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Hornet Flight

The black hornet

UK war novel character inspired by Ulric Cross

[This article, written by David Brewster and published in the Trinidad Express on January 25th 2004, relates to the distinguished war veteran pilot on whom Ken based the character ‘Charles Ford’ in Hornet Flight.]

Ulric Cross bombed the Germans 20 times in Berlin during World War II. He also survived 80 sorties as a fearless member of the Royal Air Force (RAF), landing seven times minus wheels, in a wooden, twin-engine Mosquito aircraft.

There were 252 Trinidadians in the RAF during the war, 50 of whom died. Cross, a black squadron leader, attained the highest rank. He was decorated with the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and DSO (Distinguished Service Order). How could any member of the RAF have forgotten him, his tunic emblazoned with the Golden Eagle emblem, his badge of rank on his lapels, he wonders.

Cross, now an 86-year-old retired High Court Judge, recently found himself under attack yet again. But this time, it was over his inclusion as a character called Charles Ford, in the prologue of a wartime novel Hornet Flight, written by Britain’s best-selling author Ken Follet. It’s a tale of danger, passion, escape and espionage by Follet, a master storyteller.

The author was inspired to include Cross in his book after hearing from one of his friends all about the Trinidadian’s operational flights. That friend was Cross’s daughter. But Follett was severely criticised over the Ford character that was inspired by Cross.

Alan Frampton, claimed to have been a pilot in the RAF between 1942 and 1946 and to have been stationed in the United Kingdom, dashed off an angry letter to Follett from Zimbabwe. Frampton, whose letter was dated October 20 last year, described the inclusion of the Ford character as a “sop” to black people who may read Hornet Flight. A sop is something given to pacify or bribe.

In his letter to Follett, Frampton said he became infuriated after reading a few pages of Hornet Flight and came upon the character Ford, the Black Squadron Leader, who at the time had 15-plus missions to his credit. He said he threw down the book in disgust.

“For the life of me”, he wrote Follett, “I cannot recall ever encountering a black airman of any rank whatsoever during the whole of my service, which included Bomber Command. This may have been pure coincidence of course but, in England 60 years ago, blacks were few and far between amongst the population and race was not an issue, unlike today with its attendant racial tensions and extreme sensitivity amounting almost to paranoia.”

Frampton jumped even further, arguing that while Hornet Flight was a work of fiction, he believed that characters should have some degree of credibility to be acceptable by readers. “In my book, Charles (Ford) is not a credible character and I suspect he was introduced as a ‘sop’ to black people who may read your book. He certainly aroused my indignation, remembering as I do, the real heroes of that period in our history, who were not black.”

Frampton ended his letter as follows. “I regard myself as a realist but certainly not an apologist for my race. I have read several of your books and enjoyed them. This one I threw down in disgust.”

Follett’s reply on November 19, 2003, was concise: “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. The character Charles (Ford) was inspired by the father of a friend of mine, a Trinidadian who flew 80 sorties as a navigator in the Second World War and reached the rank of squadron leader. He says there were 252 Trinidadians in the RAF, most of them officers. He was the highest ranked during the war, although after the war a few reached the rank of wing commander. He received the DFC and DSO.”

Follett concluded by saying: “With true-life heroes as he, there’s no need for a ‘sop’ to black people, really, is there?”

Cross received copies of both letters from his daughter, along with a copy of Hornet Flight. With his war experiences behind him, Cross is not one who ruffles easily. Although Cross reiterated that he was not annoyed or shocked over the claims from a fellow member of the RAF, he said he just could not understand how Frampton did not know about him and the other black members of the RAF.

“He must be living in a strange world”, Cross remarked.

Vividly recalling the names of Caribbean men who served in the RAF in World War II, Cross recalled that the names were included in a war memorial three years ago in London, near Buckingham Palace.

“I am old enough to have a certain amount of tolerance. People believe what they need to believe. For some reason Frampton needs to believe that. When you know what you have done, what people think is irrelevant”, Cross said.

Cross talked at length about other Trinidadians who had served in the RAF, like Peter Bynoe, Fitz Belle, Winston Recile, Gilbert Hubah, and the ill-fated Kenrick Rawlins.

“Rawlins and I were in the same class at St Mary’s. We studied Greek together, we joined the RAF together. We went to different navigational schools, but ended up in the same 139 Squadron, but he was shot down in his seventh operation.”

He also recalled the names of several other West Indians – Julian Marryshow (Grenada), Vince Buntin, Dudley Thompson and Michael Manley, the former Jamaica Prime Minister.

“How could he (Frampton) not know?” repeated Cross, a faraway look in his eyes.

By David Brewster. Reprinted from the Trinidad Express, Sunday, January 25th 2004