'They were trailblazers' - Midlands RAF veteran shares forgotten war stories of black men and women

  • ITV News Central's Pablo Taylor has spoken to a Midlands RAF veteran who collects forgotten stories of black servicemen and women

As part of Black History Month, ITV Central News has been learning about the black men and women who served in the First and Second World War. 

Hundreds of thousands took part in the conflicts and one of those is - Donald Campbell, a former RAF officer from Birmingham - who is helping to bring the stories of others to light. 

His website, The Forgotten Generations, now serves as a library of articles, interviews and facts about the black men and women who took part in the conflicts. 

“A lot of people don’t know about the contributions of black servicemen and women because it’s not widely publicised and the Forgotten Generations was initiated to put that right.”

Soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment organising munition shells on the front line during the First World War Credit: British Pathé

Donald’s research has helped shine a light on stories including that of the British West Indies Regiment, formed during the First World War.

The unit was created because soldiers from the Caribbean were not permitted to serve alongside white units.

Initially, having been denied the use of weapons, their roles were limited to labour duties but as casualties began to rise, they were eventually given guns and called upon as reinforcements during battles including the Somme in 1916.

The 6888th Battalion stand in formation in Birmingham, England Credit: The National Archives

Other, lesser known facts include the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-Black unit of American women set up to fix the disrupted postal services of foreign countries during the Second World War.

It was the only all-black, all-female battalion sent overseas during the conflict.

“There were several millions of letters that hadn’t been delivered, and there was a backlog of about three years. So they came from the States to Birmingham, England to help with that. They were given six months to do it and they actually did it in three. So that was very significant but a lot of people don’t know.”

RAF officer, Johnny Smythe

Donald’s work has also helped shine a light on incredible individual stories like that of Johnny Smythe, a navigator from Sierra Leone, who was part of an RAF air crew that was shot down over Nazi Germany in 1943.

He was later captured and sent to Stalag Luft 1, a prisoner of war camp near Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany, for captured allied airmen.

After spending two years in the camp, Smythe returned home to Britain, he remained in the RAF but was seconded to the colonial office in London where his duties included looking after the welfare of RAF servicemen and women from the Caribbean.

Johnny Smythe (second from left) with the first group of Windrush immigrants at Tilbury docks in 1948 Credit: PA

It is within this role that he was asked to board the Empire Windrush, a former German navy ship, being used to transport a large group of West Indian immigrants needed to help restore public services in the UK.

RAF veteran Donald Campbell believes more children should learn about black history

Donald Campbell believes these stories deserve a place in the national curriculum, ensuring that children don’t just learn about black history once a year.

“History shouldn’t be limited to Henry XIII and the Battle of Hastings. Black history is very important for all to learn. Because they were trailblazers,  our fore parents. They fought and some of them died for us to be here so that’s very important as a legacy for all the youngsters and future generations.”