Keith Alphonso Speid (Giscombe)
Own recollection, with excerpt from the novel Strong Hyacinths. Reproduced with kind permission from Christina Giscombe (daughter)
Keith Alphonso Speid Giscombe (known to the RAF as 'Speid') was born on 1 Jan 1927 in Buff Bay, Portland, Jamaica. He enrolled in the RAF on 5 Apr 1944 in the RAFUR division as an Equipment Assistant and was honourably discharged 15 July 1948. He entered at the AC2 rank and progressed to Corporal.
"I was sixteen and over, my friend, Sherlock, had just turned eighteen. There was a recruitment drive by the RAF in Jamaica. Sherlock got a form and filled it out. He urged me to do the same; this I did as a prank. I passed all of the tests, one after the other, including the medical. The moment of truth arrived. A birth certificate was needed. At sixteen, I was just underage.
"My headmaster, Mr O.G. Edwards, and the minister Rev. Cyril Dorsett, counselled me, and gave me a letter to take to England. The Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Ferguson, and my father, with the authority of a Notary Public Officer, Mr Dale, satisfied the problem of a birth certificate.
"The year was 1943. Initially, only four candidates, including myself, Sherlock Wilson, Loxley Roberts, who was to become a close friend, and a youth from East Portland, passed the test for the RAF and this was published in the Daily Gleaner.
"On queuing up to get our number, I was behind Roberts. The number was 713400. Roberts pushed me forward, saying, "you take that number!" So I became identified as ‘Speid 400’. (Note: the speed of 400mph was the maximum velocity of an aircraft then.)
"We had our soldierly training at Palisadoes, Kingston. Often, we had route marches as part of our training, but on one occasion on a route march, we were marched straight on board the troop ship S.S. Cuba, without any warning.
"I was never to see Jamaica again for 25 years. I stood on the rocking deck looking at the mountains of Jamaica fading in the distance and darkness and I pledged solemnly, that if my life was spared, I would return some day.
"The pledge is fulfilled and honoured, for here I am in Jamaica, retired after 50 years in the UK.
"To whom really did I pledge? I think it was to myself, my spiritual self, that which has guided and protected me, my ancestors and my descendants, that entity, or whatever, that has manifested my interests.
"The troop ship, S.S. Cuba, an old passenger liner, first called at Guantanamo Harbour, Cuba, then at an American port in Virginia, USA. It next sailed to Camp Patrick Henry. Besides Jamaicans, there were Trinidadians, Guyanese, Barbadians and other English-speaking Caribbeans.
"Contact with other West Indians for the first time was very touchy, after all, Jamaica and Guyana are more than one thousand miles apart. There were some unpleasant remarks, but on the whole, we got on O.K. We had a very negative opinion of the USA regarding racial persecution. We were to be pleasantly surprised. The Americans provided hosts to make us welcome and performed a splendid Public Relations exercise. Our stay in the USA was marvellous.
"Up to this time in our journey, we had no idea where we were going. Security was just speculation and rumour. There were some returning casualties at Camp Patrick Henry, which was a transit camp. These casualties were involved in hand-to-hand combat in North Africa. We could hear their anguish and cries from their wounds. The rumour was that we were off to North Africa.
"On leaving Camp Patrick Henry by fast train on a long journey, we alighted from the carriages only to find we were actually on a ferry, including the train, to New York Harbour. There, we transferred to board the S.S. Esperance Bay, another old passenger liner now a troop ship.
"Ships, ships, ships, all sizes, shapes and purposes. Some were in darker camouflage than others. The lighter were the Pacific Fleet, the darker the Atlantic Fleet. As far as the eye could see and for as long as you could count, there were ships. Some small corvettes, and very fast, very large battleships.
"The reason for the vast armada of sea-going vessels during the spring of 1944 was the assembling of ‘D Day’, the Allied invasion of Germany. The troop ships were virtually unarmed, often breaking down and not moving at all, just sitting ducks. By hindsight, we were relatively safe, being low value targets, while there were many strategic targets for the Germans to risk their position.
"We sailed north towards Iceland and Greenland then south again. We were five weeks at sea. One day, surrounded by thick fog, our vessel was not moving. Had it broken down again? Not so! The fog cleared, and behold, LAND. GREEN, GREEN LAND. What joy, what relief. We were in Liverpool.
"There were eight German submarines being towed in. It was like a bridge, which consisted of continuously moving fleets from the USA to Britain. By June that year, the invasion took place.
"So ended my journey across the Atlantic to Britain. Bands played, newsreel film rolled and cups of tea were handed around a reception. A train was boarded, and there were strange buildings and sights all around.
"Our train journey took us to Filey in Yorkshire. We were billeted in chalets at Butlins Holiday Camp. All our kits were returned and we received new ones and new identity cards. Only our serial numbers remained the same. We even had to swear the Oath to the King again."
Keith was demobbed from the RAF on 15 July 1948, but had the occasion to be one of the Provost Marshals at the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on 20 Nov 1947.
"I was one of the seven Deputy Provost Marshals. We wore a white armband on duty, which gave us Special Authority. The group consisted of Jamaicans, Commissioned Officer, Flt/Lt. Lynch, W.O. Fox, Sergeant Elden and Cpls Sporey / Spoerri, Smith, Speid – myself - and Cpl Westman (Guyanese)."
After leaving the RAF, Keith obtained a job with the GPO as a telephone wireman, which enabled him to remain in England. He became an area manager with Siemens Plessey in telecommunications engineering. He retired back to Jamaica in 1994 after 50 years in the UK. Keith was married three times and had five children and one stepchild. Sadly he died on 4 June 2013 in Priestmans River, Portland, Jamaica.
Keith’s service number was 713400.