'Young, Adventurous, and Idealistic': Ulric Cross in History

Ulric Cross Courtesy of Anne Marie
'Young, Adventurous, and Idealistic': Ulric Cross in History
Scherin Barlow Massay explores the life of Trinidadian RAF Squadron Leader Ulric Cross. Photograph courtesy of Anne-Marie Costigan


Phillip Louis Ulric Cross was born on the 1st May 1917 in Trinidad. From a mixed cultural background, Cross grew up in the north east of the capital, Port of Spain, in the suburbs of Belmont, an area popular with black professionals. A bright pupil, Cross gained a place at the prestigious St Mary's College, an all-boys all-white Catholic school that took only eight black pupils each year. Here he learnt classical Greek, French, English and Spanish, among other subjects.

Two years into his schooling, Cross’s mother died and stricken with grief, the thirteen-year-old suffered a mental breakdown. Soon after, his father abandoned his family and went to live in Venezuela. Although Cross completed his schooling and won a scholarship to go on to university, his grief caused him to lose his academic focus.

After leaving school, he had several different jobs, working as a copy writer and a solicitor’s clerk before joining the civil service at twenty-one. Then, in November 1941, aged 24, he and six of his former class mates left colonial Trinidad and sailed to England to join the RAF war effort.    

It was a great cultural shock for Cross and the other 250 arrivals from Trinidad who came to serve in the R.A.F. While they seemed to know about England and felt an affinity for it, the British seemed to know nothing about the Caribbean and were surprised that people from Trinidad were British citizens, could speak English, and did not live in trees.

Ulric Cross joined the Royal Air Force as a volunteer Mosquito navigator. The De Havilland Mosquito or “Mossie” was a twin-engine plane, and apart from the engine, they were made mostly of plywood. The aircraft had no guns and was used as a light bomber, able to carry a 500lb bomb. It took Cross two years to attain his position because he was deemed ‘too black’ to navigate a plane. At that time only people of pure European descent were allowed to fly. 

During the war, eighty-percent of the bombs dropped by the RAF did not reach their targets because manoeuvres were carried out at night. Cross was hired as a navigator to fly into enemy territory to let off flares to enable the bomber planes that followed to see their targets. These manoeuvres were very dangerous because those first planes only had a ten second window in which to get out of the way before the bombs were dropped.

Ulric Cross had an exemplary military career in the R.A.F. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1944 and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1945, attained the rank of Squadron Leader, and was the only West Indian in his squadron. After serving on 50 tours, he was offered a teaching position, which he rejected; he was also later offered a Met flight position, which entailed flying around to study cloud formations to build up a picture of weather conditions in Germany, so that the allied bombers could carry out successful raids. Once again he turned down the position. 

After completing ninety operational tours (a normal tour being thirty) and military service lasting from 1941-1947, Cross decided to pursue a different career. In 1949 he realised his childhood ambition of becoming a lawyer when he was called to the bar in London. He then returned to Trinidad, spending the next four years lecturing, returning again to England in 1953 to work at the BBC as a Talks Producer.

A believer in the principles of pan-Africanism, in 1958 Cross moved to newly independent Ghana, becoming first an adviser to the Nkrumah government, and later a Senior Crown Counsel and Attorney General. He also lectured in Criminal law at the Ghana School of Law. From 1960 to 1966 he served in Cameroon, where he became an Attorney General. The government of Cameroon awarded him two knighthoods: The Order of Merit and The Order of Valour. Then, in 1967, Cross went to Tanzania where he became a High Court Judge and a Professor at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. 

After 16 years spent in various African countries, he returned to Trinidad in 1974. In Trinidad, he served as a High Court and Appeal Court judge and worked as the chairman of the Law Reform Commission, where some of his judgements changed the landscapes of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1990, he became the High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London, as well as Ambassador to France and Germany, returning to Trinidad in 1993.

The former judge, diplomat and war hero Cross died in 2013. He was the most decorated war hero of African-Caribbean heritage.