Cy Grant was born on 8 November 1919 in the village of Beterverwagting, Demerara, British Guiana (modern-day Guyana), one of seven children in a close-knit middle-class family. His father was a Moravian minister and his mother a music teacher originally from Antigua. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to New Amsterdam, Berbice. After leaving high school, Grant worked as a clerk in the office of a stipendiary magistrate but was unable to study law overseas due to a lack of funds. Passionate and cultured, as a young man he came to detest colonial rule and was inspired by the example of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution.
In 1941, Grant joined the Royal Air Force in the first wave of aircrew recruited from the Caribbean. He was one of the first overseas volunteers to be commissioned as an RAF officer, selected to train as a navigator.
In 1943, he joined 103 Squadron which was equipped with Lancaster bombers. On his third mission, over the Ruhr, Grant’s aircraft was shot down and he was captured by the enemy. While a prisoner of war, the young Guyanese had time to think: “As an officer in the RAF, you were among the cream of officers. I met all sorts of people, including writers, schoolteachers, lecturers and scientists. And, living for two years close together, I learnt a great deal and asked a lot of questions – that’s where I matured, actually.” After three missions to the Ruhr Valley in June 1943 his aircraft blew up over Holland after coming under attack. He escaped with his life, but was captured and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Germany.
A father of four children, Grant lived with his wife, Dorith, in Highgate, London, the retired singer, actor and broadcaster recalls his war;
“We had successfully bombed Gelsenkirchen on Friday, June 25, 1943, when we came under attack as we flew home over Holland. The tail gunner, Pilot Officer Joe Addison, shouted over the intercom that a German fighter was closing in from underneath us.
The German fired a long volley and a jet of tracer spat out towards us. Addison, from his tail turret, returned fire immediately. The fighter climbed a little and veered off to the right, bringing him into the field of fire of the mid-upper gunner, Sergeant Geoffrey Wallis, who immediately opened fire. Everything was happening very fast. All hell had broken loose.
Flying Officer Alton Langille, the pilot, pushed the nose of the Lancaster into a dive, and in a moment the world was turned upside down. Then, as suddenly as it all began, everything was normal again. The German fighter was nowhere to be seen. Our gunners must have shot it down! “Great work, guys!” shouted the skipper, his voice betraying both the strain we were all under and the relief! He levelled out and the plane behaved normally. The pilot checked our position with me. Despite the evasive action, I had a good idea of where we should be – somewhere south of Amsterdam, near the small town of Haarlem. In half an hour we would be back.
But our peace of mind was to be short lived. This time it was the mid-upper gunner’s voice over the intercom. “Starboard outer afire, Skipper!” So we’d been hit after all!
We dived steeply in an effort to smother the flames, but when we levelled out the flames had spread. Then one of the wheels of the undercarriage fell away in a flaming circle.
Now we were up against it. By the time we reached the coast, we were a flaming comet over the Dutch sky. Both wings were on fire now and I gave the shortest course to the English coast. Unfortunately we were flying into a headwind of about 80 miles an hour at 20,000 feet. Undaunted, we had unanimously decided to risk getting across the Channel rather than turn back and bail out over occupied territory. But it was becoming extremely difficult for Al to control the aircraft and he sensed that we would not make it across the Channel. He decided to turn back over land.
No sooner had he got her round than he was forced to make another decision: “Well, guys, this is it, bail out and good luck. Get to it!” Our nose had gone down again and there was no other option. I moved forward towards the hatch in the bomb-aimer’s compartment.
I had never contemplated being in this situation. We had been instructed in the use of parachutes but never had to practise leaving an aeroplane by one. When I went forward I found that the bomb aimer and engineer who should have left in that order, were struggling to get through the hatch-door situated below the bomb aimer’s cushion in the nose of the plane. Al left his controls and came after me. The four of us were soon piled one on top the other, tossed from side to side in the cramped space of the nose of the plane. Though not comprehending why we were unable to escape the now fiercely burning plane, I do not recall any sense of fear or panic . We seemed locked in a timeless moment of inertia when suddenly, with a deafening blast, which lit up everything, our aircraft blew up and disintegrated, freeing us from each other – a free-fall into eternity.
My ‘chute opened readily and I felt a sudden jerk and the strain of the harness on my shoulders as the wind snatched at the canopy. I was swaying violently from side to side. Except for the rush of the wind I was now in an unreal world of mist and utter silence. To add to the unreality, it seemed as if I was suspended in the air, for at first I experienced no sensation of falling.
I became aware of distant searchlights and a glow of a fire far below me. Our aircraft? It seemed that I was drifting aimlessly, with the only sound, the wind, swelling the silk of the chute above me. Then, the sudden rush of a shadow coming towards me at immense speed. It was the ground reaching up to gather me. Instinctively, I grabbed for the release knob on my harness, turned it and slapped it hard. The next thing I knew was that I was running on firm ground with ghostly billowing folds of silk collapsing all about me. I had made a perfect landing. I wriggled out of the harness.
I landed in a field south of Nieuw-Venneg, as I found out later, and hid out in a cornfield for most of the day. I was aware that the Germans were all about looking for survivors of the crash. My heart was pounding. We had been told to try to escape south and hopefully get to Spain – a seemingly improbable task for a black man in Europe without attracting attention.
I realised that my only hope was to seek help from the Dutch. In the early evening I managed to attract the attention of a farmer who beckoned me to jump the ditch separating us. He thrust a spade into my hand so it would appear from a distance that I was a farm hand. He then took me to the farm, where his wife tended the small cut on my head and gave me a hot meal.
I was told that the local Dutch policeman had already been informed of my presence, and he it was who handed me over to the Germans. I was taken to an interrogation camp in Amsterdam, put into solitary confinement for 5 days, dragged out in bright sunshine to be photographed. A few days later I was transported with many other PoWs to the camp named Stalag Luft III (later the scene of The Great Escape) before being sent to another compound a few kilometres away.
For the most part my captivity was painless. At least we were alive. The worst part of the imprisonment was during the last few months of the war. Forced marches in deep snow for days on end with little rations, sleeping in barns, then transported in cattle trucks jammed together like sardines in a tin, eventually ending up Lukenwalde, about 50 kms south of Berlin.
As the war neared its end we were freed by the advancing Russian army who tore down part of the perimeter fence with their tanks.
We need to acknowledge the past. The memorial for the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who died is needed because, unless we are informed by the past, we will not be able to make a better future for all mankind.
In Bomber Command, 6,000 ground crew and 400 air crew were from the Caribbean. Over 100 were decorated. Those men who died were fighting for peace. I would like to see a memorial that isn’t viewed as a war memorial, but as a peace memorial.”
Below is an Introduction to a planned film which captures the moment Cy Grant was shot down over Holland by a German Ace Oberfeldwebel Karl-Heinz Scherfling, who himself, was killed a year later by British Night Fighters;
An RAF LANCASTER BOMBER is brought down over Holland. The Lanc explodes in mid-air. The sound of the explosion awakens a young Dutch boy [Joost Klootwijk] aged 11. He jumps out of bed, grabs his bicycle, and races to the scene. The wife of a farmer in the nearby village has been killed in bed. He saw no sign of the crew of the Lanc; but saw the wreckage of the Lanc and later heard of the dark skinned navigator that many in his village had seen in the barn of a farmer some miles away Traumatized by this incident he decided that one day he’d find out everything about that particular flight.
The German ace who claimed shooting down 3 Lancasters that night was RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant of Guyana. A fuller account of the incident can be found in Lancaster 4827 Failed to Return, by Joost Klootwijk.
In Holland, 65 years after that crash, Joost was to meet the navigator of that plane, Cy Grant, when the BBC took the latter to see the site where he came down and meet the relatives of the people of the village who still held memories of that fatal night. There Cy met Hans, his 49 year old son. A strong friendship developed between them. Hans had translated his father’s account of the incident and had asked Cy to write the Foreword for the English Edition.
It was Hans who mooted the idea of an on-line Memorial for air crew – the invisible dark Caribbean air crew “who also flew” without comprehensive official recognition. An intense collaboration to achieve this began in Oct 2008 when the Telegraph interviewed Cy as one of the veterans of Bomber Command for his story in support of the Bomber Command appeal for a permanent Memorial for all Bomber crew, over 55,500,who lost their lives in WW2. Hans, the son of the Dutch farmer became the webmaster of www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2. com, the most authoritative website on British West Indians who served in the Royal Air Force.
Following service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, Grant decided to pursue his original ambition to study law, perceiving it as a means to challenge racism and social injustice. He became a member of the Middle Temple in London and qualified as a barrister in 1950. However, despite his distinguished war record and legal qualifications, he was unable to find work at the Bar and decided to take up acting. Aside from earning a living, he saw acting as a way to improve his diction in preparation for when he finally entered Chambers.
In the 1950s, he became the first black person to be featured regularly on television in the United Kingdom, mostly due to his appearances on the BBC current affairs show Tonight. His calypso performances on the Tonight show made him the most popular African-Caribbean performer on British television. Grant admitted his professional frustrations led him to become “a very angry Black man” by the 1970s. In 1974 he founded Drum, Britain’s first Black arts centre, which provided a showcase for Black acting talent.
Grant worked as an actor and singer, before establishing the Drum Arts Centre in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he was appointed director of Concord Multicultural Festivals. A published poet and author of several books, including his 2007 memoir Blackness and the Dreaming Soul,
Grant was made an Honorary Fellow of Roehampton University in 1997, and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network in 2001. In 2008, he assisted in the founding of an online archive to trace and commemorate Caribbean airmen of the Second World War.
Grant’s first acting role was for a Moss Empires tour in which he starred in a play titled 13 Death St., Harlem. His career received a boost after he successfully auditioned for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company, which led to appearances at the St. James Theatre in London and the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York.
Aware of the short supply of roles for black actors, Grant decided to increase his earning potential by becoming a singer, having learnt to sing and play the guitar during his childhood in Guiana. This proved to be a successful undertaking and Grant soon appeared in revues and cabaret venues such as Esmeralda’s Barn, singing Caribbean and other folk songs, as well as on BBC radio (The Third Programme and the Overseas Service) and in his own television series, For Members Only (broadcast on Associated Television).
In 1956, Grant appeared alongside Nadia Cattouse and Errol John in the BBC TV drama Man From The Sun, whose characters are mostly Caribbean immigrants, and starred in the World War II film Sea Wife (1957), with Richard Burton and Joan Collins. The following year, Grant was asked to feature in the BBC’s daily topical programme, Tonight, to “sing” the news in the form of a “Topical Calypso” (a pun on “tropical”). With journalist Bernard Levin providing the words, Grant strung them together. Tonight was popular and made Grant, the first black person to appear regularly on British television, a well-known public figure. However, not wanting to become typecast, he stepped down from this position after two and a half years.
His acting career continued apace and later in 1957 he appeared in Home of the Brave, an award-winning TV drama by Arthur Laurents, and travelled the following year to Jamaica for the filming of Calypso, in which he played the romantic lead.
In 1964, Grant appeared in the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. in which he was the first to perform the song “Feeling Good”, later covered by many others. He included a version of the song on his 1965 album, Cy & I.
Grant’s general frustration with the lack of good roles for black actors was briefly tempered in 1965 when he played the lead in Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, a role for which white actors at the time routinely “blacked up”. Between 1967 and 1968 he also voiced the character of Lieutenant Green in Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
A brief return to the Bar in 1972 reflected Grant’s disenchantment with show business as well as his growing politicisation. After six months at a Chambers in the Middle Temple, he decided that he no longer had any passion for law and resolved to challenge discrimination through the arts.
Grant performed Caribbean calypso and folk songs in many countries, at venues including Esmeralda’s Barn in London (1950s), the New Stanley Hotel, Nairobi (1973), Bricktops, Rome (1956), and for the GTV 9 station in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, he entertained British armed forces in Cyprus, the Maldives, Singapore and Libya. His concert appearances include the Kongresshalle of the Deutsches Museum in Munich (1963) and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (1971). In 1989, he helped to organise the “One Love Africa, Save The Children International Music Festival” in Zimbabwe.
Grant recorded five LPs. His album Cool Folk (World Record Club, 1964) – featuring “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Yellow Bird”, “O Pato”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Work Song”, and “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down” – is a collector’s item. Other LPs include Cy Grant (Transatlantic Records), Cy & I (World Record Club), Ballads, Birds & Blues, (Reality Records) and Cy Grant Sings (Donegall Records). Two of Grant’s singles, “King Cricket” and “The Constantine Calypso”, recorded in 1966 for Pye Records, celebrate the lives of West Indian cricketers Garfield Sobers and Learie Constantine. The songs were featured in the 2009 BBC Two TV documentary Empire of Cricket.
Grant had extensive involvement in British radio broadcasting. The BBC Sound Archive contains more than 90 entries for his radio work, dating from 1954 to 1997. These include a series of six meditations based on 24 of the 81 chapters of the Tao te Ching for the BBC World Service, The Way of the Tao (1980); The Calypso Chronicles, six programmes for BBC Radio 2 (1994); Panning for Gold, two programmes for Radio 2; Amazing Grace, Radio 2; and Day Light Come and Wild Blue, both for BBC Radio 4.
Grant discussed his experiences of being among the first generation of Afro-Caribbean actors in Britain in TV’s Black Pioneers, broadcast on BBC Four in June 2007, and Black Screen Britain, Part 1: Ambassadors for the Race, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2009.
In collaboration with Zimbabwean John Mapondera, in 1974 Grant set up the Drum Arts Centre in London to provide a springboard and provide a national centre for black artistic talent. Considered a landmark in the development of black theatre, among its highlights was a series of workshops held in 1975 at Morley College by Steve Carter of the New York Negro Ensemble Company. This led to a production of Mustapha Matura’s Bread at the Young Vic and workshops with the Royal National Theatre. In 1977, Ola Rotimiproduced a Nigerian adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, titled The Gods Are Not To Blame, at the Greenwich Theatre and the Jackson’s Lane Community Centre; meanwhile, The Swamp Dwellers by Wole Soyinka was produced at the Commonwealth Institute Theatre. The Drum Arts Centre also premiered Sweet Talk by Michael Abbensetts at theInstitute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1975. Among the exhibitions it mounted was “Behind the Mask: Afro-Caribbean Poets and Playwrights in Words and Pictures” at the Commonwealth Institute and the National Theatre in 1979.
Grant stood down as chair of the Drum Arts Centre in 1978 following internal disagreements, giving him the opportunity to concentrate on a one-man show adapted from Aimé Césaire’s epic poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). A critique of European colonialism and values, it was cited by Grant as a major influence on his thought. After a platform performance at the National Theatre and a two-week production at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Grant embarked on a two-year national tour in 1977.
In 1981, Grant became director of Concord Multicultural Festivals, which in the course of the four years staged 22 multicultural festivals in cities in England and Wales, starting in Nottingham. These were followed by two national festivals in Devon (1986) and Gloucestershire (1987). Both lasted several months and involved a vast range of local, national and international artistes, as well as workshops, in an attempt to celebrate the cultural diversity of modern-day Britain.
Launched in 2006, the Caribbean Aircrew Archive is a permanent record of West Indian volunteers who served in the RAF but whose contribution has since been overlooked. It is the collaboration of Grant and Hans Klootwijk, author of Lancaster W4827: Failed to Return, which recounts the fate of Grant and his fellow airmen after their plane was shot down over the Netherlands in 1943. The book is based on research carried out by Klootwijk’s father, Joost Klootwijk, who was 11 when the bomber crashed into a farmhouse in his village. With regular updates by surviving aircrew and relatives, as well as by military historians, the online archive has established that West Indians who served as aircrew in the RAF numbered roughly 440 and that at least 70 were commissioned and 103 decorate air crew.
Grant’s account of his wartime experiences A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race was published in 2006. Two years later, he helped to set up an online archive to commemorate Caribbean aircrew from the Second World War. Grant was best known for his poetry and his philosophical writings, and his groundbreaking Blackness and the Dreaming Soul, published in 2007, is considered his most influential work.
In 2007, Grant participated in the filming of the documentary Into the Wind (2011), in which he discusses his experiences as an RAF navigator.
Cy Grant died in London on 13 February 2010
Darrell Lou-Hing is a retired pilot and avid aviation history buff
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