On the day (Thur 25 May) that much of the world was talking about the passing of musical powerhouse Tina Turner, the funeral of another icon, albeit one with a lower public profile, was taking place in London.
Peter Brown was born in Jamaica in 1926 and was one of the 450 black volunteers from the Caribbean and Africa who joined the Royal Air Force in the darkest days of the Second World War. In 1943 he travelled to Britain to enlist in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and trained as wireless operator and air gunner. He was posted to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and flew several sorties in Lancaster bombers when he was still only 19 years old.
Life expectancy was short for those flying over enemy territory, so this wartime active service might have been excitement enough for most people. However, after the war ended Flt Sgt Peter Brown remained in the RAF for another five years working as a signaller.
Peter Brown was possibly the last survivor of that brave and select band of black RAF flyers to have served in the Second World War. When he passed away, alone, in his Maida Vale flat at the age of 96 in December, it appeared that he had no relatives. An appeal by Westminster City Council to trace some family members to attend his funeral prompted a big effort by military historians, genealogists and community groups to give him a better send-off.
In the event, several relatives were found, including one who flew in from Kingston, Jamaica. Brooke Alexander was certainly not alone in paying her last respects to her relative. Hundreds of mourners, most of them complete strangers who’d been moved by Peter’s story, were in the RAF church, St Clement Danes. Among them was the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston, who paid his own tribute:
“Flight Sergeant Peter Brown epitomised the selfless commitment of the generation who fought for our freedom in the Second World War. Their courage and resilience are an inspiration to us all. We mourn his passing, but I am very proud the Royal Air Force has been able to provide a fitting tribute to one of our own.”
Major Johanna Lewin, chair of the Jamaica Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, reminded us of the need to honour those who made such a big contribution to our society and our freedom:
“He’s a Jamaican, he’s a veteran and he served, yet he was almost unknown when he died. That’s unacceptable for anybody, much less somebody who served and fought and sacrificed for the freedoms that we appreciate today.
“Today is a celebration of Peter’s life and his service, and it’s symbolic of those African and Caribbean servicemen who to a large extent are forgotten.”