3 August 1940
During the first phase of the air battle in July, Dowding’s Fighter Command, although desperately short of pilots, had beaten the tide. By 3 August 1940, Dowding had 708 aircraft and 1,434 pilots, as against 587 aircraft and 1,253 pilots on 30 June. Time, however, was not working in his favour. Dowding was well aware that Luftwaffe’s operations would soon extend beyond its limited offensive against Channel shipping. The bleeding RAF needed new pilots – wherever they could be found.
Already before the war, the Air Ministry had recognized that Britain did not have the capacity to provide training and operational facilities required by the war effort. Also, the aerodromes in the United Kingdom would be exposed to enemy attack, and potential enemy blockade could limit the supply of fuel and aircraft required for massive training of aircrew.
The answer was turning to the resources of the Dominions. The government set up a plan, calling for 50,000 new aircrew each year, for as long as necessary: 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Fifty new elementary flying schools needed to be established in these countries. Under the agreement, air personnel would receive elementary training in their own country, or the one nearest to their location. The graduates would then be transferred to Canada, where all advanced training would be concentrated, and finally proceed to Britain for service with the RAF.
Canada was chosen as the hub for the overall effort, in part to its ample supplies of fuel and relatively developed industrial facilities for production of trainer aircraft.
This vast programme was christened the Empire Air Training Scheme. It became a subject of an agreement initiated by Chamberlain’s cabinet and signed by participating countries in December 1939. A parallel agreement, the Joint Air Training Scheme, was also met with South Africa.
Event though already at birth, the Scheme was the largest pilot training programme in the World, none of its fruits could be readily seen by the beginning of August; the initial classes of pilots had simply not reached operational status. For example, the first Canadian pilots for the RAF finished their training in that country in May 1940 and had only recently arrived to Britain by sea. In Australia, the first group of trainees had just started their education, with the intention of sending the new pilots for advanced-stage training in Canada in November.
Another opportunity existed with all the ethnic minorities of the vast British Empire. Between the World Wars, ethnic minorities were not able to serve with in the British Army, Royal Navy or the RAF. However, when war was declared in 1939, this restriction was lifted. A group of 24 Indian citizens, all qualified pre-war civilian pilots, had been sent to England on a ship. This group contained many able airmen, such as Mahinder Pujji who later served with No. 43 Squadron (being its only member who wore a turban on operations instead of a flight helmet!). Unfortunately, the group only reached Liverpool on 1 October.
In the meantime, the Air Ministry was making calls for volunteers in all corners of the World, at the same time not being able to take care of everyone interested. In parliamentary inquiry on 2 July, MP Mr. Woodburn pointed out to Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair, that men were being called up before the Air Department was ready for them. Many Scottish volunteers travelled long distances from their homes to England only to be sent back “until the Department was ready”.
Overseas volunteers often met even more severe tests of patience. One such person was Billy Strachan, a teenage boy living in Kingston, Jamaica, who had decided to answer the call and join the RAF. His adventures could qualify as the plot outline for Catch-22.
Freshly-graduated from school, Billy had the intention of getting into the RAF, but had no means to it and no idea where to start. The British military posts were still in Jamaica so he first went down with a friend to see them. They had difficulty getting past the guard, but were eventually brought in front of an officer who sent them for a medical. They were both passed fit, but when they wanted to join, they were laughed out and told to find they own way to Britain to do it.
Billy was not easily put off. He had no money, so he went round all the shipping companies in Kingston:
“They were all run by Englishmen, white men – and I said, ‘Can you give me free passage to England?’ I’d been listening to the propaganda on the radio sating how everybody was loyal to the crown but none of them were interested until I went to Jamaica Fruit Shipping Company, major shippers of bananas to Britain.
They had a number of boats coming out from Britain with middle-class white people who were fleeing from the war to the colonies for safe haven and I was able to persuade the management to take me. Nobody was going from the Caribbean to Britain but they told me that I might have to pay for it. The full price was about £45 and I paid £15. I didn’t have that so I had to sell my bicycle and my saxophone and I got about £17 for them. So I got on a ship and left Jamaica with £2 10s in my possession and a small case with one change of clothes. That’s how I came to Britain.”
The trip, which came to pass in a surreal atmosphere of a luxury liner on which Strachan was the only passenger, took about a month. In mid-March 1940, Billy Strachan disembarked in Bristol, feeling lost and far away from home, with two pounds in his pocket, no further directions but still the same resolve.
“I got on the train to Paddington. The ticket was about thirty shillings and wartime England was dark. There was a blackout. The only place I’d heard of to stay was the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road – every West Indian that I’d ever met seemed to go there – so I took a taxi from Paddington, spending six shillings out of my fifteen. It was Saturday night, wartime, places were boarded up, wardens and Local Defence Volunteers walking round the place. I was so tired I went to bed.”
Then came Monday and time to begin searching his way through to the RAF
“On Monday morning, how do I get into the RAF? I’ve got no money, no connections, nobody. After great difficulty I found that the Air Ministry was at a place called Adastral House which was at the foot of Aldwych. So I went along to Adastral House and I spoke to the guard who I now know was a corporal. I said to him, ‘I want to join the air force.’ I’ll never forget this. He said to me, ‘Piss off.’ Here am I dressed in rather lightweight colonial stuff in March – I think he thought I was drunk or a lunatic.
I persisted and as he tried to get away, a sergeant came along, and asked what was going on and I tried to tell him. He said ‘You don’t join the air force here, you’re trying to take the mickey out of us! This is the head office of the Air Ministry!’”
According to Bill’s logic, the Air Ministry was a natural place to join the air force – he did not even know about recruiting stations. He persisted in his arguments with the sergeant:
“He said: ‘Where do you come from?’ and I said, ‘Kingston.’ He said, ‘There’s a recruiting station at Kingston down in Surrey,’ and I said, ‘I don’t come from Surrey! I come from Jamaica!’ He didn’t know where Jamaica was. As he stood there quite mystified, a Hooray Henry type young officer came past and heard the argument. He said, ‘Oh you’re from Jamaica. One of our colonial friends. Welcome! I did geography at university and I’ve always been impressed with you West Africans. Come in!’
And this to his supreme ignorance I was dragged in. This bloke was a pilot officer, the lowest officer but he was above the sergeant. And thanks to his intervention, he took me in and I was taken up and saw a much higher rank, a flight lieutenant. I had to go through this story in much more detail and he really satisfied himself of its truth.”
Thus, thanks to his own and Air Ministry’s ignorance, Bill was sent for a medical in Euston:
“I went there in the afternoon. I was told to stand in a room, ‘Get all your clothes off because you’re going to be medically examined.’ I was shivering and freezing. I’d only been in England for 48 hours. They examined me and found me fully fit. The doctor said, ‘Right now you can go home and we’ll call you up when we can take you in.’ I had to explain that I had no money and going home was very difficult. That took another period of argument but by about nine or ten o’clock I was on the train to Blackpool recruiting unit.
I’d managed to break all regulations – to get recruited after 48 hours in this bloody country. I was joined up in 4 Elementary Flying Training School. On the Tuesday morning, I was in the RAF, in uniform, kitted out, in a group of 50 strange Englishmen. I was the only coloured person from the colonies. I was very proud of what I’d achieved.”
Sgt William (Bill) Arthur Watkin Strachan would soon become wireless operator with No. 99 Squadron on Wellingtons, but his astonishing experience with his new country continued for many months:
“..And then these English people said, ‘You’re mad! You’re a bloody fool! If we’d been in Jamaica, we’d still be there now! What an idiot!’ It destroyed all my ideals of what I believed the whole thing was about. I was so proud of what I’d achieved and they said, ‘We’d do anything to get away from the bloody war and you say you come all this way and you tell us that story.’ They thought it was completely weird.”
– Joshua Levine: Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, Ebury Press, 2007
– Marcel Jullian: The Battle of Britain, July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– Hugh Dowding: Despatch on the Conduct of the Battle of Britain, HMSO, 1941