Interview with Emmanuel Alexis Elden


Interview with Emmanuel Alexis Elden


Emmanuel Alexis Elden grew up in Jamaica. He joined the Royal Air Force and trained at RAF Hunmanby Moor. He served as an air traffic controller and when he was not on duty he used to enjoy travelling to dances in London. He stayed in the RAF until 1950 when he became a taxi driver in London.




Temporal Coverage





00:30:54 audio recording


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L: Ian Locker. I’m at [redacted] Norwood. I’m interviewing Alex Elden on the 5th of December. Alex. How, tell me a little bit about your early life. I understand you were born in Jamaica.
IL: Ok. And when did you come to England?
EAE: In the RAF.
IL: Ok.
EAE: 1944.
IL: Right. And why? Do you know, why did you leave Jamaica?
EAE: [cough] Why did I leave Jamaica?
IL: Or why did you? Did you, did you come because you wanted to fight for the, for the old country?
EAE: Well, it was the thing to do at the time.
IL: Right. Ok. And why did you? Why the RAF? What attracted you to it?
EAE: It was, it was the best organisation I knew. That’s why I joined it.
IL: Ok. So did you join it in Jamaica, then come over to England or did you come to England and then join the RAF?
EAE: Joined in Jamaica.
IL: Ok. So how did you come across?
EAE: Well, they took us from there and brought us here.
IL: Right. So did you come via ship?
EAE: Yeah.
IL: You didn’t have any run-ins with U-boats or —
EAE: No. No.
IL: Ok. So what happened when you got to England?
EAE: Nothing.
IL: But where did you, where did you get sent to for your, as — when you joined the RAF what happened? Where did you go?
EAE: We came to Hunmanby Moor.
IL: Right.
EAE: Which is Yorkshire.
IL: Right.
EAE: That’s where we came to. And then it all started from there.
IL: Right. So what did they do at Hunmanby Moor? Was that your basic training?
EAE: Hmmn?
IL: So what did basic training involve?
EAE: Just was the ordinary basic training involved for the Englishmen.
IL: But, but what exactly did you have to do? Was it lots of marching and — ?
EAE: Yeah. We did march. And a lot of field training. Because it was a case of having a fit. A fit make up if anything happened.
IL: Yeah. And how long were you there for?
EAE: Hmmn?
IL: How long were you there for? At Hunmanby Moor?
EAE: How long?
IL: Yeah.
EAE: We was, we was in the army, in the air force and that’s where we did the training before you passed out.
IL: Right. So how long did it take you to do the training before, to pass out?
EAE: Well, a couple of weeks.
IL: Right. So it wasn’t a lot of training.
EAE: No. But you had to do that. It’s called the basic training. That was a couple of weeks. And we moved on and it was improved training.
IL: So was that the point you decided that you were going to do air traffic control? Or were you told that you were going to do air traffic control?
EAE: No. I selected air traffic control because it appealed to me.
IL: Right. And so where did you move to after Hunmanby Moor then?
EAE: Oh. It was with the RAF.
JE: Was it Filey?
EAE: Filey. Yeah. That’s it.
IL: Oh right. So stayed in Yorkshire.
JE: Yeah.
IL: Ok. And was that where they taught you to be an air traffic controller?
EAE: No. The point is that I liked the tag. I selected that because it appealed to me.
IL: Right.
EAE: As every man, every boy would. An aircraft flying up there and what have you. That’s how it appealed to me. Just something that is my own appeal.
IL: But you hadn’t had any involvement with any aeroplanes in Jamaica.
EAE: No.
IL: No.
EAE: No.
IL: So —
EAE: The planes in Jamaica were Pan American aircraft.
IL: Right.
EAE: Yeah. They were transport. Taking people backward and forward. Yeah.
IL: Right.
EAE: And, well, it was something that would appeal to a boy.
IL: Absolutely. So after, so when you went to Filey what sort of training did you do in Filey?
EAE: Basic training because now we are talking about uniform. The army.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: You see. Basic training. That’s what we did. And got acquainted with the rifle. [laughs] Because we might have to defend. Therefore —
IL: Yeah.
EAE: We learned that too.
IL: So how long were you in Filey for?
EAE: I don’t know.
IL: I bet the seaside in Yorkshire wasn’t as nice as the seaside in Jamaica.
EAE: No. I don’t know how long we were there for.
JE: You came in November.
EAE: Eh?
JE: You came in November didn’t you?
EAE: Yes.
JE: To England. You came in November. Remember?
IL: That must have been a real culture shock.
JE: Freezing.
IL: Absolutely. And certainly Yorkshire. I live in Yorkshire .
EAE: Yeah.
IL: So it’s, I know how cold it is. I live in east Yorkshire so Filey is just up the coast. So I know Filey very well.
EAE: Hunmanby Moor.
IL: I think that’s near Filey isn’t it? It’s actually quite close to the coast. How, so how did they train you to be an air traffic controller?
EAE: How did they train me?
IL: Yeah. How did you become. You know, you obviously said, ‘I’ve selected. I want to be an air traffic controller.’ They must have given you some training at that.
EAE: Yes. They gave me training but I didn’t know that was what I was getting it for.
IL: Oh right. So how did, how long did it take to train you as an air traffic controller?
EAE: Now, that’s something else now because I mean it depends. The training takes up different factions.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: Yeah. So you can’t say how long because you don’t know what you, you don’t know when you become an air traffic controller. You only have the name but you don’t know if [emphasis].
IL: Oh I see. Right. So did, can you remember when you became an operational air traffic controller?
EAE: Almost immediately. Almost immediately as I finished the training.
IL: Right.
EAE: And that training lasted four weeks.
IL: So where did, where did they send you as an air traffic controller? What —
EAE: Yatesbury.
IL: Yatesbury. Where’s that?
EAE: In Wiltshire.
IL: Oh right. Ok. So how did it work? What were you? As an air traffic controller did you, did you have to look after an area or was it just an airfield or a number of airfields or — how did it work?
EAE: It’s hard to say. As an air traffic controller the first you know about the force that you are in.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: Which is the RAF.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: You know about that force. And it starts from there. Build up. I mean it’s not a little force. It’s a big force.
IL: Huge.
EAE: Yeah. And there are people connected with flying which I wasn’t. I wasn’t a flier but everything to do with flying I had to know. That’s, that’s what it was all about.
IL: So when you were at Yatesbury working as an air traffic controller how did, how did, it’s difficult. What was the process by which you managed to control aeroplanes?
EAE: Yatesbury is an airfield.
IL: Right.
EAE: An aeroplane flies from an airfield.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: And that’s where our connection with the RAF is.
IL: Right. But in terms of how you control the aircraft is it you just nowadays obviously there’s, you know very, very sophisticated radar that can tell you where all these planes are in an area. And they can tell you how high they are, how fast they’re going. Whatever. How did you manage that?
EAE: The air traffic controller.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: The RAF have their training places.
IL: Right.
EAE: And immediately as we joined up with the RAF we were sent to one of the training places.
IL: And was Yatesbury your training place?
EAE: Pardon?
IL: Was Yatesbury your training place?
EAE: Yes.
IL: Right. Ok.
EAE: And from there on well it was like the elementary stage of air traffic control. Yatesbury.
IL: Right.
EAE: Elementary stage. Also the advanced stage but it started from the elementary stage. Improved to the advanced stage.
IL: How did you, even when you were doing your, you know when you were doing your elementary stage and the advanced stage how did you work out where aircraft were?
EAE: How did I work out what?
IL: How did you work out where the aircraft were? Did they, is it just, did they just talk to you by radio or did you have radar or did you —
EAE: I have all that connections. And advanced stages you go along. Yeah. The ordinary elementary stage when you start.
IL: How would you [pause] so did, as an air traffic controller were you telling planes to sort of fly at certain altitudes or at certain speeds?
EAE: It involved. It involved everything. Involved flying. Safety.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: And so on.
IL: How did you plot where these things were?
EAE: How did you what?
IL: You know, when you, you — if you’ve got more than one aeroplane you need to know where they are. Did you have like a map or little sticks or —
EAE: We had radar.
IL: Right.
EAE: Radar is like you having telephones. Right.
IL: Ok.
EAE: And you speak through the telephones.
IL: Ok.
EAE: Radar is an operator who sees everything miles away.
IL: Right.
EAE: Through the connection.
IL: Ok. So you did have, so you were, it was very, it was similar to modern air traffic control that you were using. You had a radar that covered a certain area.
EAE: It was. It was a modern concern.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: I mean, it was no foolishness.
IL: No. No. Absolutely. So it was quite sophisticated. The radar. Because certainly early in the war, you know when —
EAE: It was the thing that saved this country and the world. Radar.
IL: Absolutely.
EAE: Very important.
IL: Well certainly I know, you know obviously early during the Battle of Britain you know radar was relatively unsophisticated. They could say if there was a large formation of aircraft. They couldn’t exactly say how many but they could work out where it was going. So, but by the time in 1944 when you were in the RAF radar was such that you could pinpoint all the planes in your little area that you were controlling.
EAE: 1944 radar had gone well advanced.
IL: Right. Ok
EAE: Well advanced.1944.
IL: Did you ever have to deal with planes that were in difficulty?
EAE: Pardon?
IL: Obviously, during the, during the war, you know some of the planes that might be returning might have been attacked. Might have been damaged. Might not have been able to talk to you because radios and things might be damaged. Did you ever have to deal with any, you know planes in serious difficulties?
EAE: They came back here to be repaired or dealt with for operation.
IL: Right. But as an air traffic controller were you having to try and guide sometimes very damaged planes down to you know maybe not coming into the base that they were supposed to go to but the base that you were you know that you were helping to control.
EAE: Well, there was air traffic control and mechanical repairs and everything goes on. It was one big coverage. Each have their own department.
IL: So where did, so just come back to you working as an air traffic controller. Was that at Yatesbury or did you go somewhere else afterwards?
EAE: No. Air traffic controller is to do with the aircraft and the airfield.
IL: Right. So you were just looking after one airfield when you were doing air traffic control.
EAE: One airfield. One department.
IL: Right. You weren’t involved in a sort of you know covering a sector. You know Wiltshire was similar to Lincolnshire wasn’t it. There were a lot of bases in Wiltshire.
EAE: Look at it when they say RAF. Royal Air Force. Various departments.
IL: Ok.
EAE: It’s not just RAF and everything is grouped like that. No.
IL: So it wasn’t, there wasn’t a big each airfield would have its own air traffic control set up. It wasn’t a sort of big national centre.
EAE: It was national. Each airfield would have the same control.
IL: Right. Ok. And they’d overlap and cover the whole, the whole of the area. Ok. Ok. So I suppose it’s a little bit like Heathrow and Gatwick coming separate. So did you enjoy your time in the RAF?
EAE: Did I enjoy?
IL: Your time in the RAF.
EAE: You call it enjoy. You call it enjoy. Yeah. But it wasn’t like a dance.
IL: No.
EAE: It was reality.
IL: What did you do for social life?
EAE: Hmmn?
IL: When you were in the RAF what did you do for social life? How did you enjoy yourself when you were off?
EAE: I was just off duty.
IL: Yes.
EAE: And you go to your clubs and what have you. And when you’re on duty signed on. Come back.
IL: Right. So what sort of clubs did you go to?
EAE: Pardon?
IL: What sort of clubs? What did you enjoy doing?
EAE: What any young person enjoyed doing. They don’t want to go to church do they? No.
IL: Not many.
EAE: Good.
IL: Ok.
EAE: They’re looking for the young girls. Young boys. Enjoy themselves. They can’t see the danger. They can’t see the danger. They’ll join anything. Join anything. Take anything given without looking for the danger. Young girls, young boys don’t know nothing about danger.
IL: How, so how, what, so what how when did you leave the RAF?
EAE: When did I leave it? Long after.
JE: [unclear]
EAE: Long after.
IL: They call it demobbed don’t they?
EAE: Hmmn?
IL: They call it, you were demobbed. Demobilised at some point.
EAE: Yes. Yes
JE: 1950.
IL: So you stayed in the RAF for five years?
JE: He signed on after for more years.
IL: Oh. You signed, you carried on in the RAF. So what did you do? Were you still an air traffic controller?
JE: [unclear]
IL: Right. Ok. And where was, where did you work after the war then with the RAF?
EAE: England.
IL: Right.
EAE: Is a place that have branches all over England.
JE: Did he say?
IL: So did you move around?
EAE: No. No. I never move around as much as people would think.
JE: I think he’s forgotten now.
EAE: Pardon?
JE: You was a sergeant wasn’t you?
EAE: That’s right.
JE: Yeah.
EAE: But what I’m saying is you wasn’t moving around like that.
IL: No.
JE: No.
IL: No.
EAE: Yes. You see. I was at Yatesbury. I was at Compton Bassett.
JE: Ok.
EAE: But what I’m saying is, is one place at a time.
IL: Oh yes. But was Compton Bassett after the war or before or during the war?
EAE: During and after. Compton.
IL: Oh. You stayed. You stayed there. Ok. So you stayed there for about five years.
EAE: Five years. No.
JE: He was discharged in 1950. You signed on for three more years and you said you were going to go to, they wanted to send you abroad didn’t they? Where did they want to send you? But you were married by then.
EAE: Yes.
JE: Singapore.
EAE: Yes.
JE: He was married before you see.
EAE: Right.
JE: Yes. I’m second wife.
IL: You nearly went. So why did you not go to Singapore?
JE: Because he didn’t want to leave his wife.
IL: Oh I see. She wasn’t allowed to come with you.
JE: She was English.
IL: There are reasons.
JE: I don’t think she —
IL: That were not explained at the time and will not be explained after.
EAE: Yes. I was talking to Jayne earlier and she was saying you didn’t have a particularly kind experience at times and that you weren’t, didn’t feel completely welcomed into, into England.
EAE: Yeah. A lot of things that happened then that you don’t want opened up again.
IL: Ok. Ok.
JE: Ok.
IL: We won’t talk, we won’t talk about that.
EAE: Well I don’t know about you won’t talk.
IL: Oh no. If you wanted to talk I would be delighted to hear you. But I don’t want to sort of I don’t want to stir things up and upset you if that’s not what you’d, you’d like to talk about. But if you wanted to talk about it we’d be delighted because not only is your history part of the RAF but your history is part of the Caribbean. You know, Caribbean people coming to England. And it’s a very important part of history.
EAE: Yes.
IL: And it’s very important. I think it’s very important that young people learn the lessons and listen to, you know what, what.
EAE: What happened to the old ones.
IL: What racist. Well what racism —
EAE: Yeah.
IL: Sort of, you know the personal cost. So as I say if you want to talk about it I would love to listen but I don’t want to sort of ask you questions if they’re going to upset you.
EAE: Let’s talk about happy things.
IL: Good. So what, so after you left the RAF what did you do?
EAE: What did I do?
IL: Yes.
EAE: Air traffic control.
JE: After that.
IL: After that. But after you left the RAF in 1950.
JE: You went on a course.
IL: What did you do?
JE: Do you remember? You went on a course. Do you remember?
EAE: Yes. I —
JE: Scientific glass blowing. Do you remember that?
EAE: Yeah.
IL: Gosh.
JE: Yeah. And you became the foreman didn’t you? Do you remember? Can you remember that back, far back?
IL: And then you ran a taxi, taxi training school.
JE: Yeah.
IL: And taught a lot of people The Knowledge. And I gather you were the second afro Caribbean man to get The Knowledge.
EAE: In civil life I’ll always be a taxi driver.
JE: Yeah.
IL: So did you ever get any famous people in your taxi?
EAE: A lot.
JE: Doris Day.
EAE: A lot.
IL: Right.
JE: Yeah.
IL: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me? Is there anything else you think, you think about. What did, do you have any views on how the people in Bomber Command were treated after the war?
EAE: You just don’t know who was treated how. You know. They got demobbed. They went to this section, that section. You can’t keep up with them. You’d have to view them themselves for them to tell you what’s happened.
IL: Ok. Did you, did you make friends in the RAF?
EAE: You would do that.
IL: Yeah.
EAE: Wouldn’t you?
IL: Of course. Did you, did you, did you keep in touch with them after the war?
JE: Yeah.
EAE: You do. Yeah.
JE: Do you, do you remember all your friends at the West Indian Ex-Servicemen. We used to go there. Do you remember? A lot of them there were in the air force and the army weren’t they? Mr Webb. Do you remember Mr Webb. Phil Potts was a great friend of yours wasn’t he? A lot of them have passed.
IL: Yeah. Absolutely.
JE: Use your tissue babe. In your pocket. Use your tissue. The other one. The other pocket. That’s good.
IL: Shall we just stop for a —
JE: Sorry.
[recording paused]
JE: Trying to jog his memory.
IL: So Jayne you were saying that Alex used to like to come down to London when he was on leave.
JE: Yeah. He used to like to go to the dances. I think all of them did. Most of the young Caribbean would come down to do. You know. They were all eighteen nineteen twenty. They were all young men. And I think, he did tell me that there used to be trouble like when they used to ask the English girls to dance because their ladies weren’t here. Their Caribbean ladies were all in the West Indies. So they ask a girl to dance and the other gents, the white population would object. And sometimes fights used to break out. He told me that himself. Because his first wife he met in the, he met in the Lyceum. Didn’t you Alex? You met Joan in the Lyceum. She lived in Carshalton and when they got married he went to live in her mum and dad’s house. They loved him.
IL: Yeah.
JE: They loved him. I’ve met the family. They loved him. His mother in law, Liz thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Although he was, although he was black, you know them days were different. She loved Alex because she said he came to fight and help Britain.
IL: Well, of course.
JE: You know. The father wasn’t too happy. But Alex used to play cricket as well, you know, for Carshalton and that and his father in law used to go and watch him and people would say, ‘That guy plays good cricket.’ He might be the only black he goes yeah that’s my father in law er, ‘That’s my son in law.’ So they were very proud of him.
IL: Yeah.
JE: He was a very gentle man. You know. Good quality person. He had a very good education in Jamaica. From a middle class family. His father was Cuban and his mother was Jamaican. So he come from a very good family background and he was a very educated gentleman. I think that’s why he must have passed an exam to get in air traffic control. They didn’t just give it to him.
IL: No. No.
JE: So, they saw that he was bright. He was very, well he is an educated man. It’s just that you know his illness now has robbed him of a lot of it. But he’s still Alex underneath. Yeah. A good man.
IL: What did you do at cricket? Did you play cricket in the RAF?
JE: Yeah.
IL: Were you a batsman or a bowler or both? Oh you were a spin bowler.
EAE: All rounder.
IL: All rounder. Sorry.
JE: Yeah.
IL: Sorry. I thought you were showing me how you spun the ball. I was going to say because if you were a spinner you could probably get a place in the England team at the moment.
EAE: I wouldn’t want it.
IL: No. You wouldn’t. You’d want to play for the West Indies.
JE: Yeah. Viv Richards and all that. We used to watch that didn’t we? On TV.
IL: Absolutely.
JE: Yeah. I think he’s getting a bit tired now.
IL: Yeah. I think we, we’ll stop the interview just there.
JE: Yeah.
IL: And Alex and I will just talk.
JE: Yeah.
IL: And if there’s anything else we need to say.
JE: Yeah.


Ian Locker, “Interview with Emmanuel Alexis Elden,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 17, 2024,

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