PIONEERS & CHAMPIONS
RAF officer whose career reached new heights
1927 - 2016
So eager was Vidal Dezonie to fight for Britain during the Second World War that he fibbed about his age to qualify for the RAF. He would go on to have a long and glittering career, making history as the first black man to be commissioned through the ranks. His son, André, would follow in his footsteps, becoming the first black officer to co10%mmand an RAF base.
Vidal Constantine Dezonie was born on March 25, 1927 in Priestman’s River, a village in the parish of Portland on Jamaica’s northeast coast, the eldest boy in a family of several siblings. His father Ferdinand died when he was a child, a tragedy that instilled in him the need to study hard in order to be able to support his mother, Evelyn, when he grew up.
In 1944, he eagerly responded to the call for RAF volunteers from the West Indies, refusing to put off by the fact that at 17 he was too young to qualify. When he enlisted he added a year to his age and soon found himself crossing the Atlantic to England.
Vidal’s ambition had been to fly but at this stage of the war the requirement for newly-trained pilots had reduced markedly. Instead, he found himself at RAF Hunmanby Moor, Filey in Yorkshire, for initial training for ground crew duties. But he would persuade aircrew into allowing him to go on operational sorties with them when the opportunity arose.
By the end of the war Vidal’s potential and determination had been recognised by his superiors. He was invited to remain in the RAF and in 1948, following a period of post-war leave in Jamaica, he returned to England on board the Empire Windrush. He remained in the RAF for 40 years, rising to the rank of flight lieutenant.
In the summer of 1952 Vidal married Erika Schillack, a young German studying in England. The couple had met in a Lincolnshire tea room and took the words ‘till death do us part’ literally – they were still together 64 years later when Vidal died in 2016.
Vidal had a deep affection for the RAF and this was passed down to his son, retired Group Captain André Dezonie, who became a Harrier pilot in the 1980s and in 1999 took over the command of RAF Wittering in Peterborough. “I was exposed to the RAF throughout my childhood and I wanted to be a fighter pilot in my early years,” he said, adding that his father had always been prepared to go that extra mile to help fellow RAF members. “Those he had helped were keen to tell me of their gratitude and affection and respect for him.”