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The Black Hornet: the extraordinary life of RAF hero Ulric Cross

Nickolai Salcedo as Ulric Cross in the film Hero
Nickolai Salcedo as Ulric Cross in the film Hero

This article has an estimated read time of 7 minutes

Ulric Cross might be the greatest 20th‑century figure you’ve never heard of. A war hero, diplomat and legal visionary who had a hand in shaping the future of half a dozen countries, his was a life that cried out for a movie treatment.

And now, six years after his death, that movie has arrived. The docudrama Hero is released this Saturday to coincide with Windrush Day, an annual celebration founded last year to mark the contribution made by people from the British West Indies, such as Cross.

Filmed on a shoestring budget by Frances-Anne Solomon, an old family friend of Cross’s, Hero has no major distributor. In fact, the film is scheduled to be screened at only a handful of cinemas.

But the story it tells deserves a far wider audience. Not only was Cross the most decorated black serviceman of the Second World War, he was handsome, charming and fiercely intelligent. He loved Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare, and apparently knew Hamlet word for word.

He was also well-connected in unexpected ways. “He and Mick Jagger used to talk to each other about cricket,” says Peter Devitt, a curator at the RAF Museum. And, after the war, he rose to become a senior crown counsel in Ghana, a high court judge in Zanzibar and Trinidad’s High Commissioner in the UK.

Ulric Cross, photographed in 2002 by Horace Ové Credit: National Portrait Gallery

“Ulric Cross was a truly extraordinary man,” says Devitt. “He had this charm, this glamour about him. He was an exceptionally gifted navigator, and willing to offer his life to combat tyranny in the world.”

Filmed with a cast of unknowns (though with a very compelling lead performance from newcomer Nickolai Salcedo as Cross), Hero finds clever ways to work around its financial limitations, making inventive, stylised use of cheap archive film, at points fading between colour and black-and-white to blend the drama with footage from the Forties.

It begins with Cross’s childhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was born in 1917, his comfortable middle-class household hit by tragedy when his mother died and his father moved to Venezuela to find work, leaving Ulric and his six siblings to the cold care of a neighbour. Once a promising student, Cross dropped out of school to work in a string of unsatisfying jobs.

Then he found a purpose. “I worked for a while with the government on the railroad,” Cross told historian Gabriel J Christian in an interview for his 2009 book, For King & Country. “But by 1941, Britain stood alone. Dunkirk had been a defeat for Britain and Hitler had conquered all of Europe. The world was drowning in fascism and America was not yet in the war, so I decided to do something about it and volunteered to fight in the RAF.”

He was not alone. About 6,000 men and women from the Caribbean joined the RAF during the war – all volunteers. More than 450 flew operations, with an estimated 150 killed in service.

Ulric Cross (right) being interviewed by the BBC in 1944

Cross joined the RAF’s 139 Jamaica Squadron. Nicknamed “The Black Hornet” by his comrades, Cross was a squadron commander in Bomber Command’s elite Pathfinder Force. As the navigator for a De Havilland Mosquito, he had one of the most challenging jobs in the RAF: to guide the tiny wooden two-seater hundreds of miles through darkness, flying close to the ground over often heavily defended sites, before dropping a flare to mark a target for the bombers.

He flew 80 missions to Germany, refusing to take a rest, while most officers were moved to a less dangerous posting after 30. His unflappable calm made him an invaluable navigator. “You can’t be trained not to be afraid, but trained to conquer fear,” he once said. “It comes from a belief that what you’re doing is right.”

On one occasion he was forced to make a crash landing after taking flak over Germany, his plane limping back to the nearest RAF base with a single working engine. “We went over the end of the runway and through a hedge,” he recalled. “We plunged down into a disused quarry. My pilot said: ‘Ulric, this is it.’ I said: ‘Yes, Jack.’ We thought we were both going to die. We were both rather cool about it.”

“His time in the war was something that could take up a whole film,” says director Solomon. But Hero tells the dramatic story of Cross’s post-war career, too. After taking a job at the Colonial Office and teaching himself law by night, Cross struggled to find work as a barrister and so, in 1953, joined the BBC as a producer for its Caribbean Voices programme. He was soon mixing in the same circles as its literary contributors, V S Naipaul, C L R James and the socialist George Padmore, a fellow countryman.

Ulric Cross meeting Prince Philip in 2009 Credit: Rex

Padmore, spotting a great legal mind going to waste, recruited Cross to work for Kwame Nkrumah, whom he was advising on his campaign for an independent Gold Coast (now Ghana). “I was in the right place at the right time,” the fictional Ulric says in Hero. It seems he always was. Arriving in Ghana just as it won its independence, he was appointed a Senior Crown Counsel, working closely with President Nkrumah’s government.

It was a sign of his confidence in Cross that Nkrumah sent him to the Democratic Republic of Congo when its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was ousted in a violent coup, asking him to report back on whether Ghana should intervene with military force to help an ally. Before they could, however, Lumumba was dead.

MI6 controller Baroness Park is said to have admitted on her deathbed that she arranged Lumumba’s assassination, and Park is a hovering malign presence in Hero, where it’s suggested that she had designs on Cross, too.

Cross moved to Cameroon in 1960, arriving at a turning point in its history, in the middle of its complex unification process. According to one former Cameroon High Commissioner, Cross’s “visionary ideas” as Attorney-General of West Cameroon were the driving force in forging a new, functional legal framework from the “moribund” sets of contradictory laws in French and English that the country had inherited.

Cross was later a High Court Judge in Zanzibar, then in Trinidad – where the prime minister said his judgments had “changed the landscape” of the country. In his later years, he was Trinidad and Tobago’s Ambassador to France and Germany, and the country’s High Commissioner in the UK.

In a life that packed, it’s understandable that there were plenty of interesting stories that couldn’t make it into the film. There’s no mention of his wartime relationship with an engaged Englishwoman, Joan, who had his child in 1945, but was forced by her parents to give it up, for fear of scandal. Hidden from visitors (sometimes under the stairs), their daughter Susan was raised by her grandparents, and grew up believing Joan was her sister, only learning the truth about what she called “the whole complicated web of lies and deceit” years later. Susan went on to become the broadcaster Lady Hollick, Channel 4’s first head of multicultural programming and chairman of London’s Arts Council.

The events that did make it into the film are not just fascinating – they are inspirational. Many young people from the African and Caribbean diaspora feel “lost”, says Solomon, “because they don’t know who they are… a lot of these lives have been erased by not being documented.” But the story of Ulric Cross, “a man from a small island with big ideas and visions of a better world – that tells them we stand on the shoulders of incredible people, that we come from somewhere, that we are somebody”.

Hero is at the Brixton Ritzy, London SW2, Sat, then opens in selected UK cinemas; heroulriccross.com/screenings