Interview with Eddy Smythe. One


Interview with Eddy Smythe. One


Eddy Smythe’s father, Johnny Smythe was a navigator on a Lancaster. He was originally from Sierra Leonne. On one operation he was injured when anti-aircraft fire damaged the aircraft but they continued to target. One engine had been damaged and so was easy prey for the night fighter that shot them down. Johnny parachuted out of the aircraft over Germany and became a prisoner of war. After the war he did not talk about his experiences despite his son’s evident curiosity. It was only much later on in life that Johnny started to talk about what happened during his interrogation and during his time as a prisoner of war. Eddy relates the information that was told to him and how it felt to have missed the chance to talk more about these experiences.







00:54:45 audio recording


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ASmytheE170802-01, PSmythE1701


HH: Ok. We are sitting in the living room of the home of Eddy Smythe in Chinnor near Oxford and this is an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. It is the 2nd of August 2017. I’m Heather Hughes. Also with me today are Eddy Smyth himself, Iyamide Thomas, Sidney Macfarlane and Alex Passaro. Thank you very much Eddy for agreeing to do this interview and also for Iyamide to come, for coming up by train from London.
IT: That’s ok.
ES: You’re very welcome.
HH: Eddy, I wonder if we could start this interview by talking a little bit about you and your, your memories of your dad because I think one of the things that you were surprised by was that he didn’t really talk very much about his war experiences until quite late on. So could we start off just by talking about what it was like for you growing up with him, not really knowing his background in the war?
ES: Yeah. I mean that, that’s very true. I knew very little of the detail of what he did during the war. I obviously knew that he was in Bomber Command and I knew that he was a navigator. I also knew that he’d been shot down over Germany and he’d spent a couple years in the prisoner of war camp. But in terms of actual detail, how he felt, what the experiences were like, I mean he just, he just never discussed them. It was impossible to get it out of him. I mean this was at a time when, you know as a little boy, or as little boys my brother and I used to buy the little war comics and were always reading about the English fighting the Germans. It was all really exciting and I knew my dad had played a part in it but quite frustrating that he never, he never talked to us about it. He, I always remember him throwing out his uniform. His actual RAF uniform. And I remember thinking even though at the time I was probably ten years old but I thought this is sad. And I went and cut his wings out of the jacket and kept the wings. I also remember him going to throw out the logbook which he kept when he was a prisoner of war. It sounds amazing now. I think why would anyone want to do it but he didn’t want to discuss the war. He was happy to talk to you all day about him being a lawyer and the cases that he tried and you know he was, he was happy. You’d sit and he’d talk to you literally all day and all night but as soon as you mentioned the war he just went silent. He’d never talk about it. He threw out his uniform. He wanted to get rid of his logbook and he didn’t want to talk to about it. You know, that’s, that’s kind of how it of was for us growing up. I mean thinking back about it you know there were some signs that he was, he was affected by the war. Because one of the things that we used to have to draw straws about was who would, who would wake him if he needed to be woken up. As children. So my mum would say, ‘Right, someone go and wake daddy.’ And we’d look at each other and go, ‘No. It’s your turn.’ ‘No. It’s your turn.’ Because no matter how gently you tried to wake him up, no matter how gently. you could tiptoe in and you could whisper but the moment he woke up he woke up with a scream. Every time. And leapt out of the bed. He literally used to be like a foot out of bed. No matter how gently you tried to wake him. And as children it was quite frightening. So we used to always go on and on. I’d say, ‘John it’s your turn to wake him.’ ‘No. No, you’ve got to wake him up.’ And, and I suppose as a child you don’t really understand why. You just kind of think it’s something that might have to do with experiences in the past. But later on as you get older and you get a bit wiser you start to realise what it was about. And I think I did, I did find out what it was about probably about three years before he died. You know, when I got to talk to him in some detail. But no, the war didn’t really form much of a, much, didn’t take much [pause] it didn’t play much of a part in our lives growing up other than the fact that we knew that we had this father who had been in the RAF. That was it. It was not discussed till much much later.
HH: And when it was discussed?
ES: Now, you’re talking about when he was much older. There were two occasions that I specifically remember. One was probably, I would say something like twelve years before he died. I was living in England. He was still in Sierra Leone. He came over on holiday. And I’ve always had an interest in flying and I remember talking to him about navigation and it was incredible because at that stage of his life he struggled to remember things that happened the previous week but he could remember in incredible detail and with enormous clarity how he used to navigate from Britain over to whatever target it was. Whether it was in Germany or in France. And all the techniques they used at that time which, you know were incredibly basic but you know they allowed them to. I mean that’s why the RAF brought in navigators. He started off, he trained as a pilot, he got his wings and then anyone who had a decent pass mark in maths was converted to a navigator which he was disappointed with. But they realised that the bombers, they’d fly over, they’d get to Germany, drop, or France, wherever, they dropped their bombs and I think it was one bomb out of every payload that fell within five miles of the target. They just weren’t hitting the target. So they got navigators. They trained navigators to do that and he was one of those. And I remember him explaining to me in a lot of detail about how they got the aircraft there, how they found the target and how they got back because they flew at night, you know. So that, I remember that, that incident but I think two or three years before he died he needed a lot of care and my mother effectively was looking after him. He had an injury from the war where he was shot and he lost a couple of ribs. And when you were a young, fit and healthy person you know, you don’t notice the effects but as you get older these things all catch up with you. And it ended up causing him back problems and then problems with walking. So he needed a lot of care. And I remember my mother went over to visit her parents in Grenada and I went over and spent a lot of time with him. And I remember sitting there. We got a chance to really, really talk. My dad wasn’t one for going into a lot of detail. He just wasn’t. But we got a chance to talk and I said to him, ‘So tell me about how you, what it was like when you got shot down.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, one of our engines got knocked out by anti-aircraft fire and we got over Germany and a night fighter shot us down and I parachuted out.’ I said, ‘Yes, but tell me what it was like.’ He said, ‘Well, we got shot down.’ I said, ‘Yeah. Well, even in your memoirs you’ve just written, “We got shot down,” you know. I know how terrified I am when I’m, when we hit air pockets in a plane. You were shot. One engine wasn’t working. You had a night fighter circling you, shooting. How did you feel? Talk to me about it.’ And then he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was already wounded,’ because when they were hit by anti-aircraft fire he was wounded. He had shrapnel which went up between his leg and through his side but they had morphine which they took and they continued to the target. And as the aircraft was being riddled with bullets, you know a couple of people died straightway and there was screaming. I said, ‘Right. So what, was there smoke? Was it dark?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, it was really smoky and the plane caught on fire.’ ‘And then what?’ You know. Trying to get him to talk because he never talked about his emotions. Never ever talked about his emotions. And he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘One of the crew members was badly wounded. I managed to get him to the door and push him out so that he could actually get out and pull his parachute,’ and he said, ‘By which time the plane was started to spiral and he jumped out.’ So, but he took, I mean this was, you know right at the end of his life and even then he still never discussed his emotions. He didn’t say, which is what I would say is, I was absolutely terrified. You know. It was just something he said. So I got him to talk about physically what happened in the plane and the smoke and the confusion and the shouting and the flames etcetera. And then he, he parachuted. And he landed, he was bleeding and he stole a bicycle. He remembered stealing a bicycle and he cycled so trying to get away from villages and find somewhere secluded and he hid in a barn. But with the loss of blood I think he got a bit delirious and he, he lit a cigarette and it was spotted. And he was, he was then captured and he was handed over to the SS for interrogation. They made him walk in the snow without shoes. And, and this is, this is another bit which he told me which I would have loved to have heard this as a child, you know. Bearing in mind he’d written his memoirs and he didn’t mention this detail but I actually said to him, ‘So what happened when they interrogated you?’ He said, well, they were hitting him, you know, punching him. And there was an officer. The officer in charge of this little group of SS men. He said he was a little guy and he kept coming up and smashing him in the stomach with the butt of his rifle and he kept falling and getting up. He decided, ‘I’m going to be killed. I know I’m going to be killed.’ Now, you’ve got to remember that at this stage of his life my dad was six foot five, you know and he was fourteen and half, fifteen stone. Absolutely, you know, in his prime. Very strong. Very muscular. And he said to me because I said to him, ‘Come on. So what did you do? How did you react?’ He said, ‘Well at this stage,’ he said, ‘I decided that the next time he came to hit me I worked out that,’ [pause] I’m sorry to be so graphic but this is what he said. He said, ‘As long as I can get him within reach I can snap his neck before they kill me.’ Because that was his mindset. He thought, last bit of, you know — payback he said and he was determined. He thought, ‘All I need to do is get my hands on him because I know I can snap his neck before I’m killed.’ He said, ‘But as it happened he never came within reach.’ And he would, all he would say, he would give his name and his rank, you know. I’m an officer in the RAF. They couldn’t understand what he was doing in the RAF because he was a black man. And he said, ‘But you’re from Africa. Why are you in an RAF uniform?’ And he said, ‘Well, Sierra Leone is a, is a British colony and I’m fighting for my queen.’ And after this interrogation, brutal as it was, he was then sent to a German hospital where he was treated and then ended up going into a prisoner of war camp for officers. So that was all new. And then it went on because I didn’t let him off then because I wanted to find out what it was like being in, in the camp. I said to him, ‘Well, how did you feel? There were no black people there.’ He said, ‘To be honest with you,’ he said, ‘I only remembered I was black when I looked in the mirror.’ And he always said being in the RAF was his happiest times. He said there was no, no one, the issue of colour never came up. You were just one band of people fighting for the same cause. And, you know, do you want me to go on? Talk about his experiences. Because I wanted to know what life was like in the camp because this was all new to me. You know, I was sitting there thinking, this is my father who I’ve known all my life and I’m hearing these stories as though they’re from a stranger. Because, you know but he seemed willing to open up. You know it was the first time he was willing to open and also I think he perhaps saw me in a different light as well. I was no longer the little boy who just wanted to hear war stories. Now I was interested in my father. I wanted to know what happened. You know. And as you grow old as well and you mature your thought processes change and you start to be a lot more aware of things that may have happened. Which, as a child, well he was in a prisoner of war camp for two years. And I said, ‘Did you know what was going on outside the camp?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,’ he said, they had one chap who was a sort of electronics expert and he was able to put together a little transistor radio just with bits of wire and bits and pieces. So they could monitor what was happening but equally if the guards came they could dismantle it in a second. You know. Someone could take one bit there and some bit so that the guards never knew. But they could follow the progress of the war so they knew the Germans were losing. They knew the Russians were making their way in. They knew the allies were making their way in. So they could follow it. And he said the, your, your obligation as a military person in a prisoner of war camp is always to escape. So he was in a lot of escape committees but of course he could never ever be a person that could escape. Not a chance because the point of escaping was you got out there and you put on civilian clothes.
IT: [unclear] a black man.
HH: He wouldn’t have been —
ES: No.
HH: Exactly invisible.
ES: No. No. So there was no prospect. No prospect of him ever trying to escape but, you know he told me about lots of attempts that they made. And I asked him if the guards were brutal. He said, ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘You know the Germans were like any other types of people. You had some really nice guys. You had some really vicious ones and, and some of them were, were pretty bad.’ He said, he always recalls one incident where one of their guys was, he was throwing up, it wasn’t a ball but something he was, he was just throwing and catching. He threw it and it fell close to the perimeter wall and when he went over to retrieve it he was shot and killed outright by the guard. He said, and that’s the closest they came to rioting, you know. But they just knew that you know the senior officers had to say, ‘Look you just can’t because we will be wiped out. We will just be shot.’ You know. So they clearly saw some pretty horrendous things whilst, whilst they were there. But I think that officers did get treated a little bit better than other people in the, in the, who were in the prisoner of war camp. But because they could monitor the war they, they sort of knew what was happening. They knew that the allies were very, very close. And he said one day they woke up and normally you get, you know a call from the loudspeaker etcetera. There was nothing. There was silence. And they walked out and they thought — the guards are gone.
IT: No guards [laughs]
ES: The guards had just gone. Disappeared. They were on their own. So they all wandered around thinking, well this must be because the allies are close. So for two days they just had to organise themselves. Trying to source food. That was the biggest problem was getting food. They just had to survive and he said, I think it was on the, either the end of the second day or the third day he said the Russians turned up which would account for the guards disappearing. Because had it been the other allies, had it been the western allies — the British and the Americans — slightly different. You know, the Germans would have been, would they themselves would have become prisoners of war. But with the Russians they tended to slaughter.
HH: Yeah.
ES: You know. And, and the Germans knew this.
IT: Wow.
ES: So they just disappeared. And my dad said his first thoughts when he saw them was should we be scared or should we be happy?
HH: Yeah.
ES: He said, because they were like wild men.
IT: Wow.
ES: He said, you know discipline was poor etcetera he said, but actually he said they were really wonderful people. He said this Russian chap, they could give them weapons but what they couldn’t give them was food and this Russian soldier actually put his hand in his pocket and brought out a bit of dried fish and gave it to him. You know. And in his logbook which he kept, although it was very sparse what he had in the logbook, in there were two pages with Russian writing in it and I’d always asked him what it was.
IT: What it was.
ES: And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ he said, ‘A couple of Russians wrote in the, in the logbook. I said, ‘Have you not tried to find out?’ and he said, ‘No. No. You know. I wasn’t really interested.’ But I’ll just jump to something else now before I carry on with that story because I had his logbook and I thought, suddenly thought one day I should find out what’s there. So I took a copy of the two pages and at the time I was working with a company in London and I knew that the floor above us, in the offices were, was a Russian company. And this was in the days before, there weren’t a lot of Russians. I mean there are a lot of Russians in England now but in those days there weren’t many. So I took copies of these, these two, two sheets and I went upstairs to this company and initially I was treated with great suspicion as I walked in and said, ‘Can I speak to anyone here who might speak Russian?’ And he said, ‘Why?’ And I explained what it was and of course his attitude just changed totally and he was fascinated. He said, ‘Well I can’t translate this but if you leave it with me there is someone in the office who will be able to translate it.’ He said, ‘Come back tomorrow,’ and I did. And they were fairly simple inscriptions. One of them was just saying, “It was very nice to meet Officer Smythe.” “It was wonderful to meet someone who was fighting against the Germans,” etcetera. But the more interesting one was from a female lieutenant. Officer. Russian officer. And she said, again, “It’s lovely to meet Officer Smythe. We partied and made merry all night.” So needless to say I never gave that particular translation to my mother [laughs] but that was actually what was in this translation. And I remember, I remember coming, he was staying me in Thame at the time. And I actually remember coming back and I said, ‘Dad, I’ve got something to show you,’ and I just gave him these bits of paper and he read them and he said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘Does it, does it ring any bells? Can you not think —' And he looked at it and he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘How about this bit?’ You know, the bit about Officer Smythe. He said, ‘What’s this from?’ I said, ‘That’s a translation from your logbook,’ and this big smile just broke on his face. And he, but he never ever knew, what, what it was.
IT: What it was.
HH: Amazing.
ES: But again that was just something else I had to know. I was very interested in. But going back to the prisoner of war camp they gave them weapons but no food. So they thought right you have to go and find food. So he took a group of men and then went into the villages. Because of course now power has shifted, you know. And again this is a story he told me. Everything he was telling me on this day I had never heard before. But he said he went, he had about four or five men with him and they knocked on this door for — just a house in the village and this German man came to the door. And he said, ‘We want food.’ You know, ‘We haven’t eaten. We need food.’ And this guy said, ‘You’re not coming in here. I’m sorry. We have got nothing for you.’ He said he just put his pistol against his leg and fired and he said, to this day he remembers the smell of burning flesh at short distance. He said but at the time he had no remorse. Didn’t think twice about it and just went in and helped themselves to food. And I didn’t ask him anymore. And he didn’t tell me anymore. You know. And perhaps there was no more to be told but it’s almost you get to the point when you think I won’t ask him. You know. It’s time to leave that particular story alone.
HH: Yeah. I mean those must have been desperate times for them though, you know.
ES: Desperate.
IT: Hungry. Yeah.
HH: I don’t think any of us who have lived through so many decades of social peace can remotely appreciate what it must have been like.
ES: No.
HH: Just coming out of a prisoner of war camp.
IT: Camp.
ES: After two years.
HH: After two years.
IT: It’s interesting though that you said that he didn’t talk about it because you’d probably hear that same story from —
HH: Yeah. It’s quite common.
IT: [unclear] dad because they told me that as well. That their dad hardly spoke about it.
HH: In fact a lot of the interviews that we do with veterans themselves they are in their mid to late nineties and their families report, if they’ve sat in on the interview, ‘This is the first time we’ve ever heard any of this.’ So yeah.
SM: I just wonder whether this has anything to do with the survival training that aircrew, not only aircrew but ground crew, were all taught that if you were caught and you became a prisoner of war the only thing you divulge is your service number. You do not say anything else at all that benefits —
ES: Right.
SM: And whether that is so embedded that even after the war when they can tell the story they still have reluctance.
HH: Still have that.
SM: To share it.
HH: It may be.
SM: Yeah. I also, another point I’d just like to pick up is this question of in todays air force that would be a demotion really. Going on from pilot to navigator. But in fact that was the introduction of the navigator because the air force has gone full circles now and you go in as a navigator and then if you are good enough you could later on train as a pilot.
ES: Right.
IT: Ok. That’s —
SM: Now, with the invention of the GPS system.
ES: Yes.
SM: Complication, we’ve abandoned navigators now. We don’t need them any more.
ES: Yeah. Correct.
SM: Yeah. So it started but it’s gone first circle.
ES: Is it? How interesting.
SM: Yes. And its intriguing for me to know how the navigator really started. You can imagine the wasteful. The waste of the ammunitions.
HH: Yeah.
SM: Not being able to pinpoint your target.
HH: Target. Yeah.
ES: Terrible.
SM: Now we’ve got technical stuff —
ES: Laser guided.
SM: Doing it now and laser guided stuff now.
ES: Yeah.
SM: There are bombs now which you can just fire and forget about it and still hit the target. And the drones.
HH: Yeah.
SM: So now we’ve abolished navigators altogether.
HH: Indeed. And pilots.
ES: Yes. And pilots.
SM: And pilots.
ES: He said —
HH: Yeah.
ES: That when they called them all out when they were, they had finished training camp and they explained the background to the necessity of a navigator. And they said, ‘We are now going to call, to read out a list of names of pilots who will be trained for navigators.’ And he said when he called out his name he just shouted out, ‘Oh damn.’ Because he wanted to fly.
HH: To fly. No.
ES: He didn’t want to navigate.
SM: And the navigators, to be quite honest, had to, were more skilful than a pilot because you were quite right they had to be good at maths because they were the people had to work out time and distance and speed. And feed information to the pilot really. So they were the key people.
IT: Yeah.
HH: Yeah.
SM: Setting targets for people like bomb aimers and the guy who was sat at the back of the aircraft.
ES: Yes.
SM: There were, they were in trouble. They were the first to be hit.
ES: The rear tail gunner.
SM: The rear tail gunner.
ES: His life span was not long.
SM: Yeah.
HH: No.
SM: No. No.
HH: That was the most dangerous position.
IT: One thing I want, I want you to explain is ‘cause I think you found out why, when you woke him up he —
ES: I did.
IT: The reason.
ES: Yes.
IT: That would be an interesting thing.
ES: Well the reason for that and I believe this to be the reason is that he was, when they were being trained they were in a camp in Hastings. That’s where they were being trained to become pilots. And of course the Germans had their, their spies and they knew where these training camps were and it was in their interests to try and kill as many trainees as possible because they were going to become the pilots who were going to bomb them.
SM: Oh yes.
ES: And they actually sent, had a bombing raid on the camp whilst they were there. And they did, they did strike the camp and they killed a number of the trainees and friends and colleagues that he had. And he said it was just devastating, you know. And they got up in the morning and they had to help clear up body parts etcetera. But he said he was woken by the scream, screaming of the planes and the bombs coming down. And I firmly believe, when he told me that story I thought to myself that is why. That is embedded in, embedded in his mind. His mindset for life.
SM: And I think, I think you’re right because that, in fact part of the officer training, that’s a scenario that’s fed into the training system. You go to camp for a week. Ground defence training they call it and part of the scenario is that the camp is being bombed. You’ve got to wake up and sort, you all had pre-determined jobs that you do but you have to react to this imaginary bombing of the camp being attacked. And I’m sure that must have come from way back and embedded as part of the training procedure.
HH: Yeah. Yeah. So he must have been transported back to the UK. Your dad.
ES: Yes.
HH: At the end of the war. Did he go straight back to Sierra Leone?
ES: No. No. In fact he was one of the very few released prisoners who signed up immediately to go back and do another stint. I mean he, you would have thought he’d have had enough by then.
HH: Enough.
ES: But he, he wanted to go. He went back in and then they were, they were being trained to bomb in Japan.
HH: Tiger Force.
SM: Right.
ES: Yeah. And of course before they actually became active the atom bombs were dropped. So he was based in London and he, he ended up, as you know he became a lawyer and a barrister and he went to, he trained as a barrister in Middle Temple in, in London. But as a, as an officer in the RAF he was called upon purely because he was fairly articulate, he was called upon to defend an airman who had committed some crime. So it was a court martial which didn’t require formal legal representation.
IT: Yeah.
ES: But you needed representation. And he was called upon to do it and he did. And he obviously did it quite successfully and he realised that he had a talent. And it was that that persuaded him to go into law because up to that stage he didn’t really know what he was going to do. And that’s one of the reasons he went back in to the RAF. Because he didn’t know what he was going to do, so he was going to stay in the RAF but he knew the war had come to an end. And that’s why he ended up going to law school and he trained and he qualified as a barrister and then he went, well he met my mum while he was in London.
HH: How did he meet your mum? Do you know?
ES: Yes. Do you know, well she was a nurse and, and they met at some sort of function. She’d come over from Grenada. But as a child I remember saying to my dad, ‘How did you meet? How did you meet my mum?’ And he said, ‘Oh I met her, I met her as a dancer in a nightclub.’ Obviously joking and he kind of laughed. But of course I thought this was true. And for years after people used to say to me, ‘How did your dad meet your mum?’ ‘Oh she was a dancer in a club.’ And my mum heard me say this one time. She said, ‘What are you talking about? I was not a dancer. I was a nurse.’ I said, ‘Well that’s what dad said,’ you know. But they met at a function.
IT: Oh my God. Yeah that was [unclear]
ES: And they got married and then he went back and he worked for the government for a while in various forms.
HH: So your mum was from Grenada.
ES: She was from Grenada.
HH: How did she take to Sierra Leone?
ES: Quite difficult initially. It was quite, quite tough, you know. Iyamide will, will know.
IT: Well that’s interesting. Well, I don’t know how it is because my dad’s brother also married a Grenadian and they met here. But that I, well that’s because I was young then so I don’t know even what happened. You know, how —
ES: Well, the thing is my mum’s a white Grenadian.
IT: Well actually Alice was. She was white.
ES: Right. And that carries all sorts of connotations when you get out there and when my —
IT: [unclear] in fact.
ES: Yeah.
IT: Yeah, because obviously two foreign wives being in Sierra Leone and from the same place, you know.
HH: They became friends.
ES: They became friends.
IT: You sort of bond.
HH: Yeah.
IT: And share your, your, you know.
SM: There would have been some cultural differences as well.
ES: There were cultural differences.
SM: Caribbean people in Africa.
ES: Yeah. Yeah. But also when my dad went back to Sierra Leone I mean he was lionised because he came back the war hero, you know.
HH: Instant celebrity.
ES: Exactly. And I think. Now, he was coming back with this woman that he’d married and we’ve kind of lost one of our own dare I say.
IT: Ok.
ES: So you, you know the Bertha Compton’s of this world.
IT: That’s right.
ES: These are, these are people from, from Sierra Leone and my mum had a little bit of difficulty with that but, you know she was a woman of God and she didn’t let things put her off too much. But she was never ever, ever really accepted into the inner sanctum. I mean it’s just how it is, you know, back there. But she had a happy time, you know she grew to love Sierra Leone and she was disappointed when they eventually left.
HH: Now where were you and your siblings born?
ES: In Sierra Leone. All were.
HH: But what was it like growing up with a celebrity father?
ES: You’re not really aware of it.
HH: Or were you not aware of it?
ES: You know. No, you’re not. You’re not really aware of it because it’s like anything else it’s, it’s if you grow up with it it’s the norm you know and it’s just how it is. And to be perfectly honest I never knew how special his life was whilst I was a child at home.
HH: When did that first, when did that first realisation first dawn?
ES: I think it first dawned when [pause] when there were the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the end of, of the war. Suddenly, you know “The Times” were taking a journalist to my father’s house to talk to him. All of a sudden people were ringing up from all the world trying to contact him. And, and also I suppose I was influenced by, by him, you know. I thought his achievements was getting an MBE and an OBE and being a Queen’s Council. Those were his achievements. The war thing was just an aside. He never talked about it. He wasn’t interested in it, you know. And I guess that sort of influenced my thinking but it’s only later on when you start to develop your own thinking that you start to think well hang on a second. What’s actually more important here.
HH: Yeah.
ES: And if you look he wrote, he wrote some memoirs and the war element of it is very short and succinct. Very succinct. But if you go into the legal side of it.
HH: Of course.
ES: Oh there’s lots of information about cases he fought.
IT: [unclear] Wow.
ES: You know. And that’s how he thought and I suspect that’s how we were brought up so —
HH: Have those memoirs been published?
ES: No. No. We’ve got them there.
HH: But you have got them.
ES: Yes we have got them. So, so growing up — not really. I mean in in Sierra Leone you do tend to have a bit of the haves and the have nots. You know, that’s, that’s how it is. And we were fortunate to be in the position where we did have something, you know. But, but no I don’t, I don’t think it was a really, really big thing in shaping us.
SM: And you didn’t, you didn’t sort of get much out of him with his early training. His early RAF training. Prior to actually going on operations at all.
ES: No. No.
SM: No.
ES: And again, you know I think back now and I wish that I had talked to him about all the early days to understand how he, how his training went. I mean as it so happens —
SM: Well it was obviously very successful.
ES: Yeah. And —
SM: Especially being creamed off as a pilot.
IT: Officer. Ok.
SM: To a navigator which was going to save the air ministry or whatever then, a great deal of money not wasting ammunition. Someone spotted it and only the elites would have been given that task.
ES: Yeah.
ES: Yeah. And the other thing is there was —
HH: But he had his initial training in Sierra Leone didn’t he?
ES: Oh he was in the Sierra Leone Defence Force but —
HH: Yeah.
SM: Right. Ok.
ES: But that would have only been just basic military training.
HH: Yeah.
SM: Military stuff.
HH: Yeah.
ES: But there was, I think there was sixty five trainees in the, in the camp and he was one of six that came out as officers. So when he came out he came out as an officer. But I always wish now as I know a lot more about, particularly flying as I subsequently went on to fly myself and I’m a pilot although I fly helicopters as opposed to planes but I have a lot more interest, you know in the training and particularly the navigation which I wasn’t any good at.
SM: Yes. Yes.
ES: You know. And I would love to talk, talk to him more.
SM: Yeah
ES: About all of those details and you know I often sit down and think I wish. I wish. I wish. You know
IT: You wish. Yeah.
ES: You know.
SM: I’ve been —
ES: I only, I only knew a fraction
HH: Yeah
ES: Of the story.
IT: What there was. Yeah.
ES: And even that was hard work.
HH: But it’s wonderful that you have
SM: He would have been an officer because NCOs or airmen just couldn’t become navigators. They were all the officer branch.
HH: Ok.
SM: Yeah. They were all officer branch. So he would have been spotted and so the commission was going to be there as navigator. There could be air gunners and there could be under anything else but they weren’t pilots or navigators until much later on in the war initially.
HH: Right.
SM: So obviously they spotted his talent which was very special.
IT: Uncle [unclear], he was a navigator as well.
HH: How did you come to be in the UK having grown up in Sierra Leone?
ES: Sierra Leone. Well, basically if you, if you could afford it most parents sent their children to either the UK or America. To study.
HH: For education.
ES: For education. And I came over with the rest of my siblings really at different stages to the UK to study. With the intention of going back. It had always been the intention was to go back but of course Sierra Leone did spiral down, downwards with the war and everything etcetera. And of course, you know I came here and I studied and I met someone. And I basically put my roots down. And —
HH: As one does when one meets someone.
SM: Yes.
IT: Yes.
ES: Absolutely. So —
HH: Yeah.
ES: So my life, very much was here.
SM: Yes.
HH: Yeah.
ES: And whilst I still enjoy going back to Sierra Leone.
HH: So how long have you been living here now then, Eddy?
ES: I’m going to have to work this out now very carefully. Because I am fifty eight and I came over when I was seventeen.
HH: Wow.
ES: So, thirty one —
HH: Almost long enough to be considered British actually.
ES: Well I’ve got —
IT: Finally.
SM: Finally.
ES: I’m not going to be making any comment on that one [laughs] that’s going to take us in a totally different direction so [laughs]. So I won’t comment on that. But yeah, you know my wife is British and my children are British. So —
HH: Yeah. Yeah.
ES: You know.
HH: Let’s talk a little bit because I want to talk to both of you now. You and Iyamide about the importance of making some of these incredible contributions from people like your father more public. And sort of, do you [pause] making people more aware or, or encouraging people to take more interest in these kinds of stories. And perhaps, perhaps you can talk a little bit about why you were moved to, to write about this and to publicise these stories Iyamide.
IT: Well, first of all you know we have a black history month in England where they focus on various aspects of black history only in October. That’s when some of these stories or achievements by black people or their, their contribution to, to the United Kingdom comes up. But I think it should be much wider than that, you know. I mean black history month is one month. I think it’s important for our young people especially young black boys who need a lot of encouragement and mentoring and they need to know that there were war heroes and people from way back who contributed to this country. So that has always kind of been my, my aim. To get these stories out. Especially since I was privileged enough growing up to know Eddy’s dad as well as another RAF navigator who I was neighbours with. So, and I only heard these stories, I mean growing up I knew that they’d been in the army or whatever. But it was only much later that I, I, I actually knew about what Eddy’s dad had achieved. I knew more about uncle [unclear] because he actually showed me his bullet wound. You know, when I was growing up. But I’ve been corrected. It’s not a bullet. It’s shrapnel.
ES: Shrapnel.
IT: Yes.
ES: Yes.
IT: This is the only time I’m hearing that your dad was actually shot as well. I knew they shot the plane but I couldn’t remember that he was wounded as well. So you know —
ES: He was very much wounded. Yes.
IT: These are two I know. Never mind Uncle [unclear] . But it’s really important because I think it helps the young people know that they can achieve. I know somebody in the RAF whose probably, I’m talking about Ronald Carew.
ES: Yes.
IT: Who joined the RAF because he’d heard the stories about Johnny Smythe so it’s always encouraging I think to tell these, these stories because they don’t get told. You see all the commemorations they do for World War One, World War Two. All the poppies on Poppy Day and all this sort of thing and you hardly see any black people in the audience or in the congregation. Because I was looking at the church service they had. They might, they might invite the odd, you know, ambassador or high commissioner but really these stories have to go wider than that. Which is why because I have a lot of media connections we did, Eddy and I actually went on one of the TV stations and spoke about his dad and I spoke about [unclear] This was during the Japanese, was it about two years ago?
ES: Yes.
IT: There were commemorating something in Japan. I can’t even remember, you know. And we needed to get those stories out there really. And I’m so glad that the advert went into “The Voice” which is how I got in contact with you. I saw the advert in “The Voice” newspaper and thought — right.
HH: That was you.
IT: Yeah.
SM: I got that in “The Voice”.
IT: And I saw it. That’s when I phoned up.
SM: My second son is a production agent for a couple of financial magazines.
IT: Ok.
SM: And he knows the sub-editor of “The Voice”.
IT: Of “The Voice”. Yeah.
SM: And I also met Roddick at a Jamaica diaspora conference.
IT: Ok.
SM: I actually introduced myself and managed to get it. I’d love to do another story. Get somebody else in “The Voice” but we need a story around it for them to —
IT: That’s what, you know, I happened to buy by that copy of “The Voice” because I could very well have missed it, you know and I read it and thought, in fact that picture was there and I thought oh they used the same picture I used in the —
SM: Yes. Yeah.
IT: In the, you know the “Black History Month” magazine. And I thought ok let me phone, you know, let me phone up and tell them there are two RAF people I know and you should get their story. And here we are today really. So that’s really it. And I do a lot of heritage stuff as well around Sierra Leonean heritage and the history between Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom because it has a very unique history.
SM: I’m pleased you talked about that because I think the MOD in general have missed a trick in not doing what you’ve done because over the years I’ve, certainly since my retirement from the air force I’ve gone to London and Birmingham and talked to youngsters about my career, about the service and about what things were like in the early days. And how we had to sort of actually develop strategies to survive. [unclear] of National Service. Went in kicking and screaming. The rules that were then that if you were domiciled in a colony that had not yet achieved independence once you are living in the UK for two years you’re deemed to be eligible as someone born in the UK. A lot of my countrymen, ‘cause four of us came up together as single guys, kept changing addresses because National Service was due to be abolished.
IT: Oh.
SM: And I said to my wife who was my girlfriend then Gwen had been over a year before me that I’ll just go home again because the whole idea of coming to England was to work, save some money and go back.
IT: And then go back home.
SM: Not to live permanently.
IT: Just stay here.
SM: And she says, ‘Well if it’s going to be abolished let’s get married. And if you tell them you’re getting married they’ll probably forget about you.’
IT: Won’t call you.
SM: So we did this sort of trick. So I postponed, we postponed the wedding twice. And on the third occasion they said sorry, you’ve had two postponements.
IT: You had to marry her or ditch her [laughs]
SM: That was it. And went in kicking and screaming and signed on and on and on. But I’ve identified over the years the number of mentoring work that I did through my RAF service. When I came out there was a lot of ignorance about it. And I was part of a contingent, a tri-service trying to recruit more black and ethnic minorities into the service. And I continued that work when I came out just giving and giving motivational chats. But I’ve never looked at it about helping the MOD to recruit but in fact that’s what was happening. And the Jamaican government recognised it and they put a different spin on it and thought I was just helping the Jamaican diaspora. Which I attended conferences and I’m on a database. And in 2011 the high commissioner had written to Jamaica and I was invited by the Jamaican government and awarded a badge of honour for meritorious service for my community work with Jamaican diaspora.
HH: Ok. Wow.
SM: To the UK. So you’re doing these things sometimes, without. I didn’t fully really appreciate it until just looking back that it was helping the MOD because feedback I used to get from youngsters with email and so on saying thank you for, you know, what you did. I don’t know how far they’ve taken it but I did this quite a lot. I retired in ’87. And part of my voluntary work was to talk about various community activities.
HH: [unclear]
SM: As we were telling this morning, in 2014 which was the hundred years of the First World War I gave a series of lectures about the contributions made by Indians and Caribbeans.
IT: Yes.
SM: During the First World War to the University of the Third Age and various people. But I’ve, because once you do one people tell you about it.
IT: Anything. Yes. Yes.
SM: I just raise funds and donate it to whatever charity I fancy. And I am still involved. My focus is now more on Bomber Command internationals so I’m booked up to give two or three talks on that. Promoting that.
IT: I mean, one of the interesting things, even though you said, you know within the RAF that people were like brothers you know. Or they didn’t know about colour and all that. It’s interesting that I’ve heard stories of a lot of discrimination that happened once some of them went back, you know, in the colonies. That, you know and there was a particular case this was from the First World War where he went he was commissioned as an officer, a medical officer he was one of these ones and when he went back they wanted him to remove his, all his commissioning, you know the regalia because they didn’t want white officers to salute him, you know. But he refused. I mean this was another article I wrote in one of the oh I got a commission, I don’t know who commissioned that article. But there was still a lot of discrimination from the colonies.
SM: Oh yes.
IT: To people who had served Britain. You know. Yeah.
HH: Yeah.
IT: Yeah. You know. They, never mind you’d gone and laid your life.
HH: I think it, I mean we’ve also picked up variable stories of experiences within RAF Bomber Command at the time. You know, some, some people were accepted like your dad and just treated as, I mean crew were like family quite often. You know.
SM: Yes. Yeah.
HH: And accepted because they all depended so much on each other.
IT: On each other.
SM: On each other.
IT: Yes. Yes.
HH: And others you know did report stories of, of discrimination.
IT: Discrimination.
HH: So I think it was again, like you said earlier, there were good and bad in every context and —
ES: So you had the sort of stories in the RAF. Right. Interesting.
SM: Oh yes. And of course, even coming up to the current time. I was giving one or two examples earlier this morning of my personal experiences of what went on. And I tried to and, and right across the rank structure. There were good [unclear] you had the odd guy and some of it is a lack of education. Because part of the recruiting because I did recruiting for a while, recruiting officer.
HH: Ok.
SM: Is that two things stood out. You try to elicit from people when you’re interviewing how do they relate to the services? So, for example, when I was recruiting was at the height of the IRA troubles. And I remember interviewing someone who had been living in England for about eighteen months. Ex-northern Ireland. And I said, ‘Do you realise if you come into the Royal Air Force you can be stationed anywhere,’ you know, and the trouble spots because in peacetime we’re training for war. So you could be sent to the Falklands, you could be sent to Northern Ireland or the troubles. And this guy with a gleam in his eye saying, ‘I wouldn’t mind Northern Ireland because I’ve grown up seeing all the war and it will give me my opportunity to fight.’ Needless to say I didn’t recruit him. He was so bigoted and so set.
IT: Yeah.
SM: On taking revenge.
IT: Yeah. Yeah.
SM: You know. So it starts from there and I was, there was a story we got this Royal Marine [unclear] and I’m thinking what sort of recruitment happened? Why did they not spot that this guy still had a grievance?
IT: A grievance. Yes.
SM: He was joining the Marines just to make sure he can exploit weapons. And he did this for all this period of time and they didn’t spot it.
IT: [unclear]
SM: With all the services it starts with initial recruitment. The extent to which, how deep you wanted it go to make sure. You fail from time to time because we are all human beings. We are flawed. You are never going to get it right but it should be robust enough to weed out people who you think come at you with a completely different agenda.
ES: You know how my dad telling me in the RAF they’re quite superstitious.
IT: Are they?
ES: And they, they whenever he was assigned to this, you know the crews change. You didn’t always fly with the exact same crew. And they loved flying with him. And the reason they loved flying with him is because he always came back. Because as you know, I mean in Bomber Command in those day if you did thirty missions. If you survived thirty missions you were out.
SM: You were exempt unless you wanted to carry on.
ES: Exactly.
SM: Yes. Yeah.
ES: Because very very few people —
HH: Did.
ES: Made thirty.
SM: Survived, yeah.
ES: And of course there he was coming back every single time.
IT: Time. Fly with him.
ES: You know, got twenty seven. We’ve got to fly with this guy because he’s got some sort of, you know there’s something about him.
HH: So, in a way he became a sort of lucky mascot.
SM: Yes.
ES: He was a lucky mascot. They loved flying with him because he kept coming back. And he said —
HH: How interesting.
ES: You know he’d fly with someone today. That person would go and fly a different plane tomorrow and be shot down. And he’d started to think I’m going to get to thirty. You know, and of course he got to twenty eight.
SM: To go to thirty he would have got there very quickly.
ES: Yes. Got to twenty eight.
HH: And the amazing thing is that even though he didn’t complete that tour he still survived.
ES: Yeah. He survived.
SM: Yes. Amazing.
HH: You know, I mean he was able to parachute out.
IT: I know.
HH: Under all those terrible conditions.
ES: Yes. Well, you know —
HH: And survived.
ES: You know he said he didn’t realise he was shot. In the late eighties he had a lot of problems, bowel problems and he came over to England for some investigations and they did a lot of x-rays etcetera and they said, ‘This is very strange.’ And he said, ‘What’s the problem?’ They said, ‘You’ve got a bit of metal in the lining of your gut.’ And he had shrapnel.
SM: Shrapnel. Lodged.
ES: Still lodged in his gut.
SM: Good lord.
ES: And they fed him a barium meal with magnets and he ate this and then the magnets pulled the metal into the inside so he could pass it.
IT: Wow.
ES: So he was very much shot.
HH: Shrapnel.
SM: What a story.
HH: Gosh. What a story.
ES: And he, when he was in Sierra Leone he, his practice, his legal practice used to represent most of the embassies out there and whenever the British embassy, they used to have their cocktail parties and they’d invite all the [pause] all the diplomats he always got invited as the lawyer. And he was telling me this fantastic incident at one of the cocktail parties. He ended up talking to the German ambassador and they were chatting and he said, you know they soon established that they were both in the air force during the war. And he thought, ‘Were you really?’ And he was in fighter. He was in the Luftwaffe. He was a fighter pilot. And my Dad said, ‘Incredible,’ you know, ‘I was in the RAF.’ And they chatted and then he said I got shot down. He gave him the date he got shot down. This bloke paled. He said, ‘Tell me the date again.’ And he told him the date. He said, ‘And where exactly was it?’ And he told him where it was.
IT: I remember you saying.
ES: And he said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ He was, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘On that day I shot down a bomber and it is, it was a kill that was credited to me.’ And I said to my dad, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘We looked at each stunned, went and got a drink, and celebrated.’
SM: Yes.
ES: And patted each other around the back. They couldn’t believe it.
IT: I remember you saying.
ES: And they were trying to pinpoint, he was trying to establish, he said, ‘Was the bomber damaged?’ Which of course they had a smoking engine and he couldn’t remember that. He said, ‘Well, I can’t remember that. What I do know is I got a kill on that night.’ So there was a reasonable prospect that he shot him down.
SM: Yes.
IT: It could have been the same plane.
HH: Imagine. The coincidence.
IT: I remember you saying that. That is just —
ES: The coincidence. And the feeling of almost bonding. Because I said, ‘Well didn’t you, how did you feel about it?’ He said it was just a wonderful experience. So I had to think about that a bit.
HH: It kind of reminds you though that, that under those sort of wartime conditions it wasn’t anything personal.
ES: Personal.
SM: No.
ES: Yeah. Yeah. It wasn’t personal.
SM: Never is.
HH: Yeah. Eddy that was a wonderful story to end with because I think what we will do now is end the audio recording.
ES: Ok.
HH: And thank you so much because you’ve given us so many stories we haven’t heard before.
IT: I know. Even I haven’t heard them before.
HH: It was so extraordinary.
ES: You’re very welcome.
HH: And we’re just so grateful to you for, for sharing them all with us.
IT: Fantastic.
HH: And so if we, if we stop the audio recording now.
SM: Just before we go.
ES: Just, yes.
SM: Just a point before you go. Was he a religious man? Many of us from the Caribbean was such a place your faith tended to be central to your life in a way.
ES: I, I would say he wasn’t terribly religious. My mother was so he did attend church etcetera but latterly, in fairness he did become more religious which did surprise me. He did surprise me. And thank you very much for listening to the stories and thank you for getting the stories out there. That’s just wonderful thank you.
HH: Well thank you.
IT: Doing it I said to myself I know I did the checks to make sure that that thing is on because I didn’t want to, you know —



Heather Hughes, “Interview with Eddy Smythe. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 16, 2024,

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