The United Kingdom celebrates Black History Month in October, and in recognition of Black History, Sky History has compiled a list of ten Black British war heroes who served the country in one of the two World Wars. Several of these heroes were born in Jamaica.
Jamaican-born William Robinson “Robbie” Clarke, who was the first Black pilot to fly for Britain in World War I, was born in Kingston on October 4, 1895. He worked as a mechanic and was one of the first Jamaicans to learn to drive. When he was 19, he paid his own way to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps on July 26, 1915, serving as a mechanic. He was assigned to the No. 4 Squadron RFC and flew biplanes over the Western Front. He also served with the No. 254 Squadron in the RAF and ultimately rose to the rank of sergeant, earning his wings in 1917. During a reconnaissance mission over the enemy lines near Ypres in Belgium, Clarke and his observer were fired upon by five German planes and wounded, but they managed to crash land the plane back over British lines. Clarke’s injury – a bullet to the spine – put an end to his service as a pilot, he continued to serve as a mechanic until the end of the war and received the Silver War Badge following his honorable discharge in 1919. He returned to Jamaica after the war and remained active in veteran’s affairs, becoming life president of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association. Clarke died in 1981 and is buried at the Military Cemetery at Up Park Camp in Kingston.
Connie Mark, born Constance Winifred McDonald in Jamaica in 1923, was just 16 years old when World War II started. She joined the women’s branch of the British Army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), as a medical secretary in Jamaica where she documented the injuries sustained by soldiers. She was promoted twice within a year but did not receive a raise in pay with the promotions. After the war, Mark was denied a British Empire Medal, a denial which she attributed to racism, as she did her lack of pay raises. She moved to Britain and campaigned for Black service personnel who had served in World War II, particularly Black women, to be recognized and had a critical role in bringing public awareness to the story of Jamaican-born British nurse Mary Seacole, who had worked behind the lines during the Crimean War.
Billy Strachan was born in Kingston in 1921 and traveled across U-boat-infested waters to join the RAF, He trained as a wireless operator and an air gunner and joined a bomber squadron that made nightly raids over German cities. He flew 30 raids over Europe when the average for a bomber crew was seven. When he completed his 30th mission he could have taken a desk job, but he refused and asked to be trained as a bomber pilot. With just seven hours of training, he was permitted to fly solo and became well known for his daring activities in flight. Strachan was promoted twice during his service and ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant.
Watch the series on Sky History UK.