RAF’s big farewell for Black war hero

Marc Wadsworth

Military chiefs, Black Second World and other veterans, celebrities, friends and neighbours were among hundreds of mourners who joined a final farewell to one of the last “pilots of the Caribbean” at a moving Royal Airforce church ceremony in central London UK on May 25.

Flight Sergeant Peter Brown, died alone just before Christmas, aged 96, at the home he had lived at in Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, London, for 50 years.

Born in Jamaica in 1926, he joined as an RAF reserve in 1943 and trained as a wireless operator and air gunner. He flew with five Lancaster bomber missions in Tripoli, Egypt and Malta before leaving in 1950.

Brown’s coffin was brought into the church clad in the Union Flag with Edward Elgar’s Nimrod playing.

The full military send-off at 1,000-year-old Sir Christopher Wren-designed St Clement Danes Church, had to be booked after a much smaller council-funded crematorium service in Mortlake, Surrey, was judged not large enough to hold the expected crowd.

This came about after it was reported in the media the airman had died at home, with no friends or family in touch with him and was due to be given a so-called “pauper’s funeral” without full military honours.

News media followed up on the heartbreaking story that won national attention, leading to prime minister Rishi Sunak among those people calling for a fitting service, because of Brown's wartime service.

Ronald Andrew Lisk-Carew, who is from Sierra Leone and served in the RAF after the war, attended. He said:"In the belief that there is life after death, I can imagine Flight Sergeant Peter Brown looking down in pride at the honour that was bestowed upon him on May 25 in what can only be described as a phenomenal farewell service.
Several eloquent tributes were delivered and there was a heartwarming performance by army veteran soloist singer Maurillia Simpson accompanied by Chris Hatt.

Simpson – who did three tours of Iraq and is now in a wheelchair after being injured in an accident – said she was pleased to see “female veterans like myself and who look like me here today”.

She sang a song about sparrows and recalled her own experience of war, adding: “That song is the only thing that kept me alive when I was blown up in Iraq."

Simpson added: “I know how it feels to want to die, and not. I have surgery coming up that will let me make my first couple of steps in the last 15 years. So god has been good.”

Lisk Carew commented: "It was nice to see many members of the public, comrades from our Royal Air Force family, supported by the various other military families. Even our number one officer, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston attended the funeral."

"Three cheers for Westminster Council for  pulling out all stops to ensure that everything went very well and for providing refreshments at Westminster City Hall.  There we socialised, reminisced, fraternised and networked."

Lisk Carew said he was proud to have joined Jamaicans Donald Campbell and Ken Struan, representing The Forgotten Generations, as standard bearers, alongside veterans from the The Royal British Legion and other military associations.

Speaking at the service, councillor Melvyn Caplan, a neighbour of Brown's and a former deputy leader of the Westminster council, in whose borough the late RAF man lived, told the service about a quiet man who loved cricket, whisky with ginger ale, cheese and onion crisps, and a dairy milk chocolate bar from his favourite shop Dhigs in Formosa Street.

He said: “Conversations would only last for as long as he wanted to. He was proud and dignified, but hard to help. I recall frequent conversations about what we could do to help. But we had to respect what he would accept. He had an old-fashioned charm. He dressed in clothes that had seen better days, but he always looked snappy.

Caplan added: “I’m not sure what he would say about it all, but I think he would have complained about all the fuss. I’d have said to him, ‘be quiet Peter, you gave us everything and no one can thank you more’. RIP, what a man.”

He went on: “Peter Brown loved travelling around Europe. Some favourite places to visit were Spain, Italy and France. But he was very reticent about talking about his time in the RAF. He shrugged it off and played a straight bat as his heroes would have done at Lord’s."

“Cricket played a huge part in his life. He was a member of MCC for 30 years, happiest sporting the tie and off to enjoy a day’s adventure, a day of cricket. What a great innings he had. He nearly reached that century. He played with great flair and panache.”

Brown was passionate about the game and was a member of the exclusive Marylebone Cricket Club until 2016.

Several celebrities were also at the service, including Batman Begins and Outlander actor Colin McFarlane, Top Boy star Michael Ward, Trevor Michael Georges, who plays Ed Bailey in Coronation Street and Mona Lisa's Cathy Tyson, accompanied by her film producer and director partner Kammy Darweish. Two honoured guests were Jamaican Second World War veterans Neil Flanagan and Gilbert Clarke, aged 99 and 97, respectively. Flanagan had turned that age the day before.

The Royal Airforce's Rev Mark Perry told the service that in May 1941 St Clement Danes, in the Strand – the Central Church of the RAF – had been hit by a German enemy incendiary bomb.

Considered the “spiritual home” of the RAF, it had been restored following a worldwide appeal and reconsecrated in a 1958 visit by Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip.

A poem was read out about how heroes come in “all shapes and sizes” and how his life was ending on “a final flight through adversity to the stars”.

Rev Ruth Hake said Brown’s purpose was “to protect this country from invasion and help regain peace in the world”, adding: “But 17-year-old Peter didn’t know that. The willingness to put his life on the line on behalf of this nation…is a debt that all of us who have certainly lived our lives in freedom in this country have to honour.”

*Here are the-latest.com Second World War project and the BBC film based on it and The Guardian obituaries for featured veterans Sam King and Allan Wilmot