Retired serviceman shares story to highlight diversity on Remembrance Day

Composite image of 85-year-old Derrick Thomas next to an old photo of Derrick in the Air Force

Retired Flight simulator specialist, Derrick Thomas, has shared his military service story to highlight diversity within the Remembrance Day commemorations - Credit: Charlotte Bond/ Derrick Thomas

A local Black serviceman whose military career spanned from 1959 until 1971, is sharing his story to highlight diversity among the Remembrance Day commemorations. 

Derrick Thomas, who now resides in Ipswich, had a career as an aircraft engineer and later a flight simulator specialist within the Royal Air Force fixing and flying simulators ready for trainees.  

The 85-year-old originally from Guyana in South America, moved to the UK in 1957 and was called into national service in 1959.  

An old photographer of Derrick Thomas in uniform

Derrick was 23 when he was called for national service in 1959 and remained in the Air Force until 1971 - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Derrick had a successful career within the Air Force rising quickly up the ranks and securing the role of Sergeant Chief Technician of the Lightning Mark 6 aircraft simulator - the first aircraft to break the sound barrier and top secret at the time.  

But despite his achievements, Derrick had faced discrimination in the service and found that he was the only Black man in his group of 36 entrants when he started.

He said: “I was the only Black person there and I was made Senior man of the entry because I already had a rank. I used to dictate duties to the other people in the building and I had one problem with that group.  

Derrick (the only Black man) and six other men in a photograph taken in Singapore

A course photo of Derrick and comrades stationed at RAF Tengha in Singapore - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“I told this lad to clean the coal stove and he decided he’s not taking any instructions from a Black man.

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"The Corporal who was in charge of my block told him that if he says anything like that, he’ll be thrown out of the Air Force.” 

Derrick explained that on other occasions colleagues would ignore him completely, but he always remained positive and managed to break down barriers with those he worked with.

Today Derrick believes things have changed a great deal and views the Remembrance Day commemorations as an inclusive event.  

He said: “Three years ago, I took part in the parade in Whitehall as a member of the marching team and I think Remembrance commemorations are representative.  

Derrick Thomas pictured at home holding his medal

Derrick was awarded a medal for his service in Singapore - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“You have various nationalities who have served in the forces – West Indians for example. So, there is good representation,” he added.  

Derrick now volunteers as a fire prevention officer educating elderly people about fire safety and also works as a professional Toastmaster. 

Derrick also authored a book entitled Hold onto your Dreams.

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