SYLVESTRE – Owen Oscar

Sergeant/Warrant Officer – Pilot – 15 sqn – Lancaster – DFM

ATS; 33 Missions, awarded DFM. Post war RAF Wyton, Lincoln B2

[Source: CG, CMHA]

Owen Sylvestre joined the RAF in 1941 and did his initial training in Canada.

Unlike many black aircrew members who reported encountering no racism or prejudice in the RAF, Owen seems to have been very unlucky in his Commanding Officer. His experiences were recorded in Lest We Forget: The Experiences of World War II Westindian Personnel by Robert N. Murray (Hansib, 1996):

‘Owen Sylvester [sic], a Warrant Officer and Captain of his crew, could never forget the time when he was made to enter and re-enter the Commanding Officer’s office several times on the pretext of his incorrect saluting.  The Warrant Officer had just arrived on the station and was in the act of introducing himself, as well as his crew, who were standing outside, when he formed the opinion that the CO took an instant dislike to him.  The CO satisfied himself that the saluting was in order and, when the crew lined up before him, he said to the Navigator, who was white, “I suppose, you’re the Captain.”  When the Navigator answered in the negative and indicated the Warrant Officer, the CO seemed not to be amused!  He was later overheard to remark: “I know how to deal with these people.  I have experience of dealing with them in India.” Both Sylvester and his crew [all white men], who had every confidence in him, concluded that their future operations would not be easy.’ [p.80]

Owen Sylvestre flew Lancaster bombers and he relates a particularly scary incident in Lest We Forget:   ‘We were going over Stuttgart when, suddenly, I was caught in a “Stall”.  I can’t remember what I did, but I was falling through the sky.  From 22,000 feet I found myself at about 9,000 feet in what seemed like seconds.  The bomb-aimer was put on his tummy, I got caught in the massive searchlights and I had to take evasive action hastily!  The altimeter was whizzing around at an enormous rate; everything seemed to be flying past me and sticking to the ceiling.  It was the only time in my operation I thought I was done for. There wasn’t enough time.  Owing to gravity, I wasn’t in any position to do anything.  I saw one of my friend’s aircraft go down but I was so busy with my own difficulties, I had no time to say “God, bless his soul”.  In desperation I had to get the engineer to pull the joy stick back; fortunately for me and my crew it worked.  I began to level out and gradually regained height, it’s only when I levelled out that I realised what I’d done.  I had no sense of fear, only my sense of duty and my training caused me to escape!’ [p.92]

When he experienced the negative attitude of his Commanding Officer, Owen ‘gritted his teeth and decided to show the CO and his Squadron that he was a good as they were.’  He succeeded in his aim and in 1944 he was awarded the DFM.  The citation for his award reads as follows:

‘Flight Sergeant Sylvestre has now completed an operational tour consisting of 32 sorties totalling 155.25 hours including such targets as Stettin (twice), Kiel (twice), Dortmund, Essen, Bremen and Homberg.  He is an experienced and enthusiastic N.C.O. Pilot, tireless in his efforts in carrying out all sorties however difficult to a successful conclusion. Quite a number of successfully plotted photographs have been brought back as a result of his careful and well-judged approach to the target.  Flight Sergeant Sylvestre, a native of Trinidad, is a very capable Captain who has obtained a very high standard of crew co-operation and gained their fullest confidence.  He has displayed determination, loyalty and consistent devotion to duty, worthy of high praise.  He is recommended for the non-immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.’ (14th November, 1944)

Remarks by Station Commander:
‘A capable and determined Captain who led his crew well and has always shown great keenness, and devotion to duty.  Award Recommended.’

Owen Sylvestre survived the war and settled in Britain.  Like many other ex-airmen, he found it very hard to find employment commensurate with his qualifications and experience.  He wanted to continue flying but in those days airline companies would have had their pick of ex-RAF men and it would have been highly unlikely that they would engage non-white flight crew.  Owen found it hard that he could not become a commercial pilot and compensated by enrolling at the London School of Economics.  When, as an adult, his daughter asked him if he missed flying, he replied “Sometimes when I look up and see a clear blue sky, I long to be up there.”

In 1944, Owen married Hull-born Laureen Goodare at St. Pancras Town Hall. Laureen was a dancer in cabaret in London and during the war she volunteered as a Fire Watcher and was based at Manchester Square.  Their marriage ended in divorce in 1955 and Owen subsequently remarried.

[courtesy Audrey Dewjee]

Wedding of Owen Sylvestre and Laureen Goodare, 1945


5 additions to “SYLVESTRE – Owen Oscar”

  1. chris fitch adds:

    i am looking into the history of my fathers RAF service and i believe he may have served as a rear gunner for the pilot owen sylvester of the 15th sqn plan LS N that flew from Mildenhall we lost his war records whilst moving.

  2. Ishola Pedro adds:

    Hi, Im Owens Grandson, If you do find anything please let me know thanks 🙂

  3. vanessa kirpatrick adds:

    I may have some information about Pilot Owen Sylvester. I interviewed a gentleman of the same name and rank for a documentary in 1995.

  4. Chris Fitch adds:

    Hi Vanessa,sorry i have not replied earlier we would be interested in any information on my fathers war history, my father was also in a documentary it may have been the same one i believe it was channel 4. my father name was Ernest john Fitch.

  5. John Allom adds:

    Hi Chris,

    My name is John Allom, and I am George Arthur Allom’s grandson. He was in the same crew. I met your Mam and Dad a couple of times when I was younger. My Grandpa helped write a chapter in a book called Bomber Command. I also still have his log book. As regards to Owen, I believe that there must be an earlier documentary from the 1980’s. I think it was a TV series called ‘Black Britain’. My Grandpa and your Dad met up with Owen at a pub in Suffolk I believe. They hadn’t seen Owen in almost 30 years. The show was about Owen and his exploits as a black pilot in the RAF.

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