The airman from Sierra Leone who was shot down over Nazi Germany

Tim Stokes – BBC News: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 January 2021:

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

War had broken out four years earlier when he was 25 years old, and Johnny volunteered to join the fight against fascism after a call from Britain to its colonies for recruits. Again and again, he and his comrades risked their lives in the skies above occupied Europe.

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?

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!”

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.

“It was most dangerous over Berlin where there was the heaviest anti-aircraft fire and you were met by German fighters,” says Eddy, a 62-year-old development surveyor. “He used to talk about how scary it was flying in the dark with shells bursting all around you.”

Smythe’s plane was hit by enemy fire on numerous occasions, but somehow he had always made it home.

“A lot of the guys loved flying with him,” his son says. “They’d say: ‘Johnny, you’ve got black magic. Your plane gets shot up but you always get back.'” But then came the deadly 27th mission. As Eddy describes it: “That was when his luck ran out.”

It was 18 November 1943. 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,” Eddy says. The upper gunner was shot dead and another engine burst into flames. The captain then gave the order to bail out.”

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. “Except he lit a cigarette as he went in and was spotted,” his son says.

“Lucky” Johnny Smythe had been captured.

In his later years, he spoke to the BBC about what it meant to be a black man taken prisoner in the heart of Nazi Germany.

The number of people with African heritage living in the country during the war was in the thousands.

The experiences of each person differed. Some were targeted because of their race through measures such as sterilisation and exclusion from education and certain jobs. Others found themselves in concentration camps.

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 chatted to German officers while he was there,” Eddy says. “They told him: ‘You are lucky, you’re going to heal and go to a prisoner-of-war camp. We have to go back and possibly die.’

More questioning followed at a centre in Frankfurt, where Smythe was threatened with execution if he didn’t co-operate with his captors. “You are a black man, you should not interfere in a white man’s war,” Smythe recounted being told.

“So I said ‘if they’re going to shoot me so be it, let them shoot me’.”

It turned out to be a bluff. 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, his son says.

“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.

Eddy says 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.

“Dad contacted the Colonial Office and they told him that as he was the senior officer, he should come up with the plan,” Eddy says.

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 said ‘fine’.”

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,” Eddy says. “My father 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,” Eddy says. “He gave my dad a letter of introduction to the Inns of Court.

“That letter was really what got him in. It would have been very, very unusual for a black person at that time to get into 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.

Johnny Smythe died in 1996 and was buried in Thame.

“My father was an unusual character,” Eddy says.

“If you walked in a room, you just always knew he was there.”

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.

This story was published by BBC News.


  1. John Henry Smythe was a man of his time. Sierra Leone was a British colony and Protectorate, after all. So, for those Monday morning quarter backing about Africans participation in the past wars of Europe, I can only say, go get a life. There is nothing you can change about the past, nor would you have done differently if you were alive at the time. So, let it rest. Just calmly admire the bravery and the exploits of the most Honourable Mr. Smythe.

    • Mr Hooke says: “So, for those Monday morning quarter backing about Africans participation in the past wars of Europe, I can only say, go get a life”. Please watch your language here Mr Hooke. We are not at war – nor do we want to encourage one on this forum. Lets be civil and respectful – even though you may not like other people’s comments. Thank you.

    • Refined intuition and keen insight are gifts that are bestowed on the children of men without prejudices by Existence. If you find your bosom is empty of such precious, blessed gifts – all you have to do is ask and it will be given unto you, shaken, pressed down and running over.(lol). There are some among us who are not War mongers, who believe in the sanctity of life – to us; all living beings are holy sacred and divine. The argument that we would have done the same thing is without substance or merit because the discerning spirit doesn’t change its invaluable sacred forms just to appease the wicked domains of immorality and evil, irrespective of the era or time in which he was born. It is only erratic warmongers that celebrate and promote vicious wars where people are butchered and massacred by savages like helpless animals in frightening cruelty and indignity.

      Sounds good to you to hear or see one legged men hopping around who have stepped on land mines and grenades huh? I guess you are one of those unfeeling people who are cheerleaders for war, who later frown on wounded, traumatized, disfigured soldiers that were tricked, lied to and coerced into enlisting for a brutal war that they had no business whatsoever being a part of, aren’t you? Now be honest, when was the last time you made a donation of some kind to any war veterans groups in a quest to thank them for their efforts? Strange, is it not, many gullible people who have gone to fight wars for a measly Colonial salary, that committed heinous crimes for the uncharitable Colonial powers, returned home only to end up as beggars on the scorching streets of Africa and other countries?

      And YOU are here, cold and indifferent, without remorse, blowing loud trumpets – promoting a barbarian’s game of shame? Wake the hell up man and smell the coffee – its “Taster’s Choice,” my favorite coffee, the best there is in the World.(lol)

  2. There is a point to be made for fighting “in a European war” or Burma. However the context of the times should be taken into account. There was no Africa, as such. We were part of the colonial empire.

  3. Ingenious comment by the ‘awesome’ STARGAZER. Even today, these people don’t take us as equals – they only tolerate us on their terms. So, why do we bother with their squabbles and wars? At the end of the day, they still look down upon us.

  4. I agree with you Mr. Stargazer. We have to stop all the wars worldwide. Heroes of war? The ordinary people suffer and die in each war in the name of God and fatherland or democracy and other hypocritical justifications, mostly burned up in the interest of a small powerful elite.

  5. Gentlemen – There are some words that are timeless irrefutable truths, here’s one of them; “You are a black man, you should not interfere in a white man’s war;” Smythe recounted being told. Totally and unequivocally agree. This is without doubt a lovely story about the courageous exploits of one of our own who got swiftly carried away like a kite without strings by the winds of horror and terror in those dark, horrible and unpredictable times. We give thanks that he was fortunate enough to escape the iron grips of the Third Reich. Now after reading this well written article by Mr Tim Stokes I couldn’t help but notice that he never mentioned even briefly the thousands of Africans in the French army from Senegal who were massacred by the Nazis and how African prisoners from across the continent were brutally murdered, tortured and humiliated through what the Germans called racial contamination by keeping them in occupied zones in filthy camps called “Fronstalags”

    Why didn’t the writer mention also that many were used for forced labour to work in logging, farms and factories under the harshest and most inhumane conditions? What about the hundreds of forgotten unknown African soldiers buried in unmarked graves and thousands more that were classified in war archives as being missing? A black man should not interfere in a White man’s war because he is not considered as someone with the inalienable rights of a human being by the enemy but just as another animal; the same as a well-tamed gorilla blatantly aping his nefarious colonial master. Again, why is no one ever calling on those nations responsible for the massacre of African soldiers to provide adequate compensation to those whose families are still alive for the frightening heartbroken losses they had been compelled to endure?

    A sad ever continuing peculiar story, that is the story of our beloved Africa. Out of nowhere came a storm that whisked us away in chains of bondage to far away lands, only for another unforgiving one to grab and drag us into wars we had no business whatsoever being involved in. Sad and so heart-breaking to be carried like a floating, listless bubble in the wind only to burst in excruciating pain and grief in the end, yet all in vain. So please Sir, with all due respect if you are going to tell us a story of courage, valour and war by painting us pictures with a magic brush, be careful not to hold anything back because Death knows no colours – show us some empathy and paint our images as brilliant, lustrous, gloomy or as dark as everyone else.

  6. Stories like the life of RAF navigator John Henry Smythe, a Sierra Leonean hero that fought bravery in the defeat of Hitler and his psychopathic occultic Nazi regime, would never have seen the light of day, had it not been for his son and family. We thank him for his bravery and service to our country, and to his family and friends for bringing this story to light. Indeed other great Sierra Leoneans, like Len Johnson born in Clayton Manchester in the 1909, of Sierra Leonean heritage, that became a British boxing champion, but was also never recognised because of the colour of his skin should also be celebrated. We need more stories like this to enable us to celebrate what unites us historically as a nation than what divides us. In Sierra Leone we spend an awful lot of time talking about what divides us than what unites us.

    Since independence it has gotten us nowhere. Over the years it has gotten worst with the advent of social media. Well with the banning of Trump on FACEBOOK and Twitter, where even Ugandan politicians have been locked out for promoting division in their country using social media, my biggest hope now, is that Mark Zuckerberg takes action and applies similar sanctions to any Sierra Leoneans who promote hate in our country. Who would have thought banning Trump would open a whole can of worms of media regulation. The editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph Mr Abdul Rashid Thomas beat Facebook and Twitter on that one.

    I think a modern historical gallery that charts the history of Sierra Leone, will be a great way to educated us the general population and school going children about our rich history and culture. Many countries around Africa do it. Rwanda springs to mind and they are proud of their history and culture. There is a historical gallery located in an obscure building near CID headquarters in Freetown. It looks more like a holding centre than a place we celebrate our rich culture. I think all these cases we hear about politicians fleecing our country’s wealth, is lack of love of our country. We need to teach people how to respect country and flag. GREEN, WHITE AND BLUE are the best colours in the world. Above all else love our country.

  7. This is a fantastic story untold by the family when we were in Sierra Leone. The late Johnny Smythe QC attended my Alma Mater, the Prince of Wales School Kingtom and was an iconic humble Old Boy who was never boastful about his past. He sat on the same bench with my father the Late Emmanuel Modupeh Taylor (Government Pharmacist Delco Iron Ore Mines Pepel and Marampa Tonkolili District). The Son Eddie Smythe was a distinguished sport personality (plus Senior Prefect) at the Prince of Wales School, two years my senior. They were a remarkable family and a blessing to our nation.

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