From Sierra Leone in West Africa, John Henry Smythe was one of the first Black airmen in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF navigator had already flown 26 missions as a Short Stirling bomber crew member when he was shot down and captured in Nazi Germany in 1943.
Having decided to join the fight against fascism following calls from Britain for recruits from its colonies, Smythe later told his family how dangerous it was being a part of a bomber crew, especially flying in the dark with shells bursting all around you. Yet in his days, even though his plane was hit by enemy fire many times during risky flights that took him over the English Channel, France and Germany, he always managed to survive.
“A lot of the guys loved flying with him,” his son Eddy Smythe explains. “They’d say: ‘Johnny, you’ve got black magic. Your plane gets shot up but you always get back.'”
But on November 18, 1943, during his 27th mission over Europe, Smythe’s good fortune came to an end when his bomber was shot down. His skin color would help save his life.
A Krio, Smythe was born and brought up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he worked as a civil servant before joining the RAF in 1940, at the height of the Second World War. He was one of the hundreds who applied to be trained as pilots.
Having read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smythe knew the dangers that might befall people of African descent if the Nazis were allowed to take control. So he didn’t think twice about joining the RAF. Completing basic training in Britain to become a navigator, Smythe was attached to a bomber squadron. He would successfully navigate 26 bombing missions over Germany at a time many crews hardly made it past 12 operations, either due to being killed or captured when their aircraft was shot down.
But then the disaster occurred in 1943. As Smythe and his crew flew towards Berlin to launch their attack, their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. “He was wounded twice, once in the ribs and once in the groin,” explained Smythe’s son. “But they continued to the target and dropped their bombs. Normally, the plane would then climb as high as possible, to get away from danger, but one of the engines had been damaged. So they were shot down by a German fighter plane.
“He managed to jump out of the burning plane. The first thing he did after landing was to hide the parachute and then try to escape. He didn’t even realize at the time how much blood he had lost and the adrenaline just kicked in.”
Smythe hid in a barn but was soon captured by German soldiers, who were shocked to find a 6ft 4in (195cm) tall Black man in the middle of Germany. Smythe later recalled in an interview: “The Germans couldn’t believe their eyes. I’m sure that’s what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man — an officer at that — was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing.”
But while being taken to the local German police station for questioning, he was harassed by some of the officers who kept hitting him in the ribs where he had been shot. He was subsequently taken to a hospital to be treated for his wounds. There, he found other wounded airmen, all Germans. Then at a center in Frankfurt, Smythe later recounted what his captors told him: “You are a Black man, you should not interfere in a white man’s war.”
“So I said ‘if they’re going to shoot me so be it, let them shoot me’.”
Smythe was instead transferred to Stalag Luft I, a prison camp for Allied airmen captured by the Germans. He stayed there for the next 18 months until he was rescued by the Soviets in 1945 and taken back to Britain. “We were all just prisoners together. It wasn’t until I looked in the mirror that I remembered that I was black,” Smythe reportedly said of his experiences as a Black man taken prisoner in Nazi Germany.
“They had access to the radio, they had a chap who could put one together with a few wires so they knew what was happening outside, despite the fact that the Germans would play them propaganda, they knew how the war was going. They knew that the Russians were coming from the east,” Smythe’s son, Eddy, said.
“One day they got up in the morning and the guards were gone. The Germans had just left in the night: they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians and they didn’t want to be left with the freed prisoners.”
In 1948 after the war, Smythe led the historic SS Windrush voyage, the mass exodus of Afro-Caribbean peoples to the United Kingdom. History says due to the casualties of war, more inhabitants of the Caribbean were encouraged to migrate to countries under British jurisdiction. They were named Windrush in commemoration of the Empire Windrush, the ship that transported them to the UK. In 1948, Smythe was a senior officer on the ship, which was to take ex-military personnel back to their homes in the Caribbean.
“They had been dropping people back but when they got to Jamaica, a labour officer came on board. He told them the economy was struggling and the returning men were going to have a very hard time, so he asked if they could go back to Britain.
“Dad contacted the Colonial Office and they told him that as he was the senior officer, he should come up with the plan,” Eddy said. “My father didn’t realize that this was such an important matter. Not until he got back to Southhampton and they were met by a reception committee, had planes flying past, did he sense that he had made a very important decision.”
Smythe later trained as a barrister in London before returning to his home country, Sierra Leone. There, he became a Queen’s Counsel and Attorney General. Smythe moved back to the UK with his family in 1993 after retiring from public service in Sierra Leone. He died in Thame, Oxfordshire on July 9, 1996, and was survived by his wife and five children.