think, I sense part of the engine of the final steps towards Independence. So coming back to 1939 John Blair was working in the school. Teaching there. And he heard Churchill’s famous speech post-Dunkirk. This would have been 1940 now. We will fight them on the beaches and and the fields and landing grounds and so forth. And I was very moved by that. As were many people. And a lot of the volunteers, I have spoken to other Caribbean volunteers and a lot of them site that as, as a trigger but one of the triggers that caused them to volunteer. So you asked the question earlier why did they volunteer specifically for the RAF? Well not all Caribbean people volunteered for the RAF. There were fifteen thousand who volunteered for the merchant navy who were rarely mentioned. Of whom a stunning five thousand were killed during the war. So we shouldn’t forget them. But those who joined the RAF primarily appear to have been motivated by three, possibly four, different factors. I think there was a genuine concern, a well-founded concern about what would happen in the Caribbean if the Nazis invaded and defeated Great Britain. And the assumption was that given the fact that America wasn’t yet in the war that the Caribbean would become a Nazi colony and that black people in the Caribbean would return to slavery. And you’ve got to remember that when John Blair was born in 1919 he would have co-existed with people who would have been elderly but who would have been born under slavery which ended in Jamaica in 1834 and so he very likely sat in the laps of older people who had actually been slaves. And I knew John Blair for forty years of my life so that the link with slavery is very very immediate and not at all irrational for a Jamaican in 1940 to fear a return to the system that only ended ninety six years earlier. We also, I think there was a lot of sympathy, empathy for, or with the people of Europe who were already under the Nazi heel. The Poles had immediately been subjected to forced deportations, slave labour in Germany. Rumours were already spreading about the massacres that were taking place in Poland and other occupied countries. So the gen, this was not, you know a US invasion of Iraq or any of those things. This was this was a much more serious and significant thing that really did threaten people all around the world. I think we lose sight of that. So it was a world war in the truest sense. Another motivation of course was that these were young educated men who would never have had an opportunity to join any of the British military forces had war not broken out. There was a colour bar in effect for officers. That colour bar was lifted after the Battle of Britain because of these heavy casualties caused during the Battle of Britain but also Bomber Command had had very heavy casualties in its first forays over Europe. And so there was an official lifting of the colour bar which, when in place, had said that only British born men of pure European stock could become officers. It was not lifted at that time in the army or navy. And so the air force which had always drawn in, tended to draw in a sort of better educated, technically savvy adventurous spirit even for British society was just a no-brainer for Caribbean men who had some education and ambition. And, and to add to that the RAF was actively recruiting in the Caribbean. There was a recruitment drive that was launched across the Caribbean and also in West Africa. Was not very successful at all in West Africa. Only about fifty candidates who were successfully processed from West Africa but five hundred aircrew approximately. Four to five hundred and about five thousand ground crew were recruited from the Caribbean alone. Which, given that the population of the Caribbean was only certainly the British speaking Caribbean was only a few million people at the time was actually a very large number. The Caribbean had done other things. There were drives to raise funds to support squadrons. So there was for example a Jamaica squadron which was funded by contributions from the Caribbean nations which flew from Marham. And Uncle John as it happened ended up flying with Ceylon Squadron which was funded from the island of Ceylon which is now Sri Lanka. So there was, there was considerable amount of Commonwealth activity. Of course we know about the South African volunteers, we know about the Australians, the new Zealanders, the Indians who came over in very large numbers. And it was all part of the ethos of one — loyalty to the crown to an extent although many of the volunteers were hostile to the crown as a, in principal. Certainly fear of the consequences of a Nazi victory, sense of adventure and opportunity to further themselves in a way that never would have existed were it not for the outbreak of war. So I think that sort of summarises the main motives as I sense them. So he applied at Park Camp in Kingston. And he was accepted and he was then sent back home. He went home and awaited his movement orders. And he left on the fish truck from St Elizabeth to Kingston once he got those orders. And one of my, my uncles remembered saying goodbye to him as he climbed on to the back of the fish truck which was covered in ice. And he, my uncle could remember there was broken glass on the ground for some reason where the truck had turned and he thought that was where the war was happening. He was only about three or four at the time. And so Uncle John went all the way to Kingston on the back of this lorry which was quite a rough, bouncy ride in those days. Very hot. And then was put on board an American ship in Kingston Harbour which had been, which was enroute from somewhere else in the Caribbean. And one of the anecdotes he recounted was that when he boarded the ship along with I think about a dozen other Jamaican volunteers they were sent below. Down a ladder. They went down a ladder. And they saw hammocks hanging there so they started arranging their gear and grabbing hammocks hooks and a sailor came down. An American sailor said, ‘Not down here you —’ N-word, people. ‘Keep going down.’ And they ended up in the hold. So these were officer volunteers or officer candidates volunteering for air force service. They were put in the hold and they sat on metal floors in the hold as the ship drove, sorry, sailed westwards from Jamaica to Belize. And in Belize they picked up more volunteers. Volunteers from Belize who flew and they were put in the hold as well and then they sailed to the southern US. I think to New Orleans and they disembarked there and they were all put on a train to New York and things began to look up now. They spent some days in New York. They went to the Empire State Building. Took a photograph at the top of the Empire State Building with a candidate from Belize called Leo Baldorames who became a pilot. And from there they proceeded by train to Canada. To Moncton. M O N K T O N which was a large training centre in Canada. And they went through their initial basic training there which was essentially the same as basic training in any military force. Polishing lots of bits and pieces. Learning to march and to drill. Learning how to fire a weapon. It would have probably been the 303 Lee Enfield rifle and some people were filtered out even at that stage. So there were people who didn’t get through. They then went to their initial aircrew training. Well their initial RAF flying. Later training. Which involved selection and segmentation into different sort of competencies. And Uncle John was a, as a school teacher did very well on the maths test and so he was selected to be a navigator. Arthur Wint , his good friend was selected to be a pilot. And that was the, there were black Caribbean fighter pilots. There were, for example, Tucker who flew with the South African ace Sailor Malan. There were many of those. There were bomber pilots flying Lancasters, Halifaxes. And other aircraft and several navigators including one from British Guyana called [pause] it’ll come back to me. Very famous man who ended up on the BBC as the voice of Captain Green in the animated series that used to be on. Anyway, that’ll come back to me. So they were training in Moncton and they were sent off to various locations to do advanced courses after they’d done their basic. All very sophisticated. Then he, they had these regular medicals that they had to undergo. So it wasn’t just one medical. You had a series of medicals and as it happened Arthur Wint and John Blair had been out on the town. The medicals were not announced in advance. You were just told at 8 in the morning, ‘John Blair. Medical.’ And they’d been out in the town until 4am. Struggled in through the fence and that was the day that he was summoned for his medical which he then failed and he was washed out of aircrew. And he talks about everybody moved on. Left him behind. He was left in this huge hangar with about four hundred other people who had been left sitting on bunk beds. Who had all been washed out? Hundreds of men were washed out and being sent back to the UK because they were all UK volunteers who had been sent to Canada for training. And John Blair was now listed to be sent back to the UK although he had never been to the UK in his life and knew nobody there. And he would be sent there not as a aircrew as he’d planned but in some other capacity so he was pretty depressed about that. So he went in search of the medical officer, senior medical officer. Found him. Explained the story admitted to the fact that he’d been out drinking the night before and the medical officer said, ‘Ok. Look at this card. What do you see? Look at these colour dots. What do you see?’ And passed him as fit and he was allowed to re-join the training scheme but at this point he had lost all his West Indian colleagues. They’d all advanced and he hadn’t so he was now thrust into a group of British trainees. And this was really his first experience with British people on the same level because in Jamaica he had always, he had encountered British people but they had always been colonial representatives of some type or part of the managerial class. And so he’d never, you know bunked with and socialised with British people before and he found that interesting. But he got on very well and he never encountered, he said he knew of racism being encountered by people. He personally never encountered it. Although others I interviewed did so there certainly was racism but he was fortunate. And I don’t know what, I think it was just probably lucky. It certainly existed. I think he was lucky. It’s also possible he didn’t want to speak about it. But I sensed that he was, I sensed that if it happened it didn’t stay with him. He hadn’t, he hadn’t kept it. So he had Scotsmen, he had Canadians, he had all sorts of people alongside him now. He went and finished his navigator training. Because then on graduation put on to a ship, a convoy and they sailed in the direction of Iceland, avoiding the U-boats. Far to the north and then down into Liverpool. And from Liverpool he got on a train and sailed or took the train through the heart of industrial Britain which was an eye opener. He had had expectations of a green and pleasant land and the wet grey reality was a shock. But he ended up in Yorkshire which he spoke of in the highest sort of terms. With the highest praise. The Yorkshire people showed no sign of hostility whatsoever. In fact they were amazed that a black man, in fact he’d reunited at this point with Arthur Wint and another couple of trainees who he’d met again. And they’d go into pubs in Yorkshire and they’d be bought rounds immediately and people wanted to know what on earth they thought they were doing coming all that way from sunny, the sunny Caribbean to fight in Europe. And were very impressed that they had done it. So he seemed to feel very much at home there and as we’re hearing a little bit later he ended up marrying an English girl that he met. So they were then moving into the final stage of training which was to familiarise themselves with the terrain around their future bases in Yorkshire. He was going to fly from Pocklington. And also familiarise themselves with the Halifax Mark 3 which they’d never flown on before. And they were then, well at that stage I think they were formed into a crew. And that was, that simply involved sticking a couple of hundred people into, into a large hangar and having them pick each other. The pilot would walk around and just look at people’s faces. And John Blair was standing there knowing nobody. And a Canadian pilot walks up to him and said, ‘Will you fly with me?’ And that was it. He was picked and he was the only Caribbean person in that crew. And this is the distinctive feature of the RAF. Whereas the Americans had the Tuskegee squadrons which were, you know black squadron and they had black units. Sometimes with a white officer. The RAF integrated the crews from day one. There was never any separation of people on race or culture or creed of any form. And I think it’s actually incredible when you, when you think about what the situation had been merely two years before. And the fact that the RAF and its members were able to adapt so quickly to an integrated environment. And it’s something that I think is a lesson for society. Something which we somehow lost in the current era. And there’s a lot to be learned from the way that was done. What a crisis brought on in those days whereas a crisis today seems to drive people in the opposite direction. So he was now a member of a crew. They had finished their orientation and they were off on their first mission bombing Germany and other parts of Europe. He spoke at length to me about the experience of flying operationally over Europe and about the ethical dimension of the bombing campaign and it was clear to me that he had mixed feelings. They made best efforts to hit the targets that were assigned to them. But of course that was challenging. The technology wasn’t what it is today. There was wind to take into account. They were bombing from twenty or even a thousand feet or even higher. There was the effect of fires on the ground. And uplift that would, updrafts that would result from that. So the bombs could fall all over the place. And these were very large bombs in some cases. Two thousand pound cookies or even larger. Some of the biggest bombs ever produced in terms of conventional munitions. And they knew that they were bombing German cities. They were trying to hit city centres generally but they were aware of the fact that the strategy was to destroy the houses of the factory workers and that meant destroying factory workers in the process. And their families. So, so he talked about that. He knew what they’d been doing. I think that the, at the end of the day the feeling was that the war had been started by Germany. If not by the German people certainly by the German government. The German people had voted for that government. People forget that Hitler was an elected politician. He got the highest share of the vote in 1933 at thirty four percent. The German people had never rebelled against that government even when it had invaded all of its neighbours and other countries. And there were very few strategic or operational alternatives left for Britain. Isolated as it was from the continent by The Channel, to strike back. And Britain did its best with the resources that it had to fight a war and bombing was, strategic bombing was one of the only choices. So I think that’s where he left that argument. That was his view there. He was certainly very proud of his service. He flew a full tour over Germany of thirty three missions. They targeted all manner of sites. Not only cities but also submarine pens, they targeted Heligoland. Heligoland, off the coast of Denmark which was a large anti-aircraft bastion. They targeted a few sights in France but primarily it was Western Germany. The Ruhr and areas like Cologne and so forth. There were occasions on which the aircraft was hit. They flew back on two engines on one occasion. On three engines on another. His squadron and he flew operationally by the way from December 1944 until March 1945 on this first tour of thirty three missions. During that period one or two Ceylon squadron suffered fifty percent casualties in terms of aircraft lost. Four of those aircraft went down during John Blair’s first two weeks with the squadron so during his first two weeks of operations a quarter of his squadron went down. Most, most of the crew were killed. The chance of bailing out of a Halifax was twenty percent and the chance of bailing out alive out of a Lancaster was ten percent at that time. Because of the Lancaster had a smaller hatch. Escape hatch. They had to face many challenges. The weather was a huge challenge. Icing. Navigation over Europe in that era. You had as much chance of being killed by a mid-air collision as you were flying in a bomber stream with a thousand aircraft around you in the dark with no lights. And only a few aircraft had any form of radar. So that was, that was in fact it was so deadly that German night fighter pilots would use the trail of burning RAF aircraft on the ground as a marker of where the bomber stream was. He also had to deal with enemy night fighters equipped with upward facing cannon in the nose. They had to deal with the flak. The anti-aircraft fire. Searchlights. So all manner of threats and he was doing that sitting in a, at a desk on the aircraft plotting courses, giving instructions to the pilot about turns coming up and turns to be taken and altitudes to be arrived at while under fire and trying to ignore the noises around him. Aircraft exploding occasionally in the air nearby. The loss of people they’d met on their base. On a nightly basis. And at the end of that tour he landed on from his final mission. He was met by his wing commander on the ground who presented him with, it wouldn’t have been the actual medal I suspect but presented him with notification of the DFC. Distinguished Flying Cross. And he was then successfully accepted into Pathfinder Squadron. So he volunteered along, Arthur Wint also volunteered for Pathfinders and they were both accepted into the Pathfinder force. And they started training with the Pathfinder force and then the war ended. And John Blair opted to remain with the RAF. He transferred to Transport Command and he ended up flying casualties home from, well he didn’t end up there but at that point he was flying casualties home from what was then Malaya. I think this would have been the second crisis. Possibly the first but I suspect it was the second. And he met his future wife who was a senior nurse on the transport aircraft. And as John Blair put it, ‘I was working while she was gallivanting.’ They were flying out to Malaya with no casualties on board. Her work would begin when they flew back. So I should think she was sticking her head in the cockpit and having a chat. And they married and they had two children. John Blair Junior and Sarah. And this was in London. They subsequently moved back to Jamaica after Uncle John left the RAF in 1963. The RAF paid for his legal education so he became a lawyer before leaving and then he practiced law in May Pen in Clarendon. In South Central Jamaica. And there he remained until his death about ten years ago. Fifteen years ago. His children returned to the UK. They both, in fact I should have mentioned this to you before they both live in London.
Other: And Margaret.
MJ: And Margaret. The reason I haven’t mentioned it is that John Blair didn’t speak of his service to anyone. And in fact when I, when I interviewed him I managed to get him on tape because we’ve got the tapes, for about four hours. And the first question I got from family was how on earth did you get him to talk about it. And I think the answer to that is I was in the local defence forces in Jamaica and that gave me, the uniform service gave me that connection with him that nobody else had. And so he felt I would have some inkling in what he was talking about. So, so I’m not sure that his children would know a great deal. They’d obviously know about his personal life after the war but I’m not sure they have much inkling what happened during the war years. So those are my memories sort of verbatim. Or off the top of my head. I don’t know if you have other questions.
CB: We’ll take a pause there.
MJ: Yeah.
[recording paused]
MJ: His Gazette.
CB: So my question from that thank you very much is if we can just fill in the bit. When John came back to the UK he would have to be familiarised in the British weather and operations so where did he go?
MJ: So he, sorry can you pause it?
CB: Yeah.
MJ: Sorry ‘cause —
[recording paused]
CB: Right. We’re just recapping really on his return to the UK.
MJ: So, well this wouldn’t have been his return because he hadn’t been to the UK previously so this is leaving Canada. Coming to the UK. Following his training in Canada. He was initially posted to an Operational Training Unit in Kinloss. RAF Kinloss. Where, if I’m not wrong he would have been crewed up. And six out of the seven crew members met there including the pilot who picked, who picked the crew. And although Uncle John remembered it the other way around — as the bomb aimer joining them later other research suggests it would have been the engineer, the flight engineer that joined them later. After they’d gone through that process there they were flying on the Whitleys. They were transferred to a Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Riccall. R I C A L L where they converted to the Halifax 3 bomber. And at this point they’d already been assigned to 102 Ceylon Squadron which flew from Pocklington. So once they’d finished their conversion to the Halifax 3 they arrived in Pocklington and as Uncle John put it on arrival there they were told there’s your plane, this is the target tonight. Off you go. And they were in the thick of things. Following the [pause] his tour the entire crew volunteered or requested transfer to the Pathfinders and were accepted. I’m not sure whether the process was they were accepted or whether they were identified and asked. I suspect it’s more like the latter. And they were in the process of training on Lancasters when the war ended. John Blair, the award for his Distinguished Flying Cross was published in the London Gazette of Tuesday 4 December 1945. But he remained in the RAF until 1963 as I mentioned earlier. Initially he, post war he served in capacities with Transport Command which I haven’t asked him any details of. And he then did a period from 1950 at Martlesham Heath where he was involved in experimental high altitude bombing trials or tests. And in November of the same year he was posted to the Colonial Office where he was tasked with looking after the interests of Colonial servicemen in the army and air force. In parallel with his career as I mentioned he studied law. He joined the middle temple, inn of court and was called to the English Bar in April 1954. Then in August 1954 he was posted to Transport Command. May have been re-posted to Transport Command because I’m pretty sure he was in Transport Command immediately after the war. In 1946. And he was involved in transport flights then in 1954 and through to 1958 including flights to Christmas Island during the very controversial nuclear tests and to destinations such as Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Aden in the Middle East. I think he was stationed briefly in Aden and Malaya where he was involved in casualty evacuation back to the UK. And as I said earlier that’s where he met his wife Margaret. On one of those flights. Then in 1957 the piston engine aircraft was replaced with the de Havilland Comet and in 1959 John was appointed chief navigation officer of 216 Squadron flying Comets until 1961 when he was posted to the Air Training School. He then left the RAF and returned home to Jamaica in 1963. He joined, where he joined the Jamaica Bar Association and he served as Deputy Clerk of Court for the parish of Clarendon. In June 1966 he returned to aviation and this time as the Deputy Director of Civil Aviation of Jamaica and later acted as Director of Civil Aviation from 1975 to 1979 when he retired. He, however continued to serve when needed as Jamaica’s Inspector of Air Accidents while also running a small legal practice in the town of May Pen. Other interesting points are that in 1995 John Blair was invited to represent Jamaica at the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the end of the war held in London. Along with several former members of Jamaican and other Caribbean aircrew. Including his close friend Johnnie Banks who was a navigator in Mosquito aircraft. They marched from Greenwich to Buckingham palace. And he recalled that people were standing twenty deep and in fact I asked him when speaking, when he spoke about that about some of his thoughts in terms of his motivation and I’d like to quote a paragraph. Literally they were the last words he spoke to me when he said, “While I was fighting I never thought about defending the British empire or anything else along those lines. I just knew deep down inside that we were all in this together and that what was taking place around our world had to be stopped. That was a war that had to be fought. There were no two ways about that. A lot of people have never thought about what would have happened to them in Jamaica if the Germans had won. But we certainly would have returned to slavery. If a youngster today should ever suggest that we had no business going to fight a white man’s war I would just kick him where it hurts the most.” John Blair DFC, died in Jamaica in 2004 aged eighty five after a prolonged illness. His first operational aircraft MA615 Zulu survived the war but was struck off charge on 7th of October 1946 and scrapped.
CB: Thank you very much. That was a really good, thorough background and I know it will be very valuable with the other documentation that we’ve got. Thank you.
[recording paused]
CB: With your background Mark there are a large number of other people that you’ve been involved with and I wonder if you’ve got one or two snippets of that. That could be really interesting.
MJ: Yes. Several. Several snippets. A few of these are people I spoke to while they were still alive. Others are based on research I’ve done but those people pointed me in the direction of. So I’ve read other interviews or transcripts or books by people. I picked out some I think are representative and I want to deal with the issue of racism as well which I think is important. So the first is Johnny Banks who I met at his home in Kingston in 2004. He flew with a Mosquito squadron. I do have the number. I’ll have to look the number up for you in a minute. Out of an airfield near Cambridge. I also have the name of that in my records. I’ll have to dig that up in a moment. The anecdotes that he gave me one of them was the fact that around the first time he walked in to the officer’s mess on arriving at his squadron. And several people at the bar turned their backs on him and one man started to walk out of the mess because this was the first time a coloured officer had every appeared in this particular officer’s mess. And immediately, within seconds the squadron leader jumped up and said, ‘Now, all of you get back to the bar and stop this nonsense. I’ll have none of that in my squadron.’ And so he was he was then bought a beer and then from that point onwards had no further problems. But that was the initial response. He had, he was a navigator in a Mosquito which is a two, there are only two crew in there. So a pilot and navigator. Navigator bomb aimer was his function and he had one experience when the bomb wouldn’t release and the pilot said, ‘Well we’re going to have to ditch. We can’t land with a great big set of bombs underneath.’ In fact I think that a Mosquito carried the same bomb load or more than a Lancaster. If I’m not wrong. It was capable.
CB: It could take four thousand pounds.
MJ: it could. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
MJ: So he, - they were over the North Sea and he looked at the North Sea and knew there would be no survival. It was winter and he said, ‘Well I’m sorry. I’m not jumping out of this perfectly serviceable aircraft.’ And they descended, descended, and he kept trying to release the bomb and finally when they’d come quite low, still over the sea it actually detached from the aircraft. So they deduced it must have been ice that was the problem and they were able to land safely. So it just shows the sort of knife edge that they were flying on. Then there was Cy Grant whose name I forgot earlier. He was the the volunteer from one of the many volunteers from British Guyana. He was shot down over Holland on his third op in a Lancaster and parachuted to safety which was a rare event in its own right. And landed in a Dutch farm. And he hid in the field all night. He wasn’t injured. And no idea what he was going to do as a black man in Europe. And eventually was spotted by the farmer who was working his fields and the farmer took him to the farmhouse. Fed him. He had a bath. He had some cuts and bruises that the farmer’s wife looked after and then they chatted about things and decided that the safest option for everyone was for the farmer to call the Dutch police. So they called the Dutch policeman came along on his bicycle and stuck Cy Grant on the bar and they cycled back in a very romantic fashion to the police station. And the police then called the German authorities who sent a couple of soldiers over to pick him up. He wasn’t abused but he was stuck in solitary confinement. Then he was one of the first black aircrew ever to be shot down. This was 1943. 25th of June 1943. He was at 103 squadron flying from Elsham Wolds in North Lincolnshire. And they were on a mission when they were shot down. Their target was Gelsenkirchen in Germany. He, so as I said, was stuck in solitary confinement. And he was then photographed by the Germans and the photograph was published in the German newspapers over the caption, “An RAF airman of indeterminate race.” As Grant was in fact mixed race. He was dark but he had some European and Indian blood in him. He was then taken Stalag Luft iii and at every point of course he imagined the next move was going to be his last. He didn’t imagined that the Germans would take care of a black airman. He was taken to Stalag Luft iii and at the entrance to Stalag Luft iii he was met by the commandant whose name I’ve recorded [pause] who was Colonel von Lindeiner. His full name was a little bit. Here it is Colonel Frederick Wilhelm Gustav von Lindeiner Genannt von Wildau. Who was a real old school German officer of the best type. And he met Grant at the entrance to the camp which was quite unusual and he had in tow a couple of his guards and he said, ‘Now, where are you from?’ And Grant said, ‘I’m from British Guyana.’ And he said, ‘Wonderful. I’ve been there. Lovely place.’ ‘Now you and you look after this man.’ And the guards took Grant in. And Grant saw the commandant on many occasions. He was there for two years in Stalag Luft iii. And every time the commandant saw him he saluted him with his riding crop. And he never had any problems with any of the Germans. The only problem he had was with an American airman from Texas who simply couldn’t handle the concept of a coloured officer. It just didn’t fit in his universe and he used to insult him every time he saw him. Call him the N word and so forth. So, so that was that was interesting. Grant stayed in Stalag Luft iii. The time of The Great Escape he obviously didn’t participate but he was there when they were taken on the Long March at the end of the war. Through the snow to move them away from the advancing Red Army. And he spoke of seeing SS men preparing to defend a wood and he was very intimidated as he walked past the SS men. He said they were huge, well fed men dressed in white and very well equipped and he just found that very intimidating. But he was, he was eventually rescued by the Red Army and then they sent him back to the west. Another person who had a similar experience was Johnny Smythe. Johnny Smythe wasn’t a West Indian. He was actually from Sierra Leone. He was the only volunteer out of ninety from Sierra Leone who was successful. The reason why many West Africans failed was that they had, had malaria within the last twelve months. If you’d had malaria in the last twelve months you didn’t qualify for RAF service and by definition most West Africans therefore were ruled out. Johnny Smythe had two interesting stories to tell. The first was when he arrived he trained in the UK and when he arrived at, the name escapes me. It’ll come back to me. At his UK location he was assigned a batman. And the batman he said was everything he’d grown up to expect of a British batman and he instinctively called his batman sir. And the batman turned to him and said, ‘No sir. It is not you who calls me sir but I who calls you sir. Sir.’ And they got on famously after that. And the batman had been the batman to a member of the royal family who had trained at Henlow. Henlow?
Other: Yes.
MJ: RAF Henlow. Trained at Henlow previously. So there was quite a culture shock for Smythe. Smythe was shot down. He ended up at Stalag Luft i and he recalls the Red Army tanks actually breaking through the wire and he said that the tanks had women soldiers on the back. Riding on the back who smelled of violence he said, they just. The violence. They were reeking of violence and he was then in stages transferring. They were treated well by the Soviets by the way and they were transferred to the west and returned to allied forces. Another little anecdote. Errol Barrow who was, who became the Prime Minister of Barbados was serving member of aircrew and his gravestone actually reads, “Flight Lieutenant Errol Barrow. Formerly of the RAF.” And then in small print below that — “And former Prime Minister of Barbados.”
Other: That’s interesting.
MJ: Yeah. There’s a one little further anecdote. The last one which I think is this gives you a little insight into the day to day reality of the attitudes raised and so forth and so forth. So there were at least three Cuban volunteers who flew with the RAF during the conflict. Although I was unable to identify their names but I have found Cuba RAF shoulder flashes online. And there was a Canadian who had contact with the Cubans in Jamaica. A Canadian called Tom Forsyth who was stationed in Jamaica with one of the Canadian regiments during during the colonial period, during the war. And he tells this story. Says they were playing softball against the Canadian troops. Forsyth, I should say was very very in tune with Jamaica and Jamaicans whereas some of his colleagues were not. And so he witnessed this particular incident. So the Cubans were talking exclusively in Spanish. Talking away at a great rate. And one of our men was up to bat and had one strike on him. He turned to the Cuban catcher and said, ‘Why can’t you talk a white man’s language?’ At the same time the pitcher shot a straight fast one across the plate and the catcher remarked in perfect English, ‘That’s two on you brother.’ The more things change the more they stay the same so.
CB: You mentioned earlier Neil Flanagan.
MJ: Yeah.
CB: So what can you say about him.
MJ: I don’t know Neil well. I’ve met Neil at one event in London that I attended. In fact I gave a short presentation there on my uncle. On the topic of my uncle. And so Neil was the, and still is I believe the president of the Ex-Servicemen’s, the West Indian Ex- Servicemen Association. And seemed very supportive and very active. My prime contact there is actually a former colleague of mine in the Jamaica Defence Force called Paul Chambers who is the secretary of the Association so it was he who introduced me to Neil. So I’ve only had the one.
CB: Who was the man who nearly hit Lincoln Cathedral?
MJ: So that was Billy Strachan, Strachan.
Other: Strachan.
MJ: Strachan yeah we say Strachan in Jamaica.
Other: Strachan.
Other 2: Strachan.
MJ: Yeah. Yeah Strachan in England. And he, he was a pilot. He had actually started out as a wireless operator, and he was, was, was able to switch to flight training, and so I think he did, he did several missions as a wireless operator, switched to flight training, became a pilot and then he flew if I’m not wrong it was fifteen missions as a pilot. And it wasn’t Halifaxes or Lancasters. It might have been Stirlings. And he had a very near miss taking off fully laden, heading for Europe and thought he had cleared Lincoln Cathedral and when he asked his flight engineer to confirm that, the flight engineer out pointed that the spire of Lincoln Cathedral was just at that moment passing in the mist about three feet from their wing tip. And that was it for him. He was not shy about admitting that he just couldn’t do any more. I think, I think he’d done a total of about twenty five missions altogether. Fifteen as a pilot. But I stand to be corrected on those numbers. But it was in that sort of region.
CB: Good. Thank you very much.
MJ: You’re welcome.
[recording paused]
MJ: There may be different perspectives.
CB: That’s what I mean.
MJ: Oh yes.
CB: I’ll pass it around.
MJ: Yeah. Ok.
[recording paused]
CB: We’re now on part two where we’re going to talk about the topic of the racial perspective because we have a situation where people from Jamaica clearly looked fundamentally different from people from Europe and not really understand what was the social fabric from which they were coming. So Mark if we start with you your perception therefore you described a bit earlier. What were, what was the structure of society? As the hierarchy.
MJ: So I think it’s very complicated. Because there’s, you could cut it and dice it in different ways. You’ve got, there’s a racially obviously element in that the bulk of the population in Jamaica – eighty, ninety percent are of black African origin. Many of them are what people would describe as pure African people even today. And traditionally of course they arrived as slaves. At the other end of the spectrum — you have those whites who were either landowners or in some position of governance and then there was a tier below them of overseers because many of the landowners didn’t actually want to live in Jamaica. They had property there but they found it too arduous so they appointed largely Scottish and Irish overseers who were of course it was a rough and ready time but more likely to integrate with the local population. With the slave population. And that integration had a sexual dimension which is very rarely discussed. My perception, having done a fair amount of research into the topic is that in fact I have facts to back this up. So I can use as an example my family. So my origins on one side are from the product of a slave owner named James Blair who originated in Ayr in Scotland and who was the fourth son of James Blair of Dunskey who was a distant descendant of James the 1st. He arrived in Jamaica, and in the mid-1820s and he first took up position as a Scotsman as one of his overseers. So he was running a sugar estate belonging to an Englishman. He later acquired his own lands in St Elizabeth. And an estate called Hopeton. Now, James Blair had sixteen children with three slave women but the interesting fact is that the slave women he had children with were not his property. They were the property of the adjacent estate. And the owner of the adjacent estate had a number of children with slaves who were Mr Blair’s property. So what and this is over a period of years and what, by the way those women were all twelve years old at the time they first conceived. So what appears to have been happening was that when a female slave child reached a certain age – twelve, thirteen. The owner of that slave would let his neighbour know that the time was now ripe. And that person would jump into his horse and buggy. Ride over to the adjacent estate, have relations with the slave girl who was somebody else’s property and then that favour would be returned in due course. And from that I surmise, this is all educated guesswork that an important motive was probably not to undermine authority. So you don’t want to have, you know ripped a girl from her parents on your own estate, had children with her at a young age — even by the standards of the day was a young age and then have to deal with, first of all you’ve had relations with this girl who is your slave. Secondly you’ve got the girl’s children running around. And thirdly you’ve got her brothers and sisters and parents on your estate as well. It will just create too complex a situation to manage. So they had this routine in place where they, they made this transaction. And it leads me to wonder whether, to an extent and, given human nature the slave market wasn’t as much a place of assignation as it was a commercial market. That men would go to the slave market with two things in mind. Acquiring property but also acquiring attractive young girls who they could use or have others use and get their own benefit from that in the future. So, so I think this is never it’s not in any of the books that you read at school. Ok. It’s never really spoken off but given what we know of human nature and given what we know of the world today it would astound me to learn that that was not an important motive for slavery. And that leads you to think that a lot of the feeling that remains in society because Jamaica is still a society. Even you know hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery in which slavery is mentioned routinely. In which animosity towards white people on the part of black people is frequently uttered and in which there is a stark divide between the mixed raced primarily middle class part of Jamaica and the primarily black working class. And I think that a lot of that stems from that time when people were seen as being favoured. People were seen as being exploited and an exploitation that goes beyond labour. It’s not about the exploitation of labour. It’s the molestation of an entire people by another people. And even though it’s been erased as a clear memory that feeling remains. So everything about Jamaica that needs to be understood in terms of the war and volunteering and attitudes towards volunteers as many people did not like the volunteers. A lot of black Jamaicans thought they were traitors. A lot of that has its roots in the period of slavery and can’t be understood without that context.
CB: So now fast forward to 1930s and the time when John Blair was at home.
MJ: Yes.
CB: At school. What was the social hierarchy in the schools?
MJ: So in the 1930s not a lot had changed from the 1830s. So, we were still a colonial nation. We still had British masters. A white man and this was, this was true when I was a boy. You know, when I, when I returned to England I was intimidated by the postman [laughs] because he was white and I’d grown up in a country in which if you were white you are superior unless you just happened to be a drunk. With the odd exception but generally speaking white men are superior. And that’s how they’re regarded and that would have been very much the case I suspect in the 1930s, that the white men were the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors, the government ministers or whatever they were called in those days the secretary for this and the secretary for that, and of course representative of the Commonwealth Office or hierarchy. The governor general. The governor. So, so it would have been this and this is one thing that I’m not being negative I’m actually, as I said earlier — this is one thing that amazes me about the transformation that occurred because they weren’t, they weren’t say going through a transformation that would be needed even today for say, you know a black underprivileged boy from London to join the RAF and become an officer. That would be a challenge today. They were going through a much more challenging process than that. Ten times more challenging. As a, and it was also of course a time of course when hierarchy and status were much more important than they are today and face and honour, and these sort of concepts. So you had a very stratified society. It wasn’t just stratified as black and white. There were other dimensions. In addition to having African and mixed race and European people you had Indian and Chinese populations. And in some islands and on the mainland you had native American populations. In Guyana they had what they called the bush Indians who were basically not even included in the census but who formed a large part of the population. So you had divides there. And the Chinese and Indian populations had taken up different positions in society when they arrived. The Chinese had, and both had arrived post slavery and had been brought in by the British because many former slaves, African slaves, refused to work on the British estates any longer. The Indians, to a degree sort of remained in that labour version for a long time. They were still cutting sugar cane a hundred years later. Some of them had gone in to business but in the main these were lower class Indians. Working class Indians who would only cut sugar cane in India and were continuing to cut sugar cane. The Chinese on the other hand didn’t adopt those positions for long at all. They very quickly moved into owning shops.
Other: Shopkeepers.
MJ: Yeah. Primarily and other forms of business. But shop keeping initially and even today anywhere you go in Jamaica you will find Mr Chin running the shop and he’ll have three or four Jamaicans guys working for him. And Mrs Chin will be doing the accounts. And they keep it in the family. Coincidentally I was in Mauritius a couple of weeks and it’s exactly the same arrangement and Mr Chin runs the shop in Mauritius too. And so very similar.
Other: And Mr Chin runs —
CB: And so —
Other: Sorry.
CB: So just moving on we’ve also got here Maurice Johnson who is Mark’s father. So it’s a great pleasure to see you here as well. So from the generation shift.
MJ2: Sure. Sure.
CB: How did you see, what was the structure of society in the 30s.
MJ2: Yes.
CB: And into the 40s?
MJ2: Yes. I was going to say that the Chinese [pause] they came as indentured labour and much more progressive and business oriented. As a result on a public holiday if the Jamaican hadn’t shopped it would be a problem now. If the Chinese man hadn’t opened his grocers shop he’d starve. Just a simple thing like that. Today there’s a big debate going on about reparations for our, should we — David Cameron came down not long ago before he left office and parliament tackled on him on that reparations. Some people have not accepted that there’s a need for that. They want to move on. It’s a big debate. I’m not sure where I stand but what, what, what’s the population is very concerned about this. Who is going, how are you going to get reparations. Who’s going to receive it? How’s it going to be distributed? Who will benefit? You know. But the whole question of colour — it’s the people who came to the RAF for example in the officer strata would have the benefit of being properly educated. Sometimes colour —
Other: Lighter complexion.
MJ2: Lighter complexion, texture of hair, all those little intricacies but so they would naturally be more confident in you know, how they presented themselves. The people who would probably come into that what do you call it the ground crew order wouldn’t have that benefit. I mean that started from the whole slave scenario which Mark outlined about the interfacing with the light complexioned girl. That is still very important there, you know. The texture of your skin.
CB: So the structure of society was partly based on a racial —
MJ2: Yes or a body.
CB: Component. That is to say the more manual workers were the blacker ones.
MJ2: Yeah.
CB: And the middle class were the more —
MJ2: Yes.
Other: Light ones.
MJ2: And if you had a mixture would reflect in the hair.
CB: Right.
MJ2: So hair was, not so much now, it’s dying out but the texture of your hair was more important than your complexion.
CB: Ok. So what are we talking about texture of the hair?
Other: Curliness.
MJ2: Either curly or –
CB: The length of it?
Other2: Yes the —
Other: Straightness of it.
Other2: Straightness of it.
CB: Right. Ok.
MJ2: A mother of an attractive girl would be very reluctant to have, they would call it unruly hair. You know. Or unmanageable hair.
CB: Right.
MJ2: As well as with racial but it was very complicated and islands differ as Mark said. Barbados – straight line between white and black. And black were much more educated than white. In Barbados, Barbados white persons were merchants but not very savvy with Latin. You had people in Barbados speaking Latin.
CB: So you both mentioned —
MJ2: For orderly society.
CB: Yeah.
MJ2: Boring in a way but very orderly.
CB: You both mentioned mixed race so how –
MJ2: Yeah.
CB: So in Barbados for instance how does that get differentiated between black and white?
MJ2: Not much mixture. No.
CB: Ok.
Other2: I mean they get on well together but hardly any, not like Jamaica where you have —
CB: Quite a lot of mixed race.
MJ2: A variety of colour schemes.
CB: Ok. Now we’re also lucky to have Sidney McFarlane here as a trustee of the Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial Trust, and born in Jamaica. So Sidney how do you see this point about the education and the splits that we’re talking about. Particularly in the Blair context. So in the 30s and into the 40s how was the education sectored? Were certain types of people in certain types of school or did everybody go to the same school?
SM: Oh it all depends on — family incomes start to play an important part in this because the 1944 Education Act in the UK didn’t extend to the colonies. Where everyone could have a free education from beyond primary school to secondary school. So unless you won a bursary or a scholarship you left school at what we call elementary school or primary school. Some colleges offer half bursary and if your parents could afford it Kingston Technical College which had a night school. You could go there. And in fact I was, part of my education was Kingston Technical School. But society in Jamaica much to what Mark and Maurice had just said it’s split between racial lines. The lighter your complexion the better your chance you have of getting a job or whatever. Your background. Parents. I was fortunate that because of my connection with the church I remember my first job was a result, and this was during the school holidays a letter from my priest to a store and I was employed. Another person of my ilk or complexion without that would not be even looked at because all the people in the store were light skinned and I was dark. So that played a very important part. Certainly pre-independence all the top jobs were always a Jamaican could rise to deputy but he couldn’t go beyond deputy. All the top jobs were by an English colonial civil servant who was in charge. It was something that I, growing up as a lad I always sort of noticed. With aspiration you’re thinking I’m never, I’m never going to be the Chief Education Officer because that post was reserved. And this is why I think a lot of Jamaicans even know we are independent have a certain amount of resentment how things have developed. But certainly the racial element — you mentioned Barbados. Barbados is what we used to call and still call the island of all of us and we have poor whites. But they could have integrated and they haven’t moved on to society. To other colonies it’s reversed where the whites are on top in Barbados. They have the big strongest colony of sort of white people who are just ordinary people. Haven’t sort of made it.
CB: Right. Going back to mark now. How do you see in this case John Blair from the society of Jamaica and how he was in the hierarchy there? Then coming to Britain to join the RAF. What sort of racial or foreign aspect, considerations were there in his reception shall we say?
MJ: So John Blair in Jamaica prior to leaving Jamaica was a solidly middle class educated man. A teacher as I said earlier. And self-confident and highly regarded by the bulk of the population. He then travels to Britain. Certainly the experience on the American ship would have been a wake-up call. And in fact I need to quote Cy Grant who spoke about this particular issue. Cy Grant said that when he arrived in Britain it was the first time he realised that he was black. Because in the West Indies he was regarded as relatively light skinned. And suddenly on arrival in England it was brought home to him that he wasn’t. He was just another black man. And I suspect that John, and John Blair described himself at one point as just a little black boy caught in a certain situation in the barracks. So, so this recognition of one’s own blackness I suspect was an awakening for many. Others arrived and I mean there were some very dark skinned aircrew and ground crew who would have had no doubt that they were black throughout their lives and they would have probably had less of a shock. But then what I, what I imagined from my own experience of life is that all of those men would have actually found themselves bound closer together then they had been previously. Some of the class distinctions between them might have softened a little bit. Certainly for the duration of the war because now they were all part of one minority. However, John Blair is a very and many of the others being an educated man, being a thoughtful man, a very good communicator he was certainly the kind of person who wouldn’t be prevented from engaging with his white peers and colleagues. And, and certainly he adopted many British mannerisms. He became very, very RAF, you know. Talking about kites and prangs and all that sort of things and seems to have integrated. And to a very great extent while remaining Jamaican. He was always Jamaican. He came back to Jamaica in the 60s but, but he seems to have done a good job of integrating and being accepted. So it’s a barrier but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an insurmountable barrier unless you make it one yourself.
Other: That’s right.
CB: One of the interesting points about the heavy bomber crews is how they were the family.
MJ: Yes.
CB: So they did everything together.
MJ: Yeah.
CB: Particularly if they were all NCOs.
MJ: Yeah.
CB: How did John Blair feel about his crew and relationships?
CB: He was very attached to his crew. His pilot was Canadian. Ralph Pearson. John Blair, even fifty years on, one of his first comments was the fact that when the war ended they were broken up so quickly that he was unable to track his pilot down before he returned to Canada. And he actually on an RAF flight ended up in Vancouver where Pearson was from and went to the home address. The family had moved on and he searched for him and couldn’t find him. He was very upset about that even fifty years later. He did tell another anecdote. He was walking down the street one day. A black man in London. And a policeman tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ and he immediately thought he was going to be arrested and then he realised it was one of the rear gunners. The tail gunners.
Other2: [unclear]
CB: From his aircraft.
Other2: Ok.
CB: And they had a reunion in a pub.
Other2: Fantastic.
CB: But his first reaction was fear because he was wearing a police uniform. So he was very attached to the crew and there was no sort of racial element to that. That they were just the crew.
CB: And now going to Maurice. What’s your perception of, as the nephew, what’s you perception of his acceptance of the RAF and by the people in the RAF.
MJ2: Yes. And that would have started me observing him from when I was in my teens.
CB: Right.
MJ2: Come back on leave.
CB: Yeah.
Other: Although he didn’t share much I realised he was a deep person. Very observant. Very intelligent. And when I came to live over here and still here and he was the one who sort of facilitated and my brother who came ahead of me. We really looked up to him. Almost like a bigger brother. He, we had the same approach to leisure time if I can put it like that. We’d meet him in London. He’d show you around, show you the ropes, have a drink. No airs about him. Still didn’t tell us much though. I only learned that because of your research. All those things about him. We knew he’d been through a lot of danger but I really admired him and he was my mother’s youngest brother. And she almost adored him. I, later on in life when he came back to retire, you know. Well came back to do law and then retired I was very upset about his whole health deterioration. You know, became almost a shadow of himself and in fact I think the last time tears came to my eyes when I had to take him in to the nursing home where he had his last days. And that was really you know, yeah. He took it stronger than everybody else but you know that really hit me.
CB: Having returned to Jamaica did he, after many years in the RAF because he joined in ‘42 and left in ’63 – did he feel in some way a fish out of water when he got me back?
MJ2: Not really. He didn’t become secluded because he did interface with some of our ex-RAF personnel although he wasn’t, I got the impression he didn’t like going to — they have a place where they have a club almost. Where is that?
Other2: [unclear] Place.
Other: [unclear] Place.
[unclear] place. The Legion.
Other: Yes.
Other: Fairly close to the camp, right?
CB: British Legion Club.
Other: British Legion. Didn’t get the feeling that he was relaxed there.
Other2: No.
Other: Couldn’t put a finger on it. Possibly. I don’t know if I should say this but some of the other people in there I don’t think they saw active service. They were pretending to.
CB: Yeah.
Other: And I think he he took a dim view of that.
CB: And he’d been decorated as well.
Other: Yes. I don’t think he was being snobbish but —
CB: He felt at a disadvantage.
Other: Yes. He didn’t feel at home there.
CB: Yeah.
Other: That’s the impression I got.
CB: Ok then changing to Stanley. You’ve seen people from joining the RAF in the mid 50s who have had experience of lots of things. How many people did you come across who had served in the RAF who were West Indies born?
SM: A great number actually because most of us emigrated here just after Windrush. Post Windrush. In fact, I came to England with four other youngsters in our sort of late teens, early twenties and they all went in to the air force eventually. Some migrated since. I came at the back end of National Service and was called up for National Service. Most of my mates escaped it but one or two joined voluntarily later on. But moving forward from those days although there are still problems of racism I think because of the air force law, the Air Force Act and Queen’s Regulations it was subdued or oppressed. Or if you handled it rightly people would be taken to task. One of the problems we had with some of our countryman is that West Indians tend to be a little hot headed and don’t suffer fools gladly. They’d have their rights and lose it because they’d try and punch or be aggressive to a senior NCO. Someone with an extra stripe on their hands and you could end up on a charge and I spent a great deal of my time actually doing some mentoring. Some of my fellow West Indians to let them develop a reasonable career. Because they were getting into trouble by just being their gestures or shouting. Could quite easily in those days if somebody has two chevrons on your arms and you haven’t you could be in trouble. Because a corporal could put you on a charge. It could be very dangerous. I think I was very fortunate that my wife then was my girlfriend when I got called up insisted we got married before I went in. And my issue sometimes I was upset but I didn’t take it out aggressively because I was always thinking about what would my wife say if I’m chucked in to the guardroom. So I was always very careful and able to manage it in a way that my career prospered. So I completed thirty years without being charged for any offence. Having gone through the ranks and got commission at a time, which was a bit of luck and management. And having the ability to look at a strategy how to bypass certain people like the sergeant who tried to give me a hard time. Didn’t want to give me a trained trade a wind up about certain administrative procedures. And my wife, then I went home and my wife says to me, I said, ‘I’m not going back.’ I’d paid thirteen, thirteen shillings it was from Bath to, to Shepherds Bush on a long weekend. We used to get what we called a command stand down every month. Where you have Saturday mornings off so you can leave on Friday. And I was put on duty clerk and I was told, just as I was about to leave that I would be on forever more. I noticed up until that time there was a weekly roster. And I thought this can’t be right. So when I got home and explain to my wife. She said, ‘You’ve got to go back.’ I said, ‘Well I’m not going back.’ She said, ‘You’ve got to go back. There must be somebody else you can speak to, you know. Above the sergeant.’ So I got back and on a Monday morning they should say to me this was a wind up. There’s a new roster out. You did it last week. But nobody said anything. So I went off to early lunch as usual still really quite worked up. So after lunchtime because part of your duties as key orderly you do the teas. In those days the youngest or junior man in the post does the tea. You can’t do this today in today’s air force with an airman. There was a flight lieutenant I took his cup of tea in to him and I said, ‘Sir, can I speak to you for a moment, sir? I’ve got a grievance.’ And he said, ‘Sit down McFarland. What’s the problem?’ And I explained to him about this duty clerk thing and he said, ‘Tell Sergeant Wilkins to come in and see me.’ Well the sergeant went in and when he came out I was supposed to be preparing to take what they called a trade test because I was supposed to be on the job training as apart from going on a course. Formal course. And he came back and he opened the bookcase and he showed me all the Air Ministry orders and all the other bits and pieces and he said, ‘What you need to know for your trade test can be found in these books. You’ll be trade tested in a week’s time.’ So he was setting me up for failure wasn’t he?’ There was no time for preparation. Well what he didn’t know that you know I had other strategies. There were other people that had done the courses and I did a lot of research. And in the week’s time I took the test and passed it. And when you passed the trade test you had a choice. Either you go clerk administration or clerk personnel and part of my research when I was preparing for the trade test I had to go to station headquarters where you look after personal records, careers and so on and that part interested me. Dealing with people. So I said, ‘I’ve done equally well in personnel. I’d like to transfer to personnel.’ Because that got me away from the sergeant in to a new environment and that’s how I overcame that. But that was thanks to the wife really. Where a lot of young, a lot of us weren’t married and were single. You could have said the wrong thing to the sergeant you were in the guardroom so you’ve lost your case.
Other: Yeah.
SM: So from the early days I was still unhappy with the air force for a number of reasons as a National Serviceman. But nonetheless you were being given incentive to sign on because it was post-war and they were building up the service again. And so you had financial incentive. So by signing on my marriage allowance went up so my pay went up from two pounds fifty a week to seven pounds fifty a week with marriage allowance and signing on. You get an extra railway warrant for being a regular and an extra week’s leave. So everything was an improvement. Signed on for three years and then things were looking good. First child was on its way. Signed on for five years but still think, insisting that I’m coming out. And then it got a change. I was posted to, for one year, an unaccompanied tour in Bahrain which I tried to get out of and couldn’t. So I went and said look this is like real punishment. I might as well throw in my lot with this organisation. And thereafter I signed on for twelve years and so it went on.
CB: Let me just go back to this comment about this sergeant and what he was doing to you. What was the basis of his wind up? Was this a, was this is a racialist? Is that what you’re saying?
SM: Well he didn’t do the wind up.
CB: Or the others?
SM: This is difficult to tell. The others did it but he was aware of it and he did nothing about it.
CB: Right.
SM: And Mark said earlier about leadership and he didn’t have the its either deliberate and you expect a senior NCO to have better leadership qualities. It was either deliberate because he was a racist or B he shouldn’t have had the rank that he had because he should have said on the Monday morning you’d better tell McFarland that he’s no longer duty clerk. It was a windup. He let it go on.
CB: Yeah. Sure.
SM: He let it carry on you see.
CB: Because some windups are actually nothing to do with one’s origins.
SM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
CB: So I’m just trying to differentiate between one of those practical jokes that goes wrong and the possibility that this was a racially motivated.
SM: The moment I got back on the Monday morning after the long weekend he should have said to the corporal, the lads stood down. They had a new roster already prepared but it just wasn’t up on the poster.
CB: Right.
SM: And he said you’re on this until the next man is posted in.
CB: Right. Going back to Mark now. You’re going back, if we may, to John Blair. As a final point here. To what extent do you think he felt throughout his RAF career that he was differentiated in some way with other people in terms of his rank or his opportunities or whatever? Because he was in till ’63 still as a flight lieutenant.
MJ: Yes. I asked him that question. He was very clear in his response that he never felt that he ever suffered any sort of racism in the RAF. Hence his loyalty to the organisation. And although his rank didn’t change there were other members of black aircrew who achieved quite impressive ranks at the same time. So there certainly wasn’t an institutional bias. I think there was a Coastal Command officer who became a group captain. And there was a prominent gentleman at Marham who became a, he was a squadron leader.
CB: There were several wing commanders.
MJ: Several wing commanders. Ulric, Ulric Cross, Ulric Cross.
Other: Ulric. Became a squadron leader.
MJ: Ulrich became a squadron leader.
Other: DFC and Bar. DFC and Bar.
MJ: Yeah. And the most decorated of the black aircrew.
Other: Yeah. Yeah.
MJ: And so I don’t think they were in any way, you know being favoured.
Other: No.
MJ: You got promoted based on circumstance and performance and other factors. I think being in Transport Command might have limited his prospects to an extent. So no. He was, he was very clear that he had never felt that.
CB: Ok. Thank you.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Mark Johnson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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