History

Second World War

Participants

African

Their own stories:

Johnny Smythe

Johnny Smythe was born on 30th June 1915, in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Johnny volunteered to help in the war effort and joined the RAF. He was one of only four, out of a batch of ninety men, to complete his training as a Navigator Officer. After spending another year studying to become a navigator, he was posted to a bomber squadron.

"We knew what lay ahead of us. Every day we counted the number that returned. We also knew that there was a good chance that we would not return. We met with our first serious trouble during an operation over Mainz in Germany. The plane had several times been pelted by flak and it was in a bad state. Although we lost one of our engines, we still managed to limp back home."

"On one occasion we were flying back over England when a German fighter began to dog us. I saw it first and yelled to the rear gunner, 'Frank, open up!' It was quite scary because we were flying so low that, had the plane been actually shot down, we wouldn't have had time to bail out! The noise caused by the two aircraft brought our anti-aircraft fire from the ground, which fended off the German fighter, and we were able to land safely. Another lucky escape!"

Johnny Smythe was promoted to Flying Officer. But on his 28th mission, on the night of 18th November 1943, his luck ran out:

"We were flying at 16,000 ft when the fighters came out of nowhere. They raked the fuselage and there were flames everywhere. Then the searchlights caught us. I was hit by shrapnel. Pieces came from underneath, piercing my abdomen, going through my side. Another came through my seat and into my groin. I heard the pilot ordering us to bail out. We had some rough ones before but this seemed to be the end."

Johnny parachuted to the ground and hid in a barn:

"Men in uniform came into the barn where I was hiding behind some straw. Then they opened up, raking the place with automatic fire. I decided to give in. The Germans couldn't believe their eyes. I'm sure that's what saved me from being shot immediately. To see a black man – and an officer at that – was more than they could come to terms with. They just stood there gazing."

In Stalag Luft One, a prisoner-of-war camp for officers in Pomerania, Smythe helped on the escape committee, but couldn't break out himself:

"I don't think a six-foot-five black man would've got very far in Pomerania, somehow."

The Russians freed Johnny in 1945, and a Russian Army Officer embraced him and gave him vodka:

"I was fĂȘted because I was black. They took me to a town near the camp and I watched as they looted. A pretty German woman was crying because they had taken all her valuables. I wanted to help her but the Russians wouldn't listen. I had hated the Germans and wanted to kill them all, but something changed inside me when I saw her tears and the hopelessness on her face."

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Johnny Smythe

Johnny Smythe (Sierra Leone): RAF.
© Imperial War Museum