The Nigerian Prince who made his own way to England to join the RAF in wartime
The son of an African Prince who came to England to serve in the RAF during the Second World War recalled how he laughed when someone told him no black men flew in the air force.
Akin Shenbanjo had tried to join up while still in Africa but was told not they were not recruiting.
But undeterred, he forfeited a place at Oxbridge and paid his own passage to England with his scholarship money.
He was a wireless operator and air gunner on board a Halifax bomber from mid-1944 and flew 30 missions.
Akin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during a raid on Lille in April 1944 when their plane limped home on three engines.
His son, Neville Shenbanjo, from West Yorkshire said in a 2017 interview held in the digital archive of Lincoln’s International Bomber Command Centre: “I can remember some guy once said to me: ‘No black men flew in the RAF.’
“This guy had been in the RAF – I just laughed.”
The reality is that black people have served in Britain’s air forces since the days of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War.
About 550 airmen and 6,000 aircrew from the Caribbean and West Africa served in the RAF during the Second World War
People from 62 nations including Kenya, Nigeria, Trinidad, Jamaica, Ceylon, Barbados, Rhodesia and South Africa were part of Bomber Command.
Akin’s pilot was a Canadian called Jimmy Watt, with the rest of the truly international crew hailing from Australia, New Zealand and England.
The Nigerian and his crewmates flew with 76 Squadron from RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor in Yorkshire in an aircraft called Achtung! The Black Prince in his honour.
Son Neville said in his IBCC interview that they were like a family.
He said: “They were always together. They would eat together, do everything together.
“They never made close friends with any other bomber crews.
“They were losing too many friends. They would go to the mess for breakfast in the morning and there would be empty tables.”
Akin served in Palestine after the war and even had a stint as King George VI’s driver.
He reached the rank of flight lieutenant and left the RAF in the early 1950s.
His son said that his dad felt guilty about bombing Germany in the war and in peacetime met many Germans in the spirit of reconciliation.
Neville said that he did not believe his father experienced racism in the RAF, because of the fact that he was made an officer.
“I don’t think there was any prejudice in [the RAF],” he said.