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Archive Report: Allied Forces

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
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Flt Lt John Smythe Navigator 623 Sqd Stirling LJ454

John Henry Smythe, an RAF navigator from Sierra Leone in West Africa, was shot down and captured in Nazi Germany in 1943.

Jurist and Royal Air Force (RAF) Flight Lieutenant John 'Johnny' Henry Smythe was born on June 30, 1915, in the West African port city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. He received a grammar school education and had worked as a civil servant before joining the Sierra Leone Defence Corps (part of the British Colonial Army) in 1939, achieving the rank of Sergeant.

Prior to the onset of World II Smythe read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and believed a horrible scenario of enslavement and extermination awaited peoples of African ancestry should the Nazis prevail. With the backing of the colonial administration he volunteered for service in the RAF. Of a group of 90 he was one of four men to finish basic training to become a navigator, and after a year of additional training was attached to a bomber squadron.

After he was liberated from a prisoner-of-war camp, he would go on to become a senior officer aboard the Empire Windrush and then an amateur courtroom talent of such promise he was invited to train as a barrister in England. As the attorney general of Sierra Leone, he would meet President John F Kennedy in the White House.

But as a black man in the clutches of a murderously racist Nazi regime, how did Johnny Smythe survive the war?

A navigator with 623 Squadron, Flt Lt Smythe had already flown 26 missions as a Short Stirling bomber crew member. The flights would take him over the English Channel, France and Germany, and were always high risk. The life expectancy of RAF bomber crews was alarmingly low.

18 November 1943., Stirling LJ454: As the crew approached Berlin to launch their attack, their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. One engine exploded. Smythe was struck twice, in his side and groin.

They managed to drop their bombs but, with an engine gone, the Short Stirling had become an easy target.

A German plane began circling and strafing them with bullets. The upper gunner was shot dead and another engine burst into flames. The captain then gave the order to bail out.

With bullets ricocheting off the barn he was hiding in, he knew he had to give himself up. Exhausted and bleeding heavily, the RAF flight lieutenant stepped out to face the enemy.

'You can imagine their shock, seeing a 6ft 4in (195cm) tall black man in the middle of Germany,' his son Eddy Smythe explains. 'They just couldn't understand what they were seeing!'

Smythe landed in some woods. Dosed up on morphine and weak from the loss of blood, he reached a barn where he thought he could hide and sleep. Describing what he faced when he walked out of the barn, Smythe explained: 'After you have been bombing a town, you're shot down and you're caught, the people are all against you whether you are black or white. But in the case of a black man it was worse, because I heard them shouting what I knew afterwards when I could speak a bit of German: 'Let's kill him.'

Military police intervened and the RAF officer was taken away for questioning. He was beaten during his interrogation before being transported to hospital to be treated for his shrapnel wounds.

He was transferred to Stalag Luft I, a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Germany that would be his home for the next 18 months.The flight lieutenant found attitudes towards him were respectful in the camp. He found no discrimination, in spite of him being the only black person there for the first 12 months. He'd say it was only when he looked in a mirror that he remembered he was black.

Propaganda was used to sap the captured men's morale. The German officers would say the Allies were losing, but the inmates managed to build a radio and were able to learn this was untrue.

They woke one morning and all the guards were gone. The Soviets were only hours behind the fleeing Germans, as they approached the camp on 30 April 1945. Within a couple of weeks, a liberated Johnny Smythe was transferred back to Britain.

He returned to London, where he had trained in St John's Wood after first arriving in the UK in 1941, and was offered a post with the Colonial Office. His main role was to look after the welfare of demobilised airmen from the Caribbean and Africa.

In 1948 he was deployed as a senior officer on a captured German troop ship, which was tasked with taking former military personnel back to their homes in the Caribbean.

That craft was the Empire Windrush. They had been dropping people back but when they got to Jamaica, a labour officer came on board. He told them the economy was struggling and the returning men were going to have a very hard time, so he asked if they could go back to Britain The Colonial Office told Smythe that as he was the senior officer, he should come up with the plan.

With the help of the Windrush crew, Smythe interviewed each of the men to learn about their skills and qualifications.

He explained to them that there would be opportunities in the UK but it would involve lots of hard work. En masse, the men said they wanted to return, so he filed a report and the Colonial Office agreed. When the Empire Windrush made its way into Tilbury docks in Essex, Smythe was baffled by the greeting they received. As they sailed into port there were planes flying overhead with banners. Smyther was wondering what was going on. On the dockside there was his fiancée, holding up a newspaper with the headline 'Smythe on the job'. In those days there was lots of gratitude for what those men had done in the war. They were welcomed back as heroes.

A chance encounter in court led Smythe to his next adventure.

As part of his work looking after the welfare of demobilised RAF personnel from Britain's colonies, he was asked to defend a man who faced a court-martial. In spite of having no legal training, he prepared the case and won.

The same thing happened a few months later and the same judge happened to be presiding. The judge asked if he had thought about a career in law and gave Smythe a letter of introduction to the Inns of Court.

Once qualified as a barrister, Smythe returned to Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, where he had been born in 1915. He became a Queen's Counsel and Sierra Leone's attorney general, and would later set up his own practice.

His work took him around the world. In the 1960s he was asked to go on a tour of the US to promote African culture. While there he was invited to the White House and met President John F Kennedy, who was happy to provide a favour for a fellow World War Two veteran.

'The injuries my dad sustained during the war left him with a bad back,' Eddy says. 'He mentioned he had a stiff back to the President (who himself had back trouble) and Kennedy said: 'I've got a great chiropractor here. Why not let him treat you?'

Eddy's father also spoke about a remarkable encounter at a cocktail party at the British ambassador's residence in Freetown.

He explained that he had been discussing the war with the German ambassador and described to him the place and date he had been shot down. Turning pale, the ambassador replied: 'I got my first kill on that day; I shot down a British bomber.'

'I asked my dad what he felt about meeting the man who may well have shot him down,' Eddy says. 'He said they just threw their arms around each other and embraced.'

After he retired, Smythe moved back to the UK, to Thame in Oxfordshire, where Eddy was then living.

Towards the end of his life, the war hero's injuries began to take their toll. 'They did an X-ray when he was in hospital aged in his 70s and even found shrapnel in his intestine," his son says.

John Smythe died in Thame, Oxfordshire on July 9, 1996 and was buried in St. Mary’s Church Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and five children.

The Museum of London has recorded an interview with Eddy Smythe in which he speaks about his father's eventful life. It can be found on the museum's website.

Thanks to the BBC News for details in this story

See AlliedLossesIncidents database for other details on the loss of LJ454

SY 2021-11-08

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Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Stan D. Bishop, John A. Hey MBE, Gerrie Franken and Maco Cillessen - Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, Vols 1-6, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiton - Nachtjagd Combat Archives, Vols 1-13. Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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