Sierra Leonean Heroes in the Royal Air Force
By Iyamide Thomas
1 April 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and 12th April saw the long awaited official opening of the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) in Lincoln, a world-class facility acknowledging the efforts, sacrifices and commitment of the men and women, from 62 different nations, who came together in Bomber Command during World War 2. The IBCC is also building a digital archive and has so far preserved over 1500 collections of memorabilia and recorded over 900 oral histories about people who served in or experienced the war.
In this issue of BHM Magazine we feature excerpts from two articles previously written in Black History Month Magazine (2014 and 2017) in collaboration with Eddy Smythe and Olu Hyde, sons of Sierra Leonean World War 2 heroes RAF Pilot Officers Johnny Smythe, O.B.E and Ade Hyde, C.B.E. respectively. I was privileged to attend the opening of the IBCC with my friend Eddy, where his interview of his dad is now memorialised and can be accessed here (https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/8776).
This is how Eddy and Olu remember their fathers.
Adesanya Kwamina Hyde,
my father, was born on the 4th September 1915 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Although he was Kroo, an ethnic group in West Africa who were traditionally fishermen, the family lived in a Krio wooden house. Ade Hyde, as he was commonly known, was educated in Freetown. During the great depression (1929 – 1939) there were few good job opportunities for people leaving school. He recalled drinking with friends when one pointed out an advert in a newspaper for volunteers to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). True to his adventurous spirit and desire to improve himself, he travelled to the United Kingdom in 1941 and enlisted in the RAF. Although he spoke very little about his years in the RAF, dad did mention his experience of a bitter winter at his first training base, RAF Lossiemouth in the north of Scotland, with particular reference to the toilets being in outbuildings and freezing. How he must have longed for the West African sunshine!
He graduated from training as a navigator and took part in 31 operations in Bomber Command including D-Day operations in 1944. In August 1944 he was wounded when a German anti-aircraft shell exploded close to his Lincoln Handley Page bomber and sent shrapnel through the fuselage. A piece of shrapnel lodged itself in his right shoulder.
The routine procedure following such a serious and painful injury during an operation was to administer a morphine injection. He knew that this would render him incapable of navigating back and therefore put the lives of the whole crew at risk. He refused the injection and navigated back to the United Kingdom in extreme pain. He only accepted the morphine when the pilot spotted the white cliffs of Dover and was sure he could find his way back to base unaided. In November 1944 my father was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C) for this act of valour, courage and devotion to duty. He was also promoted to Pilot Officer. My father was quiet with great humility and charm. He did not like violence. He never liked war. The most obvious reminder that he had been to war was the scar from the shrapnel on his shoulder which was in the shape of an oak leaf.
John (‘Johnny’) Henry Smythe
John (‘Johnny’) Henry Smythe QC, OBE (1915 -1996) was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone,
West Africa. At school he excelled in high jump, sprinting, cricket and soccer. He did not have to go to war but when the British called on the colonies to assist its war effort to stop Hitler’s Germany he volunteered. After basic training under British officers in Freetown he rose to the rank of sergeant in 1939. When a volunteer force for the Royal Air Force (RAF) was needed, though hundreds volunteered Johnny Smythe was one of six Sierra Leoneans chosen who duly sailed to England. He became an RAF navigator and helped pilots flying Lancaster bombers stay on course during bombing missions in Germany and Italy. My father undertook 27 bombing missions and on a mission on November 18, 1943 their plane was shot down. He was wounded and although parachuted successfully he was captured and spent 18 months in Stalag Luft I a German prisoner of war camp before being released in 1945 when the Russians finally invaded Germany.
Strangely, I grew up knowing fairly little about my dad’s war record and what actually went on during that time. He simply never spoke about it. My siblings and I were always scared of having to wake him up, because no matter how gently you tried to rouse him, he would almost leap out of bed shouting. We learnt this was due to attacks that took place at the various camps he trained at in the UK, as the German air force tried to kill as many trainee airmen as possible. We almost had to draw lots with the loser having to wake him up! It was only years later we got the full story. He was our hero and a fantastic role model.
My Dad’s S.S. Empire Windrush Contribution
When he was stationed in London after the end of the war Dad worked for the English Colonial Office, which was the department of the Secretary of State for the colonies. The department was responsible for supervising the welfare of the five thousand or more troops from the colonies then serving in the armed forces in Britain as well as for effecting arrangements for their repatriation if and when the need arose. In his post, dad was required to accompany a large contingent of West Indian airmen who had been demobilised and who were returning to their respective home islands in the Caribbean. They travelled on an old ship, the S.S. Empire Windrush. Most of the Caribbean islands were visited, dropping airmen off on route. Jamaica was the largest of the islands visited but it was paralysed by economic and social problems with high rates of unemployment. As a result, the men were given the option of returning to Britain to work which most of them did. Hence my dad returned with the airmen on Windrush to Southampton and the rest as they say is history!