Black History Month
October is Black History Month. We are celebrating diversity in our Armed Forces by sharing stories of inspirational black military figures.
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1. Major Seth Anthony – The First Black African to be commissioned into the British Army
Anthony (1915-2008) was from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and already an officer cadet in the local forces when he enlisted in the Gold Coast Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Force in 1939. Initially involved in the training of recruits, in 1941 he was sent for officer training at Sandhurst, being commissioned as second lieutenant in 1942. He later served in Burma with the 81st West African Division.
Anthony ended the war with the rank of major, having been mentioned in dispatches on several occasions. Appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) of the Military Division, he later worked as an Assistant District Officer in the years prior to the Gold Coast's independence. He later served as Ghana's first permanent representative at the United Nations in New York.
2. Lilian Bader – One of the first black females in the British Armed Forces
Bader was determined to join up – and after hearing that the RAF was accepting recruits with a West Indian background, applied for, and was enlisted with, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) on 28 March 1941. She found herself "the only coloured person in this sea of white faces", but "somebody told me I looked smart in my uniform, which cheered me no end."
She was one of the first women to be trained as an instrument repairer, a trade that was newly opened to women. In December 1941, her academic prowess and personable nature once again shone through and after passing several exams, Lilian graduated as a First Class Airwoman and was soon in Shropshire where her skills saw her being promoted to Corporal and leading Aircraftwoman.
3. Alan Wilmot – From high seas to high skies
Allan was born in Jamaica in 1925. After leaving college in 1941, he volunteered to join the Royal Navy, serving on a patrolling ship, escorting mine sweepers, and picking up survivors in the West Indies. In 1944 he volunteered for Royal Air Force service, and joined the air sea rescue team until 1947. Wilmot was a member of the chart-topping Southlanders in the 1950s – the first black group to achieve popular success in the UK, and the longest-running.
4. Dame Kelly Holmes DBE – Soldier turned Olympian
In the Army, she was initially a lorry driver in the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), later becoming a basic physical training instructor (PTI). Holmes then elected in June 1990 to attend the first course to be run under the Army's new Physical Training syllabus, and successfully passed out as a Class 2 PTI. Although militarily quite young, Holmes' athletic prowess was impressive and she was encouraged to attend the course selection for full-time transfer to the Royal Army Physical Training Corps (RAPTC).
Holmes eventually qualified as a Sergeant Class 1 PTI, although she remained in the Adjutant General's Corps after the disbandment of the WRAC in 1992. Holmes watched the 1992 Summer Olympics on television, and on seeing Lisa York in the heats of the 3000 metres, an athlete whom she had competed against, and beaten, she decided to return to athletics. For several years she combined athletics with employment in the Army, until increased funding allowed her to become a full-time athlete in 1997.
5. Air Commodore David Case – Highest ranking Black Officer in the RAF
Air Commodore David Case is the highest ranking black officer in the Royal Air Force, and one of the most senior black serving officers in the entire British military establishment. He is also the director of the Department of Specialist Ground Training at the RAF College in Cranwell, the equivalent of Sandhurst.
Air Commodore Case came to the UK from Guyana when he was five, and dreamed of being a pilot. However, when it was discovered that he was long-sighted, this put an end to his dream. Despite his disappointment, he went to study aeronautical engineering at Queens University, Belfast in order to work with aircrafts. He received his commission in 1975, and was awarded the distinguished Sword of Honour, which is bestowed upon the top cadet officer of the year.
6. Pilot Officer John Henry Smythe
John Henry Smythe was born in 1915, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1939 he joined the Sierra Leone Defence Corps, rising to the rank of Sergeant. Sponsored by the government of Sierra Leone, John volunteered for the RAF as a navigator, fighting in WWII.
John completed 27 missions over Germany and Italy. On the night of 18 November 1943 he was the navigator aboard a heavy bomber of No 623 Squadron dispatched to attack the German city of Manheim. The aircraft was crippled and the crew was forced to parachute from the stricken aircraft. John was captured and spent the next 18 months in a prisoner of war camp until it was liberated.
After the war John stayed in the RAF studying Law until 1951 when he was called to the Bar at Middle Temple. John was then commissioned into the Sierra Leone Naval Volunteer Force and having been selected as a Queen’s Counsel he was appointed as the country’s Attorney-General. In 1978 he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).
You can find out more about Black History Month here.