Historic Accomplishments History Military People World War 2

World War 2 Flight Lieutenant Peter Adeniyi Thomas

Ww2 Flt-Lt-Peter-Thomas

Born in Lagos, Nigeria 1915, Peter Thomas gave the following reason for joining the RAF and fighting for Britain:

My great-grandfather was a chieftain. One day his rival betrayed him to a slave dealer. He was put on a ship along with 100 other slaves and was soon on his way to America. Ten days out in the Atlantic his ship was intercepted by one of Her Majesty’s ships. The slaves were rescued, and at Freetown (Sierra Leone), my great-grandfather regained his freedom.”[1]

Peter Thomas travelled to the UK to enlist voluntarily. He became the first Black African to qualify as a pilot on 17 September 1942, and received his commission as an officer. He was twice promoted, to Flying Officer in 1943 and to Flight Lieutenant in September 1944. Apart from his daily duties, he helped the Colonial Office welcome West Africa students to London.

America’s bad influence on race relations within the British armed forces

Such men fought bravely for Britain at a time when the government of Britain did not award them equal civil rights protection in Britain and West Africa. Such men also had to deal with discrimination in Britain, although it must be emphasised that prejudice wasn’t suffered as a result of those Britons that were accepting but due to contact with those white Britons that held racists views. As an example on 6 September 1942 the Sunday Pictorial article titled “Vicar’s Wife Insults Our Allies” reported how a vicar’s wife from the village of Worle, near Weston-Super-Made drafted a six-point code to guide relations between white women and black men:

  1. If a local woman keeps a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she must serve him, but she must do it as quickly as possible and indicate as quickly that she does not desire him to come there again.
  2. If she is in a cinema and notices a coloured soldier next to her, she moves to another seat immediately.
  3. If she is walking on the pavement and a coloured soldier is coming towards her, she crosses to the other pavement.
  4. If she is in a shop and a coloured soldier enters, she leaves as soon as she has made her purchase or before that if she is in a queue.
  5. White women, of course, must have no social relationship with coloured troops.
  6. On no account must coloured troops be invited to the homes of white women.

Such British behaviour reflected a mixed reception to black servicemen. Some white Britons were appalled by racists Britons.  When such Britons welcomed black service men with warmth, not hostility, some American authorities on arrival applied pressure to Britain to get Britain to appease American racist attitudes and practices of the time; which may be alien to a 2018 generation.

When American servicemen became stationed in Britain, they tried to introduce not only Jim Crow practices to the UK informally but lobbied for white British servicemen and British civilians to be re-educated. To avoid conflict with the Americans, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (British Government) for instance produced an educational pamphlet called the “Colour Problem as the American Sees It” for group discussions among British troops. This covered issues such as interracial sex and how British personnel were to conduct themselves in the presence of black and white American soldiers. Black American soldiers made up 10% of the American armed forces. Excerpt:

We need not go into a long discussion as to whether mixed marriages between white and coloured are good or bad. What is fairly obvious is that in our present society such unions are not considered desirable, since the children resulting from them are neither one thing nor the other and are thus badly handicapped in the struggle for life.

To Americans, it continued,

[Interracial sex] is a first-hand problem, while to us it is a second-hand one. There is no reason why we should adopt the average American attitude to the problem but we should certainly respect that attitude and appreciate the reasons for it. [2]

When black Allied service personnel started to suffer the kind of routine violence, considered normal in America, for transgressions like entering the same pubs as white service personnel or walking with white women, General Eisenhower wrote a sympathetic letter back to Washington in September 1942 defending routine violence on black British and American servicemen:

To most English people including the village girls – even those of perfectly fine character – the Negro soldier is just another man, rather fascinating because he is unique to their experience, a jolly good fellow and with money to spend. Our own white solders, seeing a girl walk down the street with a Negro, frequently see themselves as protectors of the weaker sex and believe it necessary to intervene even to the extent of using force, to let her know what she’s going.

The British were “devoid of racial consciousness so interracial dating was accepted by the women.”[3]

Given the fine line between surviving and a lynching in America and Britain, black service personnel compensated with over-politeness. Whereas some white servicemen complained and showed ingratitude, black personnel displayed empathy, humility and gratitude.

A naval officer described the reputation of black servicemen to white British women as follows:

The most popular, well-mannered, well-behaved, respectful, and soldierly warriors ever to land on English soil are your American Negro troops” … “the American authorities over here have requested that Negro soldiers be barred from certain clubs, pubs and the like

An English woman made the following comments in a short article, wherein although unfavourable comments had preceded the arrival of black American servicemen, “I have never heard of any unpleasant incidents … they seem to get quite a lot of fun out of life without annoyance to anyone. They’re very well-behaved, polite and quiet, in fact, good Americans.

Peter Thomas served in a time when in Britain the Race Relations Act of 1965 had not yet been written or conceived. He served in a time when Nigeria was ruled by a Governor appointed by Britain. Nigerians paid taxes but had no democratic representation, to show for their tax payments.

Public Memory in Nigeria

Unfortunately, due to a poor collective memory of heroes prior to independence in 1960, many Nigerians are taught that Captain Robert Emmanuel Hayes, who qualified as a pilot in 1955, was the first Nigerian pilot. Both Peter Thomas and Bob Hayes were courageous pioneers and deserve to be remembered.

Death

Peter Thomas paid the ultimate price in an air crash on 12 January 1945. He was buried in Bath Cemetery. [4]

Youtube Video

[1] “Liberator: Flight Lieutenant Emanuel Peter John Adeniyi Thomas.” RAF Museum. Retrieved 22 October 2018. www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research

[2] Sonya O Rose, Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, p262, Oxford University Press, 2003.

[3] Chamion Caballero, Peter J. Aspinall, Mixed Race Britain in The Twentieth Century, p.204, Springer

[4] “THOMAS, EMANUEL PETER JOHN ADENIYI”Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 15 January2017.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.