By Audrey Dewjee
Alford Gardner was born in Jamaica in January, 1926. In 1943 he had just left school and was "running about doing nothing" when he heard about recruitment for the RAF. He thought this would be a good opportunity. He was also influenced by the fact that his father, Egbert Watson Gardner, had served in the First World War in the British West Indies Regiment in Belgium and France. "All my Dad would ever say when he heard the battles of the Somme and Ypres mentioned was, 'Oh My God, I was there!' He wouldn't talk about his experiences."
Alford joined the first batch of recruits from the West Indies that arrived in England on 3 June, 1944. The men had left Jamaica on the SS Cuba and sailed first to Guantanamo Bay. They then went on to Camp Patrick Henry at Newport News in Virginia and Alford still remembers his time there vividly. "Ooh – that was a beautiful week that was! – that was a week!!" At the US base life was good, the food was excellent and plentiful and the men were generally treated well – although Alford and a couple of friends were prevented from entering a dancehall on the base.
They eventually set sail on the SS Esperance Bay and continued on to England via Greenland. En route they experienced sub-zero temperatures for the first time – "Everything covered in ice. That was the first frost we had run into. Lads went down and put on their long johns. No matter what you put on it was still cold."  On arrival in Liverpool the recruits were met by an RAF band and an official welcome party which included the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and then sent on by train to RAF Hunmanby Moor, Filey. 
It was quite a culture shock for the British airmen, officers and NCOs at Filey to suddenly have 2000 men from all parts of the West Indies on their base. Weeks later, a corporal admitted to Alford that nearly all the officers and NCOs were frightened when the West Indian men got off the train at Filey, as they didn't know what to expect. "There were all these black men, white men, Chinese – some of the lads were dead rough. They couldn't understand all these different colours, different shades of people, different nationalities, all talking the same way, and we all got on so well. Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Guyanese – we were all one." This fear probably resulted in some harsh treatment in the early days.
Alford got into trouble almost immediately. When they went for their first meal he was dished up a small lamb chop – mostly bone. He leaned over and took a couple more with his fork. As soon as he sat down at the table two SPs [RAF Station Police] and an officer came over and said "Airman, stand up, you have just stolen two airmen's rations". Alford was shaking. He happened to say something about it not being like this on an American base, thinking of the wonderful food at Camp Patrick Henry.
"Oh gosh! I said the wrong thing."
"Well you are not in America now!"
"Well you are not in America now!"
The other recruits lining up for their food started to complain, "Leave the bwoy alone…" Alford survived that encounter but soon realised that good food was a thing of the past because of rationing.
The arrival of the West Indians was a culture shock for the local population too. "One day we were on a route march and this big lad, about 6 foot 10, picked up this little kid and put him on his shoulder. 'Mammy, mammy, I've got a big black man all for myself!' His mother's dying, she was that scared! At the time – 90% of them – it was the first time they had seen a black person." Local people were also amazed at the variety of colours among the recruits. The population of the West Indies is very racially mixed and the young men who came had skin of every shade from white to black and the facial features of their ancestors who may have been a mixture of European, African, Indian or Chinese.
After their initial basic training – "square bashing" – the recruits were then sent on for training in the trades they had been selected for. Alford was to be a motor mechanic and as this was a popular choice, he had to wait for some time to get on his course. As a result he spent six months at Filey and was still there when the second wave of recruits arrived in November. Many of these complained bitterly of the cold, but Alford had been here for so long, he didn't suffer quite as badly. In addition his billet happened to be near the cookhouse which had a large pile of coal next to it, so the stove in his hut was always red hot.
Even so, he said it had been so cold in the June when they arrived that the men almost froze while doing their rifle training and could hardly handle their rifles. On another June day a group of lads decided to take a dip in the sea, which was probably out of bounds as the beach could have been mined. Despite the sun and seemingly glorious weather, the sea temperature was a terrible shock to men who were used to the warm Caribbean Sea, and they never ventured in again.
Alford says, "Filey was all right – but I never bothered much with Filey." Perhaps he too was suffering from culture shock and still busy finding his feet – after all, he was eighteen years old and far away from home. Many of the recruits were young and some lied about their ages to join up. As long as they had a good level of education and could pass the entrance exam, they were accepted. [James Ferguson, who was only 14 when he enlisted, must have been the youngest recruit at Filey.]
After the six months at Filey, Alford was sent to Weeton near Blackpool for his initial eight weeks of motor mechanic training. "That was when I started to spread my wings." At Weeton he met up with Denis Reed, a friend from Springfield, his home village in Jamaica. He was transferred to Moreton-in Marsh in Gloucestershire for four months and then he was sent back to Weeton to do a fitter's course. Next he was sent to High Wycombe, but he only stayed there for two days, as Moreton-in-Marsh wanted him back.
When he was at Moreton-in-Marsh, Alford says he used to go to London every weekend – "and I didn't go where the boys are. I tried my best to go where the officers and NCOs are. I got any information that was going and take it back to camp – so they called me "The Baron". He says a lot of the boys only knew him as "The Baron" while others called him "Gardie" or "Fordie".
When the war ended, Alford was sent on a six months vocational engineering course in Leeds, where he was in effect a civilian. He enjoyed dancing at the Mecca ballroom and lived for most of this time in Greenbanks Hostel, Horsforth.  When this course finished, he was posted to Colerne in Wiltshire. He was then back in the RAF, where he discovered there were restrictions on leave. By this time airmen were starting to be repatriated, as it had always been intended that the airmen should go back to the West Indies when the war ended. The authorities were worried as a couple of the men had gone on leave to London and didn't return: hence leave was restricted.
Despite the restrictions, Alford managed to find ways to go back to Leeds to see his friends, but he was also happy to return to Jamaica when his turn came. He went back, along with his brother Gladstone Gardner (who had joined the RAF in 1944), on the SS Almanzora arriving in Kingston in good time for Christmas 1947.  When the Almanzora returned to Southampton, there were 150 West Indians on board, many of them returning airmen. Although the SS Empire Windrush is often credited with being the first ship to bring post-war West Indian migrants to Britain, in fact there were two earlier vessels which brought smaller numbers of people in 1947: first the Ormonde and then the Almanzora.
In March 1948, Alford's sister informed him that a ship, carrying troops and holidaymakers, was expected in Jamaica shortly and that the price of the trip back to London was £28. Gladstone had £28 of his own so he could easily buy a ticket but Alford wasn't so fortunate. He asked his mother. She told him to go and ask his father who said he would give him the money.
Gladstone and Alford duly sailed as legitimate passengers on the now famous SS Empire Windrush but some of the airmen they knew from their time in Britain were unable to find the fare. The luggage of these men was taken on board by the paying passengers who had passes to get on and off the ship before it sailed. Strangely, some of these passes were "lost" – or rather handed to the stowaways to allow them to get on board. Then it was a case of them just staying out of notice until they got to England.
Despite the fact that boat was very crowded, the trip was enjoyable as there were several musicians on board who kept the passengers well-entertained. These included the famous calypsonian "Lord Kitchener" who could make up songs on the spot about anything that happened.
On arrival, they were met by an RAF recruiting party – one officer, Flight Lieutenant Johnny Smythe from Sierra Leone, West Africa, actually travelled with the men on the ship. But Alford headed straight back to Leeds to find work. This didn't turn out to be as easy as he had imagined, as he explained in an article in the Yorkshire Post Magazine.  "I would go to the Labour Exchange and the moment I walked through the door this man would say, 'Sorry son, there is nothing for you'." Alford kept going back and one day he met an employer who was looking for a mechanic who could strip an engine and who could start work immediately. Alford got the job, and eventually found employment for three of his friends with the same man. Finding accommodation wasn't easy either because landlords wouldn't rent to "coloured" tenants, so Alford returned for a while to Greenbanks hostel.
Before long, he decided that the new arrivals in Leeds needed a cricket club, so along with colleagues he founded the Caribbean Cricket Club which still exists today. Over the years the Caribbean Cricket Club played in matches all over Yorkshire – mainly in villages surrounding Leeds but also in towns such as Doncaster, Hull and Beverley.
When Mr. Gardner was asked if he remembered the names of any other airmen who trained at Filey, he came up with this list: Warren Lawson, Vince Stewart, Freddie Williams and Mr. Sullivan (who all settled in Leeds and were founder members of the Caribbean Cricket Club); Lloyd Young, Alvin Lightbody, Harry Lamont, John Brown, and a lot of Jamaicans of Chinese ancestry with the surnames Chin, Cheung and Chan.
Alford is one of a remarkable breed of men who were willing to aid their "Mother Country" in her hour of need. Later he took the risk of establishing a new life here. He married Norma McKenna, bought a house and settled in Leeds, where the couple successfully raised eight children.
Now a sprightly 92 year-old, Alford Gardner exudes a great joie de vivre. He still makes regular return trips to Jamaica and visits his relatives in the USA. Recently he has found fame as one of the Windrush pioneers, being interviewed by the Yorkshire Post and the BBC amongst others, and acting as a historical advisor for the Phoenix Dance production Windrush: Movement of the People. 
- Interview with Alford Gardner, 4 December 2017.
- After the War, RAF Hunmanby Moor became Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Filey.
- Greenbanks Hostel in Horsforth had been built in 1941 to house 900 workers building Lancaster bombers at the Avro aircraft factory in Yeadon.
- Gladstone came to Britain in the final intake of West Indian recruits in 1945 and did his initial training at Melksham in Wiltshire. These recruits benefitted from the complaints of earlier arrivals in that their food was better and an effort was made to make it more like what they had at home.
- Yorkshire Post Magazine, 3 February 2018.
- For a review of the production, see https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/feb/11/windrush-movement-of-the-people-review-west-yorkshire-playhouse-phoenix-dance-theatre.