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Thomas, (Emanuel) Peter John Adeniyi (1914–1945), air force officer, was born in 1914 in Lagos, Nigeria, the son of Peter John Claudius Thomas and his wife, Josetta Mary, née Cole. He was the youngest member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families on Africa's west coast. At the age of seventeen he obtained his Cambridge school certificate. He then attended King's College, one of the best secondary schools in Lagos, for another two years. After employment in his father's business, he entered the service of the Nigerian government in the labour department.

In 1940, after reading about the heroic achievements of the Royal Air Force in the battle of Britain, Peter Thomas volunteered. He was supported by Charles Woolley, the chief secretary to the government of Nigeria, who personally forwarded Thomas's application to London. In a letter that Woolley wrote to support the application, he commented that Thomas was ‘very anxious to enlist in the RAF’ and added that his acceptance by the Air Ministry would ‘have excellent publicity value in Nigeria’ (Lambo, 150). Thomas had all the right qualifications for entry into the RAF. He was a long-distance runner and had enrolled in the territorial battalion of the Nigerian regiment at the time of his application. However, his application might not have been accepted if the casualties in the battle of Britain had not escalated to almost 3000 aircrew. The British government had announced on 19 October 1939 that, for the duration of the war, it would lift the ban that excluded black recruits from the armed services. However, a ‘colour bar’ remained in place in the Royal Air Force until November 1940 when the Air Ministry informed the Colonial Office that it would accept black aircrew candidates from the colonies. Thomas eventually set sail for Britain in February 1941 and was commissioned in mid-1943. The Times (30 January 1945) acknowledged that he was ‘the first West African to be commissioned in the RAF and the first to qualify as a pilot’.

When he was not on RAF duties, Thomas's interests extended to social welfare and labour problems. He undertook other responsibilities on behalf of the Colonial Office. For example, when west African social science students arrived in Britain for training, he took part in meeting the trains, and welcoming them. He was remembered by Roy Sloan as
an interesting and somewhat unusual character. He was the son of an extremely wealthy Nigerian dignitary … an engaging and attractive personality, well liked and popular with his colleagues, and … exceptionally religious. Normally courteous and gentlemanly, he would let himself go at social events such as Mess parties after being persuaded to take a few drinks. (Sloan, 63)
However, Sloan noted that Thomas ‘had a tendency to be involved in mishaps and accidents rather more frequently than one would have expected. It was rumoured that whenever he “bent” an aircraft his father would always foot the bill’ (ibid., 63). On 11 February 1943 Thomas was filmed by the Colonial Film Unit for a propaganda short that was shown in the colonies, Flight Officer Peter Thomas, RAF (1943), sequences of which were incorporated into another short, Africa's Fighting Men (1943).

On 12 January 1945, on a routine exercise over the Brecon Beacons in south Wales, Thomas was forced to make a crash landing in the mountains, near Brecon reservoir. His companion, a young airman called Frank Stokes, realized that he was badly injured and needed help. Stokes later recalled that Thomas was
thrown forward clear of the aircraft. He was lying on his back, unconscious … He was a heavy man, but I managed with some difficulty to turn him onto his side … I then had the idea to try and wrap him in my parachute canopy for warmth, but as I pulled the ripcord, the canopy filled quickly and the strong wind carried it away. I simply didn't have the strength to hold it. (Stokes, ‘Aircraft crash in the Brecon Beacons’)
In spite of his own injuries, Stokes managed to stagger over two miles in the snow and find help. Stokes was taken to a hospital in Merthyr Tydfil but, when Thomas was eventually found, he was dead. At the time of his death, in anticipation of the war's end, he had already been admitted as a law student at the Middle Temple.

Stephen Bourne

Sources  

The Times (30 Jan 1945) · R. Sloan, Wings of war over Gwynedd: aviation in Gwynedd during World War II (1991) · R. Lambo, ‘Achtung! The black prince: west Africans in the Royal Air Force’, Africans in Britain, ed. D. Killingray (1994), 145–63 · F. E. Stokes, ‘Aircraft crash in the Brecon Beacons’, www.breconbeacons.org/visit-us/about-the-brecon-beacons/frank-stokes-report, accessed on 19 April 2012 · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, Africa's fighting men (1943) [www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/180]


Likenesses  

photograph, 1941, IWM, London