Celebrating Black History Month

Honouring the lives of, and sacrifices made by, Britain's Black service personnel.

Celebrating Black History Month

Honouring the lives of, and sacrifices made by, Britain's Black service personnel.

Celebrating Black Military History: 1885 - today

Since 1986 October has been Black History Month in the UK, a global movement. In 2021 the theme for Black History Month in the UK is ‘proud to be’ a motto that resonates well with our Armed Forces Community, where pride in being a member of the military or a military family is strong. SSAFA is proud to have supported our Armed Forces community for 136 years, and our pride is reflected in our national campaign Celebrating Diversity in our Armed Forces Family.

As the UK’s oldest national, tri-service charity we have a long history and connection to the military, so do many of our beneficiaries, volunteers, supporters and employees. Much of SSAFA’s history and the history of the SSAFA family remains untapped, the SSAFA Military History Collection launched in 2020 attempts to unlock, curate and share these histories.

To mark Black History Month, our SSAFA Military History Collection team sought to create a timeline that focused on key moments and figures in black military history, to honour the contributions made by black serving personnel and their families. The timeline focuses on the period from 1885 onwards, the year that the Soldiers, Sailors Families Association (SSFA) was founded, later to become Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen Families Association (SSAFA) following the creation of the RAF in 1918.

Our Black Military History timeline joins our growing collection of historical resources that seek to educate, commemorate and celebrate our entire Armed Forces community. Below you will find a selection of the notable individuals, groups and moments from our Celebrating Black Service Personnel resources.

1885 - 1914

1885- The Soldiers, Sailors Families Association is founded.

When the Second Expeditionary Force set sail for Egypt in February 1885, Major (later Colonel Sir) James Gildea wrote a letter to The Times appealing for money and volunteers to help all military families, who were in need.

A fund was set up to provide allowances. Soon Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales (the future Queen Alexandra) became the first president of what was then called the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association (SSFA).


The King’s African Rifles

The King’s African Rifles were the premier indigenous regiment within British African Colonies. Established in 1902, soldiers of the King’s African Rifles fought for the British Empire in multiple conflicts spanning five decades, including against the Dervish movement in Somaliland, World War 1 and World War 2.

Askaris, or warriors of the King’s African Rifles were originally recruited from the native tribes of Kenya before they were trained and equipped to defend the British Empire and its interests. Most notable of battle honours include the 1940 defence of Moyale on the Kenya-Abyssinia border. 150 soldiers of the King’s African Rifles fought off five times as many Italian soldiers, under a barrage of shells and bullets. Not long after, the regiment was responsible for the 1941 blockade at Djibouti, wherein Askaris maintained large parts of the land frontier, keeping constant watch.

In 1924 each of the six battalions of the King’s African Rifles were granted rifle status, securing their right to carry colours. It was not until the 16th of September 1955 that the King’s African Rifles were presented with their colours at Colito Barracks, Tanzania, by The Governor and Commander-in-Chief: H. E. Sir Edward Twining, GCMG BME. In 1957 the Kings African rifles were retitled the East African Land Forces.


The First World War, 1914 - 1918

George Roberts

George Roberts was born in 1890, in Trinidad. George made his way to Great Britain through signing up to the European Service, before becoming a soldier and fighting in World War 1. He became known for his extraordinary ability to throw bombs back over enemy lines, just as he had done as a boy with coconuts, earning him the nickname, the ‘coconut bomber’. George fought in the battle of Loos, the Somme and in the Dardanelles.

After his military service, George settled in London and was one of the founding members of the League of Coloured Peoples, a group that championed civil rights in the UK. During the Second World War, George was inspired to join the Home Front, and worked as a firefighter during the Blitz. For his service George was awarded the British Empire Medal in the King’s 1944 Birthday honours. In 2016 the London Borough of Southwark honoured George with a blue plaque, located on the Lewis Trust Dwellings in Warner Road, Camberwell, London.


Arthur Roberts

“I saw sights that I never saw before or wish to see again.”

Arthur Roberts was born to Trinidadian parents in 1897. He grew up on the banks of the Clyde where he undertook an engineering apprenticeship before joining the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1917. During WW1, Arthur endured the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. After surviving the campaign, Arthur was taken off of combat duties for the remainder of the war.

Arthur kept a diary of his wartime experience, only found in an attic in 2004. Arthur’s diary offers a unique insight into the Passchendaele campaign and the fierce realities of war. Arthur wrote:

“I wondered if I was in the thoughts of somebody at that precise moment. Then came a wave of pride. Here was I among men sharing the risks and uncertainties of being in the very front ranks of the empire, against its enemies. My patriotism was strong in my breast then and I began to dream of what might be. Would a great chance come my way, if so, would I make the best of it? Of course, I would, I am a man now, a real man."

Arthur’s Wartime diary has been assembled into a book: As good as any man: Scotland’s Black Tommy.


Walter Tull

Born to an English Mother and a Barbadian Father, Walter Tull is widely considered to be the first Black man of mixed heritage to be commissioned to Lieutenant, even with a Colour Bar in place. He served with the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, fighting in the Battle of the Somme.

Tull was well known in England, as a professional footballer, most notably playing for Tottenham Hotspurs. He was one of the first black men to play professionally, and he suffered racial abuse on the pitch. In one incident whilst playing Bristol City at their home ground in 1909, the appalling racism Tull was subjected to by the crowd made it into the match report. Writing in the Football Star, the journalist said:

"Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football... In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field."

Lieutenant Walter Tull died on the Western Front in March 1918.


William Robinson Clarke

At the outbreak of war in 1914, William Robinson Clarke, aged 19, travelled to England from Jamaica at his own cost. He joined the Royal Flying Corps on 26 July 1915, gaining his wings on 26 April 1917, and becoming the first black pilot to fly for Britain.

Clarke was one of the 15,600 Black Caribbean volunteers who enlisted to fight in the First World War.

During a photograph flying mission, Clarke’s plane came under attack from enemy fighters, he was shot through the spine, he managed to pilot his plane nearly back to the aerodrome, and lived to tell the tale.


The Second World War, 1939 - 1945

Learie Constantine

Learie Constantine was born on the West Indies Island of Trinidad and Tobago, in 1901. As a promising young cricketer Learie went on to join the West Indies Cricket team, touring England in 1923 and 1928.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Learie started working for the Ministry of Labour and National service. As a welfare officer, Learie looked after the interests of munitions workers from the West Indies who were employed in English factories. Whilst continuing his cricket career and playing charity matches, Learie helped men working in Liverpool factories deal with severe racism and discrimination in the workplace, working with trade unions to bring about greater racial equality. As part of his employment with the Ministry of Labour, Learie lobbied companies refusing to hire West Indians, for his work, he was awarded an MBE in 1947.

In his personal life Learie Constantine battled against discrimination and racism, culminating in the 1941 British Tort Law case: Constantine V Imperial hotels Ltd. Learie had travelled to London with his family in preparation for playing at Lords. Upon arriving at his hotel, Learie was informed he could only stay one night after other guests complained of his presence. Learie brought the incident to court, claiming breach of contract. Mr Justice Birkett held that a right of Constantine had been violated, it was accepted that an innkeeper had a duty to provide reasonable accommodation. The Constantine V Imperial hotels Ltd. judgment did not end the colour bar in England, but it paved the way for greater racial equality.

In his later years, Learie qualifying as a barrister, and established himself as a journalist and broadcaster, before returning to Trinidad and Tobago in 1953. Learie entered politics, becoming one of the founding members of the People’s National Movement in 1954, and served as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1961-64. Learie remained active within the racial equality moment in the UK, supporting the Bristol Bus Boycott and serving on the Race Relations Board.

He died in 1971, aged 61, and received a state funeral in Trinidad and Tobago. He was posthumously awarded, the Trinity Cross, the highest honour possible in Trinidad and Tobago.


Ena Collymore-Woodstock

Ena Collymore-Woodstock left her native Jamaica in 1943 to join the British Army, she was amongst the first group of women to leave the West Indies to volunteer to go to war. Initially given a clerical role, Ena wrote to the War Office requesting a more challenging posting. She was evaluated and selected to become a radar operator in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which saw her serving in Belgium for a time.

After her military career ended in 1946, Ena went on to become the first black woman to train at Gray’s Inn in the UK. Ultimately becoming a barrister. In addition to being one of the first West Indies women to enlist, and the first woman barrister from Gray’s Inn, Ena would go on to be first women Clerk of Courts for St James Parish, Jamaica. Then in 1953 she became the first woman to be appointed as Assistant Crown Solicitor. Ena was awarded an MBE in 1967 for her work with the Girl Guides.

In January 2021, Ena was interviewed by BFBS after being found to be the oldest living female veteran of the Army at the grand age of 103. Speaking to Forces News she reflected that “There weren’t that many women in the Army at that time. Very few women of colour either…I felt special.”


Amelia King

Amelia King was a third generation Afro-Caribbean woman living in Stepney, London during the Second world war. Amelia was born into a military family, her father from British Guiana, was a firefighter in the British Merchant Navy, whilst her brother served in the Royal Navy. Amelia was inspired to join the British war effort by applying for the Woman’s Land Army. However, in 1943 Amelia was turned away from her local branch on account that her ethnicity would make it difficult to place Amelia for accommodation.

Amelia’s case garnered national press coverage and was even discussed in the house of commons after she presented her case to her local MP. Amelia being denied entry into the Women’s Land Army was considered to be detrimental to the greater war effort. Thereafter, the Women’s Land Army admitted Amelia into its ranks, finding her work on Firth Farm in Portsmouth.

In a later interview, with the Chicago Defender newspaper, Amelia was quoted: "I said to them, if I'm not good enough to work on the land, then I am not good enough to make munitions. No one has ever suggested that my father and brother were not good enough to fight for the freedom of England."


Ulric Cross

Ulric Cross was born in Trinidad in 1917. He joined the RAF in 1941, serving with RAF bomber command achieving the rank of Squadron Leader. In June 1944, Ulric was awarded the Distinguish Flying Cross, and in January of 1945, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Ulric is recognised as one of the most decorated World War 2 West Indian Servicemen.


Major Seth Anthony

Major Seth Anthony was the first Black African to be commissioned into the British Army. Anthony 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. 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 and was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) of the Military Division.


John Henry Smythe

John Henry Smythe volunteered for the RAF as a navigator, fighting in the Second World War He 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. 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, he was then commissioned into the Sierra Leone Naval Volunteer Force and appointed as the country’s Attorney-General. In 1978 he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).


Lilian Bader

Lilian Bader was a pioneer for black women in the Royal Air Force. Born in Liverpool in 1918 to a merchant seaman from Barbados who had fought in the First World War, Lilian enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in March 1941. She qualified as an Instrument Repairer - a role that had only been made available to women in 1940. By December 1941, she was promoted to Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) and soon gained the rank of Acting Corporal. Lilian passed away in 2015, but after a life overcoming discrimination, her legacy as one of the first black women to join the British Armed Forces continues to resonate.


Sam King MBE

Sam King was a Royal Air Force veteran, community leader, and became the first black Mayor of Southwark.

After joining the RAF in 1944, Sam was stationed in the UK, until he was demobbed at the end of the war and sent back to his native Jamaica. Unhappy with his opportunities on the island, in 1948 Sam took the opportunity to return to England on the Empire Windrush.

Working on the Brixton-based West Indian Gazette in the 1950s, Sam was heavily involved in the original incarnation of the Notting Hill Carnival, the cultural event that celebrates Britain’s Caribbean communities.
He would go on to form the Windrush Foundation charity, and was awarded an MBE for his service to the community in 1998.


Post War, 1946 - 1999

The Empire Windrush

On 22 June 1948 Her Majesty’s Transport, Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury Docks, Essex, bringing one of the largest post-war groups of West Indian immigrants to Great Britain. Formerly, a German vessel, after the Second World War, the ship was seized by Great Britain as a prize of war. She was primarily a troopship, and only once made the journey from the Caribbean to the UK.

According to the RAF, roughly one third of the passengers onboard that now infamous journey, were RAF airmen returning from leave or veterans re-joining. Amongst these men was Sam King (see above). The RAF airmen were greeted at Tilbury by former RAF Policeman, Baron Baker. Originally from Jamaica, Baron welcomed the airmen and his fellow RAF veterans, organising temporary accommodation for those who needed it. 

In an exhibition for the RAF Museum Baron Baker is quoted as recalling: “Many of those on the Windrush were ex-servicemen, and there was an immediate understanding between us.”

With post-war Britain facing labour shortages, many of the other passengers were enticed to cross the Atlantic on Windrush by the job opportunities in the UK, responding to job adverts in local newspapers. Not all those who were onboard were welcomed as warmly as the RAF airmen were by Baron Baker.

Discrimination, racism and violence would be faced by many of the Windrush generation. When in 1958, Baron Baker found that some West Indians were being terrorised by racist gangs in Notting Hill, he used his RAF Police training to organise ‘neighbourhood watch’ groups enlisting Black veterans to keep a watchful eye on their community.

HMT Empire Windrush was never used again to bring Caribbean migrants to the UK, but she did continue to be used to bring service personnel and their families back to the UK, mostly across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Then in March 1954 disaster struck, after setting sail from Japan, and just 100km northwest of Algiers, Empire Windrush broke down and caught fire, eventually sinking.

Four crew members lost their lives on that fateful day, but despite the speed at which the blaze spread all the 1,500 passengers were rescued. British Pathe news reports that women and children were loaded into the lifeboats first, and that the passengers “waited with iron calm on the deck of the blazing vessel”. All the passengers onboard the Windrush the day of its sinking were troops and their families returning from service in South East Asia, having been picked up from Singapore, Aden, after Windrush departed Japan.

With all the passengers being members of the Armed Forces, SSAFA immediately responded coming to the aid of the passengers. A tonne of clothing and blankets was sent to Gibraltar where the passengers had been taken upon being rescued. As survivors from the wreck began to be airlifted to the UK by RAF, SSAFA opened the doors of the SSAFA Married Families Club. Established during the Second World War in Earl’s Court, the Club provided accommodation for the families on the Empire Windrush. An article in the news at the time, featured an interview with Marjorie Potts, who was in charge of SSAFA Married Families Club, she describes making up 60 beds, providing families with food and tea, baths and beds for the night before they headed to their homes or onward destinations.


Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes

Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes, initially joined the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) aged 18 in 1988. Her first role in the WRAC was as a HGV driver. She later qualified as a basic physical training instructor (PTI), gaining the rank of Sergeant Class 1 PTI.

Having competed in athletics in her youth, in 1992 Holmes made the decision to pursue an athletics career whilst remaining in the Army. Dame Kelly demonstrated her deeply commitment to her military responsibilities by using her annual leave to represent Great Britain at the 1993 World Championships, swapping her guard duties to accommodate her time away. In 1997, with increased funding for athletes available Sergeant Holmes left the Army to become a full-time athlete.

During her athletics career Dame Kelly, won a total of three Commonwealth medals, three World Championship medals, plus a World Indoor Championship Silver medal in 2003, before winning two Gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Her Olympic gold medals followed a Bronze Olympic medal from the Sydney Olympics four years earlier.

Dame Kelly Holmes was made an Honorary Colonel of the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment in 2018, at the time of the appointment approved by Her Majesty the Queen Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes said:

“You cannot underestimate how much my military career has led to this point and it was a dream of mine when I was 14 to join the military. I joined when I was 18 years of age and it is one of the best things I have ever done and it has made me who I am.”

Dame Kelly Holmes, has been a stronger supporter of SSAFA over the years and in 2017 featured in our Women at War campaign: 100 years of women serving in the Armed Forces.

In 2019 Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes shared her experiences of loneliness and isolation for SSAFA’s Christmas campaign highlighting the difficulties faced by the military.

Most recently in 2021, Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes joined SSAFA to celebrate International Women’s Day.


2000 - present day

Colour Sergeant Johnson Gideon Beharry

Colour Sergeant Johnson Gideon Beharry was born in 1979 in Grenada. Johnson joined the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment in August 2001, serving as a Warrior Armoured Vehicle driver. In 2004 Johnson was deployed to Iraq. It was Johnson’s actions in May of 2004 that earnt him the Victoria Cross, which had not been awarded to a living recipient for 30 years.

On the 1st of May Johnson was driving a Warrior to the aid of an ambushed foot patrol, when the Warrior was hit with rocket propelled grenades, injuring the platoon commander, the vehicle gunner, and a number of other soldiers inside. Johnson exposed his head to small arms fire through his driver’s hatch, driving the crew to safety.

On a second occasion just 10 days later, Johnson’s vehicle was ambushed again. A rocket propelled grenade hit his vehicle, causing Johnson serious shrapnel injuries to his face and brain. Despite his injuries Johnson drove his Warrior out of the ambush before losing consciousness.

The beginning of Johnson Beharry’s Victoria cross citation reads: “Private Beharry carried out two individual acts of great heroism by which he saved the lives of his comrades. Both were in direct face of the enemy, under intense fire, at great personal risk to himself (one leading to him sustaining very serious injuries). His valour is worthy of the highest recognition.”


Mary Seacole Statue

In 2016 a statute of Mary Seacole was erected at St. Thomas’ Hospital on London’s Southbank. Mary was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, and travelled independently to set up the "British Hotel" behind the lines during the Crimean War (1853-1856), providing care for wounded servicemen on the battlefield and nursing many of them back to health.

Mary’s hotel near Balaclava was situated close to the fighting and she was able to visit the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded.

The Times War Correspondent, Sir William H Russell, wrote of Mary in 1857: "I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead".

That same year, a fundraising gala to honour of Mary Seacole was held over four nights on the banks of the River Thames with over 80,000 people in attendance, whilst her bestselling autobiography 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands' was also published.

Mary died in London in 1881.


Major Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah

2017, Major Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah selected to be the Queen’s Equerry. Ghanian born Household Cavalry Officer Major Twumasi-Ankrah became the first black Equerry to serve the British monarch. He continued as Equerry to her Majesty, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander, until 2020, when as is custom the role was transferred to another of Armed Forces service.


Corie Mapp

In 2018, former Household Cavalry soldier, Corie Mapp wins the Para Bobsleigh World Cup for the first time, after securing eight podium placings out of ten races during the season.  Mapp had begun competing in para-sports after he was severely injured by an IED blast whilst on tour in Afghanistan.

On 31st January 2010, Lance Corporal Mapp of The Life Guards was driving his armoured vehicle on combat operations in Afghanistan when it ran over an IED. Mapp would wake up in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, to discover he had lost both his legs in the explosion. Two months later, and having made a miraculous recovery, Corie was back with his regiment in Windsor, and continued to serve until 2013.

Originally from Barbados, Mapp had always loved sport, and as part of his rehabilitation from his injuries was introduced to disabled cricket, sitting volleyball for which he become a member of Team GB competing at the European Championships, and athletics taking part in the Warrior and Invictus Games.

But it was after being introduced to the winter sport of bobsleigh that Corie would rack up medals and international titles.

Following his 2018 World Cup win, Corie took silver at the World Championships in 2019. In the 2019/20 season Corie was enjoying a successful run, winning four gold medals and a silver in the 10-race World Cup competition, and claiming the continental crown in Oberhof in December. He was hotly tipped to take overall Gold, then Covid-hit and the season was cancelled.

On the international bobsleigh circuit Corie is affectionately known as ‘Black Ice’, the name which Corie has given to his autobiography “Black Ice: The memoir of a soldier, double amputee and world champion” set for release on 14 October 2021.


Welsh National War Memorial Commemoration

In 2019 Cardiff unveiled a commemorative plaque to honour the contributions “made by diverse ethnic and Commonwealth men and women who served our country in World War I and World War II and to date.” The plaque was erected following a 26 year long campaign led by Patti Flynn, who lost her father and brothers in the Second World War.

Ms Flynn, who was aged 81 at the time of the unveiling told the BBC that the sacrifices of servicemen and women from diverse backgrounds had been “forgotten” and deserved special recognition. The plaque was unveiled at the Welsh National War Memorial, in a special ceremony with 200 people in attendance, including representatives of the Armed Forces. Ms Flynn described the unveiling as a “great day” expressing her joy at the fact, a tribute was being paid to “people of colour from all the different nationalities.”

Ms Flynn’s family came from Tiger Bay, as the dock area of Cardiff was then known. The Tiger Bay community sustained devastating losses during the Second World War with many of its men being lost in the conflict. As well as the civilian losses sustained during The Blitz, which saw German bombers target the area.

Ms Flynn’s father Wilmott Young, had been born in Jamaica but came to south Wales as a seaman during the coal boom, and married a Welsh woman. When war broke our he enlisted into the Armed Forces, along with his two sons who lied about their ages in order to join up. Both Mr Young and his son Jocelyn died after their merchant navy boats were torpedoed in separate incidents, a year apart. Whilst Ms Flynn’s other brother, Sgt Arthur Young, a wireless operator in the RAF, was killed when his Lancaster bomber crashed returning from France.