Sunday, 28 February 2021
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A contribution (DV14) to our series "Distant Voices"
By Gabriel J. Christian. President East Coast Chapter Tuskegee Airmen (2018-2020) This article is also published by Gabriel at with further illustrations

Wendell ChristianAround seven thousand British West Indians - including my father seen here -  served in the British armed forces during World War II. When Britain declared war on September 19, 1939, the Royal Air Force (RAF) itself was compelled to overcome the prejudices of the time. After the defeat of France in 1940 and the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, Britain found itself in dire straits. With advocacy by progressive Britons and British West Indians who spoke out against segregation, the RAF, to its credit, integrated its ranks. Around 7,000 British West Indians rallied to freedom's cause and served as fighter pilots, bomb aimers, air gunners, ground staff and administration. No other colonies, or group of nations, contributed more airmen to the RAF during World War II. This is even more remarkable, and their commitment more profound, given the small populations of the islands. Several Africans from Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone also became officers in the RAF, with the most notable being RAF Flight Lieutenant Johnny Smythe of Sierra Leone, who was shot down over Germany on his 28th mission and survived imprisonment in the famous Stalag Luft One.


HMS-Invincible-IWM-Q-39273-249x192By Richard Bridges
My Great-Uncle Richard Townsend served as the Commander of HMS Invincible throughout her time in the First World War.

HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible were the first of Admiral Jackie Fisher's battle cruisers ("Fisher's greyhounds"). Designed to deal with German armoured cruisers they were intended to use their superior firepower together with speed to keep out of harm's way while they pulverised the enemy. She was built by Armstrong Whitworth on the Tyne 19060-9, when she was commissioned. Amongst her armaments were 4 twin turrets housing Vickers-designed 12 inch guns, whose 13.7 metre long barrels could project a third of a tonne shell nearly 23 kilometres at twice the speed of sound.


Joan Wanklyns painting of Ajax Bay Major (later Brigadier) Tony Welch wrote in the Distant Voices series:

Much has been written about the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and RAF fighting units involved in the Falkands Conflict but less about the amazing logistic gamble taken to conduct a war at the end of an eight-thousand-mile supply line. This article looks at the conflict from a logicians' point of view and relates how ingenuity and hard work kept the British forces going forward to eventual victory over terrific odds. (This illustration is by Joan Wanklyn of Ajax Bay)


Young mum22852158 1996377177298499 1051457243680247884 nAs told over several years to her son, Robin Ashby

During the Second World War, at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, Marie remembers a soldier who lived downstairs below her mother's flat in then very unfashionable Islington north of Kings Cross Station, returning having lost most of his clothing. In the summer of 1940 as a17 year old she evacuated herself to a house in Kent. It was owned her mother's former employer, who had written suggesting it. She did some light domestic work, but as it was "more dangerous in Kent than London" with so many air raids (against the Kent airfields where her future husband was serving) during the Battle of Britain she went back home.


Brian Desmond Joseph WelchMy father, Sgt Brian Welch, was a member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), sent to England to fly as a tail gunner, in Stirling and Lancaster bombers, over Germany and Europe, writes retired Brigadier Dr Anthony Welch. After training in Canada, he arrived in England and spent time familiarising himself with the bombers he would fly in on operations before joining an operational squadron in Suffolk.

On leave in London he met my mother, who was an English girl of twenty-one, born in Godalming. He was just two years older than his stunningly beautiful bride. My mother been engaged to marry an American flyer called Bob Ryerson, a winner of the Silver Star, who was to die on operations over Europe. My father had been engaged to a girl in New Zealand before the war but he broke it off when he met my mother, such was her charm. This was, of course, wartime and lives were short. Fun and romance had to be taken as and when it presented itself.

My parents did just that and it was, perhaps, a miracle that my father survived the war. Bomber Command aircrews suffered high casualties. Of a total of 125,000 aircrew, 57,205 were killed, a staggering 46% death rate. Tail gunners were particularly vulnerable. In all, 1,850 New Zealand airmen died in bombers flying from British bases during the war.


John Gallant71c34b25-0473-4e12-a4e9-43e83934ba56By Julian Gallant

Born in 1917 in Winnipeg, John Gallant left this once-prosperous city for the metropolis of Montreal in about 1936. He was looking for work as a jazz musician, and his home city's opportunities were few and far between. War approached inexorably, and he was faced with the choice of eventually being drafted into the infantry or signing up voluntarily with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He chose the latter, but was disqualified as air crew by his poor eyesight. I suspect he consciously avoided ground crew too, given his complete lack of talent for anything mechanical.


memorial2 nWe mark the passing of those who have served their country. Contributions from comrades and families welcome. Email the editor This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Renfrew Leslie ChristieRenfrew Leslie Christie was born in Johannesburg on 11 September 1949. His mother did not remarry after the death of his father just after his second birthday: she brought him up alone on a telephonist's salary. She later worked full time for about ten years for the liberal women's organisation, the Black Sash, advising South Africans endorsed out of their cities under the Pass Laws and Influx Control.
Her Black Sash offices were located in Cosatu House when it was bombed at night by Apartheid operatives.
His mother's brother, his uncle Lieutenant David Taylor, of Cheetah Squadron, South African Air Force, was killed in action flying over North Korea on 20 March 1952.
He graduated from high school in December 1966 and subsequently worked during a vacation as a Metrication Officer for African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI) Limited in 1971, which among other things made munitions for the South Africa (SA) Defence Force at Lenz, near Johannesburg.
He was conscripted into the SA Infantry in April 1967, undergoing basic training at 1 Special Service Battalion in Bloemfontein and thereafter was based at 3 SA Infantry in Lenz, until December 1967. He guarded the Sasolburg oil-from-coal plant for some months.
While guarding the AECI Lenz explosive factory and the Lenz ammunition dump in 1967, he saw something entirely fortuitously which told him that the SA Defence Force was involved with nuclear weapons. He spent the rest of his life hunting the details of the Apartheid nuclear weapons.


I was at home on the Sunday morning when war was declared 3rd September 1939 and I remember my mother weeping.
At the time I was a 16 year old who lived with her parents in a three bed-roomed detached house at 21 Francis Way, Silver End, Essex named after Francis Crittall whose factory made metal windows.
Early on, we had two evacuees billeted on us. They were two London boys (Johnnie Thatcher and Ken Marriott) coincidently from Edmonton where my father had been to the same grammar school as Ken. They arrived in the clothes they stood up in and stayed for about 6 months. My parents received an allowance from the Government to cover their costs. Ken attended my old school (Braintree County High School) while they were with us.
I was all booked to go to Chelsea Polythechnic to do a course in domestic science when war broke out but my parents would not allow me to leave home for fear of invasion and bombing so I left school on 1st January 1940 and took a job at Courtaulds Research Laboratories at Bocking near Braintree.


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