Squadron Leader Philip Louis Ulric Cross Royal Air Force Navigator Second World War WW2 A Young Vic Theatre, London outdoor art installation 'The Unforgotten' created by Sadeysa Greenway-Bailey & Anna Fleischle features portraits of unsung trailblazers Mary Seacole, Marsha P. Johnson and Ulric Cross Picture Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo
History

Ulric Cross: The extraordinary life of Trinidad RAF veteran 'The Black Hornet'

Squadron Leader Philip Louis Ulric Cross Royal Air Force Navigator Second World War WW2 A Young Vic Theatre, London outdoor art installation 'The Unforgotten' created by Sadeysa Greenway-Bailey & Anna Fleischle features portraits of unsung trailblazers Mary Seacole, Marsha P. Johnson and Ulric Cross Picture Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

When taking a look at the proud history of black men and women who left the West Indies to fight for Britain against Hitler during the Second World War, the story of Squadron Leader Ulric Cross stands out as inspirational.

Daring and dashing, Cross joined the Royal Air Force's elite Pathfinder Force as a navigator and played his part in preventing Nazi airmen from shooting down about 200 RAF bombers.

His bravery and dedication to defeating Hitler helped pave the way for greater recognition of the contribution of black men and women from the West Indies during WW2.

It also inspired Trinidad and Tobago filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon to work with Cross' youngest daughter Nicola just before the death of her father in 2013, on a feature documentary released in 2019 celebrating the Second World War veteran's life - 'HERO: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life & Times of Mr Ulric Cross'.

As a teenager growing up in the 1930s in Trinidad, Philip Louis Ulric Cross thought there was no greater human on earth than a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force with a Distinguished Flying Cross. 

He would write Flight Lieutenant PLU Cross, DFC in his school books – specifically his green Kennedy's Latin Primer and in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It'. 

Before he was 30 years old, Cross had achieved his childhood dream by being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 for "fine example of keenness and devotion to duty" and his "exceptional navigation ability" when he held the rank of Flight Lieutenant and a year later, the Distinguished Service Order. 

Known by his RAF colleagues as The Black Hornet, Cross eventually held the rank of Squadron Leader and is described by some as one of the most decorated West Indian airmen who flew during the Second World War. 

But how did a young boy from Trinidad with, what he says was "romantic ideas of leaving the earth and flying", go from working in a solicitors office earning $8 a week to becoming one of 250 young Trinidadian men willing to leave their homes and head to Europe to fight in a war happening thousands of miles away? 

The power of reading clubs 

As a young man, Cross was part of a reading group and one of the books they read was Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' - the Nazi Party leader's autobiographical and political manifesto - and so were aware of the dictator's extreme antisemitism. The idea of the world in which they lived being dominated by a man like Adolf Hitler encouraged the men to take action. They had also seen Japan invade Manchukuo in 1932, Italy invade Abyssinia in 1935, the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and were worried that Fascism was becoming out of control. Out of the ten learning Greek with Cross at St Mary's College in Trinidad, six joined the RAF. 

But these men were also young and adventurous with an idealistic desire to fly for the RAF after reading heroic tales of the pilots who flew Spitfires and Hurricanes during The Battle Of Britain - described by some as the first major military campaign fought entirely in the sky. 

So he, along with 249 other Trinidadians, sailed over to the UK to join the RAF and play their part in ridding the world of Adolf Hitler. 

In 1940, RAF fighter pilots had fought valiantly against the Germans in the skies over Britain and won but now it was time to take the fight into Europe and for this, the RAF needed navigators. 

Responsible for keeping the aircraft on course at all times, navigators would have to keep their focus on point for several hours. 

After several tests, both in Trinidad and the UK, plus an interview, Cross had his childhood dreams of becoming a pilot crushed. Speaking to Toby Brooks in 2008 for the Imperial War Museum, he said: 

"I was told that I was going to be a navigator and I said 'but I came to be a pilot' and they said 'we have pilots, what we do not have now is navigators'." 

Destroyers for bases deal 

With the Second World War taking place more than 7,000 miles away from Trinidad, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the tiny paradise island was not feeling any impact from the conflict. 

On the contrary, a deal that Prime Minister Winston Churchill made with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt meant that in exchange for 50 US Navy Destroyers, the American armed forces were given bases throughout the Caribbean, including Trinidad which had Waller Army Airfield and Carlsen Army Airfield among others. 

Before Cross and his friends joined the RAF, they had to attend lectures at the Fleet Air Arm in Port Of Spain, Trinidad and the RAF took over the flying club where they held preliminary training and medicals. 

First impressions of Britain? 

When Cross arrived in Britain, he knew what to expect as his uncle, who was a doctor in Bolton, Lancashire, regularly sent his family newspapers filled with the latest British news. But Cross found that the people of England did not know how to treat West Indians which he and his friends took advantage of.  

Author Will Iredale’s book 'The Pathfinders' tells the incredible story of an elite team, which included Cross, who transformed RAF Bomber Command to help the Allies defeat Nazi Germany. In the book, Iredale describes how, during initial training in 1941, Cross and his friend Kenrick Rawlins played a joke on their superiors by making them believe Rawlins was in fact a prince from Africa and that Cross was his spokesman. 

The first morning of training, a Corporal instructed the recruits to make their beds and so Cross and Rawlins saw an opportunity for a bit of fun, saying: 

"We said 'Corporal, how does one make a bed?' And he said 'I'll show you' and he made our beds every morning for the few weeks we were there." 

Cross' first posting was to RAF Hemswell, Lincolnshire. At the time, many Polish pilots were based there and flying the Vickers Wellington bomber aircraft. 

After a couple of days in the control tower, the Polish pilots asked to meet Cross which surprised the aspirational airman so he asked them why, and they said: 

"Because you're the only one whose English we can understand." 

These pilots offered to take Cross up for what turned out to be his first flight. 

Ancient mariners 

During the Second World War, many of those teaching navigational skills to these keen airmen were former mariners. They had the knowledge while at sea but no experience in the air. Cross and his friends referred to them as Ancient Mariners. 

There was, however one RAF navigation instructor Cross encountered and he was treated like a God by his students. He was everything Cross had wanted to be since he was a child – a Flight Lieutenant with a Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon - a legend in his eyes. 

After completing his navigation training, Cross was sent to RAF Cranwell to learn how to become a wireless operator and then spent six months on the west coast of Scotland. In all, the training took a year and in November 1942 Pilot Officer Cross was posted to 139 (Jamaica) Squadron who flew de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito bombers. The squadron was named as such after Jamaican newspaper 'The Daily Gleaner' raised money to buy bombers for Britain.

FRANCE - CIRCA 1943: Bombarding of south-west coast in France. View from de Havilland Mosquito. The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito is a British twin-engined, shoulder-winged multirole combat aircraft, introduced during the Second World War Picture Roman Nerud Alamy Stock Photo
View from a de Havilland Mosquito during a bombarding of the south-west coast of France in 1943. (Picture: Roman Nerud / Alamy Stock Photo

Harrowing missions 

After completing 30 missions during the Second World War, pilots were sometimes offered the chance to rest and teach other pilots but Cross was determined to do all he could so he volunteered for more. 

By the time Cross had reached 50 missions, he was once again asked if he wanted to rest to which the answer was no. In total, the RAF navigator completed 80 missions across Europe, and prevented Nazi airmen from shooting down about 200 RAF bombers, fulfilling his dream to help Britain defeat Hitler. 

Speaking to author Gabriel Christian in April 2008 for his book 'For King & Country: The Service and Sacrifice of the British West Indian Military' which was co-written with author Irving Andre, Cross remembered a particularly tough mission which ended with a narrow escape, saying: 

"My most harrowing mission was when one of the engines of our Mosquito fighter-bomber was shot up over Germany and we came down to 7,000 feet from 35,000 feet. 

"We struggled back to England and crash-landed in a quarry. It was a narrow escape but we made it out alive." 

West Indies Calling 

In 1943 Cross appeared in the Ministry Of Information's video 'West Indies Calling' which was inspired by the BBC's 'Calling The West Indies'. The video was created to show to those living in the West Indies what life was like for their fellow countrymen and women who had travelled to the UK to join the armed forces during the Second World War. 

Life after service 

After his air force career, Cross was called to t.03he bar in London in 1949 after which he had a long career in law in several countries. He was a Legal Adviser to the Controller of Imports and Exports in Trinidad, Senior Crown Counsel and lecturer in Ghana, Attorney General in West Cameroon and Judge of the High Court of Tanzania. 

Cross took a short break from law in the 1950s to become a Producer/Presenter for the BBC in London. 

In the 1970s, Cross was Judge of the High Court and later, Judge of the Court of Appeal in Trinidad and Tobago. 

In 1990, he was appointed High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London. 

About 55 years after Cross left the RAF, he became the inspiration behind the black character, Squadron Leader Charles Ford, who appears for a very short time in Ken Follett's novel 'Hornet Flight'.

Cover Image: Squadron Leader Philip Louis Ulric Cross seen as part of A Young Vic Theatre, London outdoor art installation 'The Unforgotten' created by Sadeysa Greenway-Bailey & Anna Fleischle (Picture: Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo).