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Ethnic Diversity in the RAF - A Long Tradition

Added: (Thu Nov 30 2000)

For immediate release

30th November 2000


Today’s Royal Air Force works strenuously to recruit young people from a range of different ethnic backgrounds in order to reflect modern British society. Everyone is encouraged to realise his or her full potential and contribute towards operational effectiveness. Since 1998, a partnership agreement between the Ministry of Defence and the Commission for Racial Equality has specifically aimed to promote equality and eliminate any racial discrimination or harassment.

Yet there is nothing new about diverse ethnicity within the RAF. Indeed, the first Indian nationals were commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1 and served on the Western and Italian Fronts. Among the volunteers was Lieutenant Indra Lal ‘Laddie’ Roy, a fighter pilot with Nos 56 and 40 Squadrons on the Western Front during 1917-18. Before his death in action on 22nd July 1918, he destroyed ten enemy aircraft and became India’s first fighter ‘ace’, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) posthumously in September 1918.

The British Raj still had 15 more years to run but an independent Indian Air Force was created in 1932, composed as far as possible of Indian rather than British air and ground personnel. Officer training was conducted at the RAF College Cranwell, and the first Indian flight cadets were commissioned on 8 October 1932. The first squadron had been formed by the time World War 2 broke out seven years later.

From October 1939, all Commonwealth people became equally eligible to join the RAF and by the war’s end, over 17,500 such men and women had volunteered to do so, with a further 25,000 serving in the Indian Air Force (IAF). IAF units fought alongside their RAF counterparts during the withdrawal from Burma, and played a key role in the liberation of that country, flying in the fighter, tactical reconnaissance and ground attack roles. During the course of World War 2, the IAF flew more than 16,000 sorties and over 24,000 operational flying hours; 688 members were killed, a further 231 died in the field, and 367 were wounded. By 1945 it had become highly professional, centred on nine Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons. In recognition of its contribution to the Allied victory, the IAF was granted the prefix ‘Royal’ on 12 March 1945.

Other Commonwealth nations made vital contributions to the RAF war effort too. A chain of airfields and other installations was created in West Africa to support the vital 3600-mile air reinforcement route between Takoradi and Cairo – the ‘Takoradi Route’. This made it possible for maritime reconnaissance aircraft to patrol German Navy U-Boat operating areas off the African coast. Large numbers of civilians from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Nigeria were employed by the RAF to maintain these bases. In 1944 the West African Air Corps (WAAC) was created as an ancillary force, enabling recruits from these states to be better trained in a variety of skilled ground trades, and by 31 December 1944, the WAAC had expanded to nearly 5000 men.

Jewish, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Cypriot personnel served in Italy with the RAF and the island of Malta was of vital strategic importance to the Allied war effort in the Mediterranean. From its airfields and harbour, RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft could attack enemy shipping carrying vital supplies to the enemy forces in North Africa. Malta became a springboard for the invasions of Sicily and Italy, and suffered a "Blitz" similar in intensity to the bombing of London. Many Maltese contributed to the British war effort on the island’s airfields.

When the RAF formed the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), women were enlisted both in the UK and overseas. Local recruitment took place in the Middle East from 1942 with recruits drawn from the Egyptian, Palestinian, Jewish, Assyrian, Greek and Cypriot communities. A peak strength of nearly 900 locally recruited WAAF personnel was reached in December 1944.

Commonwealth personnel were eligible for the full range of gallantry medals through service with the RAF, and one Distinguished Service Order (DSO), 21 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), one Bar to the DFC, two Air Force Crosses (AFC) and 45 Mentions in Despatches were awarded to officers and airmen of the Indian Air Force in the period up to November 1946.

Government bodies, voluntary organisations and individuals throughout the Commonwealth also helped to purchase aircraft for the RAF. Donations of £5000 would nominally help to buy a Spitfire, which would then carry the name nominated by the sponsor. Larger donations made by many Commonwealth nations were recognised by naming an entire squadron in honour of the country concerned, and where possible the association was also reflected in the squadron badge. In 1940 the Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production agreed that donations of £100,000 would entitle the donor nation to be associated with a fighter squadron; £180,000 with a medium bomber squadron; and £350,000 with a heavy bomber squadron.

Many Commonwealth personnel were posted to the UK itself during the war. Hundreds of those recruited to the RAF through the Overseas Recruiting Scheme from 1940 were from non-British descent, with more than 400 accepted for aircrew training and approximately 70 commissioned as officers. Another 5500 West Indian personnel were enlisted for groundcrew duties in the UK between 1943 and 1945.

Integration of overseas recruits into RAF units of course demanded the stamping out of any sign of discrimination. An Air Ministry Confidential Order issued to commanding officers in June 1944 stated: “All ranks should clearly understand that there is no colour bar in the Royal Air Force. Colonial personnel who come to this country are volunteers. They feel a close tie with the Mother Country and the mainspring of their desire to serve is a strong sense of loyalty…. Any instance of discrimination on grounds of colour by white officers or airmen or any attitude of hostility towards personnel of non-European descent should be immediately and severely checked.”

It was the beginning of the multi-ethnic RAF that exists today and will continue to evolve as the Service moves to meet the challenges and demands of the 21st century.

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