Anyone old enough to recall the innovative BBCtv programme ‘Tonight’, broadcast in the late 50s and early 60s, will remember Cy Grant, whose regular appearances on the show made him the first black entertainer to have a regular spot on British television.
What television viewers were unaware of, however, is that in addition to his career as an entertainer, Cy had been one of a small number of West Indians to qualify as aircrew officers and fly with the RAF during World War Two.
Cy, originally from British Guiana, travelled to England to join the RAF in 1941 and, after undergoing flying training and qualifying as a navigator, was posted in 1943 to No.103 Squadron, based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, as one of the seven-man crew of an Avro Lancaster bomber.
Cy’s flying days were short-lived, however ~ he and his Canadian/British crewmates were shot down over Holland in 1943, on only their third mission. Two were killed and the rest became prisoners of war.
A member of the RAF of indeterminate race is the translation of a racist caption that appeared under Cy’s photograph in a German newspaper shortly after his capture by the SS ~ evidently sneering at the deployment of non-white aircrew by the RAF.
For Cy, who is quick to affirm that he experienced no racial discrimination from any of his RAF comrades, it was a timely reminder of what he was fighting for.
What followed for Cy was an uncomfortable two-year period as a prisoner of war ~ spent mostly at Stalag Luft 3, Sagan ~ a gruelling ordeal made bearable by the good-natured companionship of his fellow POWs. As the war neared its end, he and his comrades faced a final test ~ a succession of fatiguing route marches in freezing conditions ~ intended to delay their liberation by the advancing Allied armies. They were eventually freed by the Americans in 1945.
Cy’s memories of his eventful RAF years ~ narrated with modesty, charm and good humour – make for compelling and educational reading.