12 March 2010

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"Failed to Return" Airman Honoured

Black World War Two RAF bomber navigator Cy Grant, who died last month aged 90, has been posthumously honoured at a ceremony at the House of Lords.

Flt Lt Grant was shot down over Holland in 1943 while returning from a bombing mission over the Ruhr, survived capture by the Gestapo and Failed to Return Airmanwas imprisoned for two years in the infamous Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War camp in Silesia.

His honouring as an “inspirational example” of how black men and women fought alongside white Serviceman and women in the fight for freedom in two world wars was planned by the Bomber Command Association before his death but his family decided to continue with the arrangements – a plaque being presented to his youngest daughter Sami Moxon.

She said: “Dad was planning right to the end to make this ceremony in his honour – I am privileged to receive it on his behalf. He would have been very proud at this particular recognition of his contribution to the war effort. As the plaque says, he ”valiantly served in World War Two to ensure our freedom”.”

Cy was originally invited to be honoured last year during a “Caribbean Glory” event in the US to raise the profile of West Indians’ contribution in two world wars. It was attended by Attorney General The Right Honourable The Baroness Scotland of Asthal, who noted he was too ill to attend, so she offered to honour him in the UK where he lived.

Cy’s Lancaster was attacked by a German night-fighter and exploded in mid-air as it returned from a bombing mission over the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr. The crash was heard by 11 year-old Dutch boy Joost Klootwijk, who cycled the next morning to the scene of the wreckage.

Later he heard of locals describing the “dark-skinned navigator” who had initially sought shelter (with the aid of local farmers) in a local barn before realising his capture was inevitable and allowing himself to be given up to local police and the German authorities to prevent families suffering reprisals. His was one of 6,500 aircraft – mainly RAF – that came down on Dutch territory. An estimated 2,000 wrecks are still buried and around 450 aircrew are still listed as missing in action.

More than 55,000 members of Bomber Command perished during the Second World War – the nightmare entry “failed to return” in the flying logs of UK-based squadrons bringing misery to countless families as aircrew after aircrew from Britain, the Commonwealth and other nations died taking the war to Germany – a crucial factor in the defeat of Nazism.

Failed to Return Airman

In the early morning of June 26 Cy - he was navigator of a seven-strong mixed crew of English and Commonwealth in Lancaster W4827 from 103 Sqn, RAF Elsham Wolds, near Hull - was returning from his successful mission when it was attacked and plunged to the ground near the village of Nieuw-vennep, south of Amsterdam. One of the four engines hit a farmhouse, killing the wife of a farmer.

After he parachuted to safety, he hid in a barn but was soon picked up by the Germans;

After the mission over the Ruhr the then Pilot Officer Grant and his crew headed for home when the shout went up that a German fighter was approaching from below, followed by a long burst of gunfire. But the pilot banked quickly and when recovered to straight and level flight, damage appeared light.

Then the message of doom that all aircrew feared came from the rear turret that sparks were flying by his tail position – telltale early indications of an engine fire. The right wing soon caught alight. Reaching the English Channel was not feasible and the order to abandon aircraft was given. The pilot turned so his crew could bale out over land but the escape hatches were all jammed. Then, by a quirk of fate, two mighty explosions ruptured the fuselage, ejecting the trapped crew.

Cy was one of five who survived and the last to be taken prisoner. He landed in the dark beside a canal and hid in a cornfield as day broke. He was found by locals and taken into hiding but so many people had seen his arrival that the family feared reprisals for harbouring an alien, and with Cy’s agreement they called the local Dutch policeman, who collected him on his single seat solo motorcycle.

The family who harboured him gave him a cushion to soften the hard seat which was little more than the rear mudguard, and the policeman drove him to his home where the Germans collected him. In prison he was relieved to meet some of his aircrew colleagues and learned later that two failed to survive their crippled aircraft.

Cy was one of nearly 10,000 aircrew taken prisoner. He was transferred to Stalag Luft 111 where he served out the rest of the war, during which time his face was used in Nazi newspapers and propaganda to suggest the RAF was losing the War as it was using Black aircrew. The stories bore a photograph whose caption was: “A member of the RAF of indeterminate race”. After the War Cy used this as the title of his war memoir.

Failed to Return Airman

Now the story of W4827 has been pieced together by Joost Klootwijk after years of research and drawing from his own recollections and published in a book released this week entitled: ”Lancaster W4827: failed to return.”

In the foreword Cy wrote “Joost was able to trace the airfield in England where my Lancaster had taken off, the name of the squadron and even the total bomb load carried. He succeeded in tracing the members of the crew who survived, including me, to learn their version of events, the role of the Germans and the Dutch police whose duty it was to hand over shot down aircrew like myself.

The involvement of Caribbean crew in the air war of 1939-1945 can still surprise the general public. By the end of the war in 1945, there were between 300 and 500 aircrew from the Caribbean out of a total of around six thousand volunteers who served during World War 2. About seventy were commissioned and one hundred and three received decorations.

Joost’s son Hans decided to create a special website as an on-line memorial to fallen Caribbean aircrew, and is now the most authoritative website on British West Indians who served in the Royal Air Force. (http://www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com/).

Said Baroness Scotland: “Britain’s South Caribbean Forces served throughout World War 2, making a monumental contribution to the fight for the freedoms enjoyed by the Western world.

After the War Cy studied law, was called to the Bar and was also a celebrated actor and musician and BBC reporter Dr Kurt Barling took Cy to Holland three years ago to meet the man who had heard his plane crash. (See attached video).

At the time Cy’s “escape map”, which all aircrew had in order to head in the right direction if they survived being shot down and which was found in a field 65 years earlier, was returned to him by Joost.

Editor: Steve Willmot

Photographer: SAC Stewart Paterson

RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2010.

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