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war

Remembrance Day: here are 10 BAME war heroes you should know about

Last week was Remembrance Sunday, the time to honour the bravery and mark the sacrifices of past and present servicemen and women.

The problem is when we think of the British military, especially the First or Second World Wars—whether it's leaders like Winston Churchill, fearless spies like Violette Szabo or a bunch of young squaddies chatting in the trenches—it's likely that the people we're picturing are mostly male and overwhelmingly white—but that picture doesn't tell the full story.

Here are just a few of the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) war heroes who we should definitely all be remembering.

Amar Singh

If you thought Wilfred Owen was impressive, you'll love this guy. Captain Amar Singh's military career took him all the way from India to Iraq via Britain and the Western Front, then back to India again. And when he wasn't dodging German U-boats, he somehow found the time to chronicle his experiences in what is quite possibly the world's longest diary, starting in the 1890s and finishing in the 1940s after a whopping 89 volumes. Samuel Pepys, eat your heart out.

Lionel Fitzherbert Turpin

Born in 1896 in British Guinea, Turpin enlisted in 1915 and fought in the infamously costly Somme Offensive, where he suffered serious damage to his lungs and a "gaping wound to his back" after a gas shell attack. He survived the conflict itself, settling down in Leamington Spa where he got married and had five children, but the lasting damage from his injuries made his health deteriorate and he died in 1929. Rather insultingly, he didn't qualify for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone (given to soldiers who died as a result of their service) because that was only granted if you died before September 1921. His grave spent decades as a patch of grass until his family finally managed to get a marker this year.

Walter Tull

One of the more famous heroes on this list, Walter Tull overcame a difficult childhood and a fair amount of racism to become a successful professional footballer, before being the first in his club to enlist in 1914. Despite being briefly hospitalised with "shell shock", he returned to the front and acquired such a good reputation that he was recommended for an officer's commission. He wasn't the first black soldier to get this promotion, but it was still a huge deal given that the rules technically banned "aliens" and people of colour from becoming officers. He was killed in March 1918, and subsequently commemorated on the Arras Memorial, but his commanding officer's request that he be awarded a Military Cross was never sanctioned, in spite of his achievements and reported "gallantry" in battle.

Awal Nur

Few of the people on this list had a career quite as interesting as Nur, who fought in Belgium, France and East Africa from 1914-17 and was wounded three times, before being chosen for secret service in early 1918. He spent the rest of the war working tirelessly to eff up supply lines in Soviet Central Asia, to stop Germany getting its hands on any resources from the area.

Laurent Phillpotts

Born in Jamaica, Phillpotts enlisted in the RAF in 1943, working as a teleprint operator until he was demobbed in 1947. He went on to work for the Daily Mirror, help Windrush passengers find jobs and housing in Nottingham, and helped establish the Nottingham Consultative Committee for the Welfare of Coloured People, which successfully campaigned for jobs in the city's transport system to open up to its black citizens. Oh, and he launched the first black weekly newspaper in 1956, and successfully lobbied to get the Memorial Gates—commemorating servicepeople from the Indian Subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean—in 2002. (So anyway, how's your CV looking?) He died in 2016.

Billy Strachan

This Caribbean pilot joined the RAF aged just 18, selling his bike and saxophone to pay for his travel to Britain. By the end of the war, he was a Flight Lieutenant with one leg wound and 33 missions under his belt—a pretty impressive feat considering that most pilots were lucky to survive seven. A devoted Communist, he helped Windrush immigrants and helped set up Caribbean News, the first Black British monthly paper, successfully studied for a law degree while raising a family, and campaigned against racism and for civil rights until illness caught up with him in the 1990s. He was held in such high regard that the then-President of Guyana sent a message of condolence when he died in 1998.

Karun Krishna Majumdar

The Second World War's most highly decorated Indian pilot, Majumdar flew bombing missions against Japanese forces in Burma and the Nazis in France, and in 1942 was the first Indian to be promoted to Wing Commander. In 1944, however, he was sidelined into a lower-level job as a Commanding Officer in charge of air display flights. He had a history of risky flights and lucky escapes, but in 1945 that luck finally ran out when he was killed in a plane crash.

Ulric Cross

Besides the fact that he has such a cool name, Cross makes the list for being the RAF's most decorated West Indian serviceman. Born in Trinidad, he worked as a bomber in the elite Pathfinder Force and survived a whopping 80 missions over Nazi Germany and occupied Europe. After the war he became a lawyer, working in Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania before becoming a judge in Trinidad and Chairman of the Law of Trinidad and Tobago. He also worked in diplomacy, co-founded the Cotton Tree Foundation, a charity that works to combat unemployment and poverty in Port-of-Spain's most deprived neighbourhoods, and banked an extra two awards plus an Air Station named after him, before dying aged 96 in 2013.

Where are all the women?

Yes, I'm aware that this is a heavily male-dominated list. It turns out that it's even harder to track down wartime heroines of colour than it is to find out about the men. But a lack of information doesn't mean they weren't there; we know that black British women worked as everything from munitions factory workers to nurses, and that Indian women worked the same jobs as their British counterparts, like Second Officer Kalyani Sen and her colleagues in the Women's Royal Indian Naval Service and Private Begum Pasha Shah of the RAF, who sadly we know nothing else about. They also excelled in civilian jobs, like Mabel Mercer, who spent the war raising morale as a music hall singer, and Audrey Jeffers, who set up a fund for West African soldiers and went on to change lives as a social worker in Trinidad.

So, to make up for the unfortunate lack of servicewomen on this list, the top two spots go to brilliant, badass women of colour who were true, fantastic, amazing heroines of the Second World War- one of whom ended up making the ultimate sacrifice.

Lilian Bader

No-one should have to put up with what Lilian Bader did, but she battled through years of racism and discrimination to become a trailblazer: the first black woman to join the RAF. Like Walter Tull, she was orphaned at a young age and lived in a convent until she was 20, unable to find decently paid work at a time when laws against employment discrimination were basically non-existent. After some time in domestic service, in 1939 she had a brief stint as a military camp canteen assistant, only to be fired because of rules against employing anyone with West Indian heritage. Two years later, she joined the RAF's Women's Auxiliary Air Force, where she trained as an instrument repairer; she quickly worked her way up to become a Leading Aircraftwoman and later an Acting Corporal. Eventually, period-typical sexism caught up with her soon after her marriage to Ramsay Bader, when she became pregnant and was promptly discharged (no maternity leave in the 1940s). Despite spending the rest of her working life as a stay-at-home mum and then a teacher, Bader never stopped being proud of her service in the armed forces. In 1990, frustrated by the failure of younger black Britons to understand why she and others had joined up, she was blunt about her motivations. She knew what a Nazi victory would mean for her and other black people: "We would have ended up in the ovens."

Noor Inayat Khan

But if anyone really deserves to be remembered, it's Khan. A Sufi Muslim with royal ancestry and a passionate supporter of Indian independence, she joined the WAAF and then the Special Operations Executive: the work meant she could combat fascism without compromising her religious beliefs, which had made her a committed pacifist. Her superiors disagreed hugely about her suitability as a secret agent, but in 1943—before her training was complete—she became the first woman to be parachuted into occupied France as a radio operator. The Paris Resistance was disintegrating fast and Khan was offered the chance to leave; she refused, and ended up doing the work of six agents, facilitating important deliveries and airmen's escapes. She managed to evade capture for three months (the average field agent's life expectancy was six weeks) before being arrested by the Gestapo. Unfortunately, she had made the mistake—possibly due to a misunderstanding during her rushed training—of copying out her transmissions, enabling the Germans to fake messages from her, and lure several more agents to their deaths. But she refused, despite being tortured, to give away any further information. On top of that, she became a thorn in her captors' side by trying to escape twice and refusing to rule out a third attempt. Eventually, she was transported to Dachau concentration camp and shot. Her last word, reportedly, was "Liberté".

Did we miss out anyone other war heroes who you think should be remembered? Let us know in the comments.

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