ON the evening of 24 November 1943, 76 RAF planes from 40 and 142 squadrons were dispatched from Oudna and Djeida in Tunisia to attack a ball bearing factory at Villar Perosa near Turin.
Looking to finally destroy the capabilities of an important Italian weapon making facility, the rear gunner on one of the Wellington bombers sent from North Africa that night was Stafford Barton, a handsome, popular and, by all accounts, polite and respectful 29-year-old Jamaican middleweight boxer who had won 33 of 51 contests since arriving in England in 1936.
Operated by the Germans to provide bearings to its forces in the Italian theatre the same site had been attacked by 122 American B-17s and B-24s over three nights just two and a half weeks earlier, but the US missions failed to have any significant impact on the factory’s operations.
Situated in Piedmont, in the Waldensian Valleys around 45 km west of Turin in the Cottian Alps, Villar Perosa was, and remains, heavily industrial, but it is small – only around 11 square km – and ranges in height from 465 – 1300m high. In addition to being surrounded by anti-aircraft guns during the war, this made the area difficult to attack from the air, especially as the sortie was at the extreme edge of the Wellington’s operational range. With changeable weather than can go from calm to stormy in a matter of minutes, with ice forming at comparatively low levels in the air in winter, it was obvious to all that the RAF mission that November night ran a real risk of failure, or worse.
In the eight years previous to his mission to Italy, ‘Buzz’ – as he was known to his friends, family and comrades – had become a regular and popular attraction in boxing halls and arenas up and down the UK. The son of an editor at Jamaican newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, who had taken up boxing as a young child to keep fit, his performances ensured that he quickly established himself as a respected and capable fighter. He beat many of the top stars of the day, was highly rated – at one stage being seen as a challenger for both the Empire welter and middleweight titles – and was in the enviable position of being able to add a significant number to any gate thus becoming a promoter’s dream in the process. This was true even in the later stages of his career, when inactivity due to the war had started to catch up with him.
Just seven months previous, on 2 April 1943, on a show at the old Kings Hall in Belle Vue, Manchester, that also featured future British, Empire and European heavyweight champion, Bruce Woodcock, Barton had suffered a fourth round TKO defeat to Liverpool’s reigning British welterweight champion, Ernie Roderick.
Contrary to popular belief, professional boxing wasn’t affected by the privations of the Second World War as much as other sports and, in many parts of the country – particularly Liverpool where two shows a week were held throughout much of 1942/43 – boxing fans could still see a show near to where they lived without too much trouble.
Travelling further afield was frowned upon in order to save fuel, whilst many shows were held as fund raisers for various wartime causes; the RAF benevolent fund, those made homeless by bomb damage in London, raising money to build Spitfires or even to send much needed aid to Russia, then seen as a useful wartime ally Britain should try to help rather than a cold-war adversary to fear.
There was then, nothing unusual in a boxing show being held in wartime, nor that as famous a boxer as Roderick was taking part, albeit in a non-title bout. On the outbreak of war in September 1939, the British Boxing Board of Control had informed reigning British champions that they wouldn’t be stripped of their titles through inactivity, especially if there was any difficulty in finding suitable (and available) opponents and venues in which to defend their belts.
Roderick, who joined the RAF at the start of the war and was serving as a Sergeant Physical Training Instructor at the time of his defeat of Barton, had won the welterweight title in early 1939 in front of over 24,000 at Anfield football ground and, despite having had over 20 bouts since, he had only defended (successfully) the domestic crown twice – in July 1940 and September 1941, winning the Lonsdale belt outright in the process.
Whilst Roderick’s career was in full bloom (he would also win the British middleweight crown in 1945 and the European welter title a year later) Barton’s, however, was very much in decline.
Arriving in England as his country’s middleweight champion, Barton settled in London – close to his manager and his fellow Caribbean boxers and good friends, Lefty ‘Satan’ Flynn (real name Selvin Campbell), Kid Silver (Clifford Richards) and others. They were among the second great influx of non-white boxers to the UK following those from America in the 1910s and ahead of those who would settle here, mainly from Nigeria, in the 1950s.
Although small in number, Barton and his countrymen were feared and talented boxers, with Flynn perhaps being the pick. ‘Lefty’ had inflicted a rare defeat on Roderick in a non-title bout in July 1937 and there were many in the boxing press who called for the pair to meet with the Empire title on the line after his victory. Unfortunately, such a fight never materialised. Neither did a fight featuring a non-white boxer for the British title until 1947 – a colour bar being in place at the time that stipulated only those, “born of white parents,” as being able to challenge for the domestic belt.
In place since 1911 when the American, Jack Johnson, had upset the aristocratic members of the National Sporting Club to the extent they barred non-white fighters from competing for national honours, the ban ensured that even talented, English-born black boxers such as Manchester’s Len Johnson and Deptford’s Tommy Martin were unable to fight for the British title due to the colour of their skin – even though many fans, journalists and fellow – white – boxers called for them to be allowed to do so.
Flynn and Barton were of course not English born but, by the outbreak of the war, even though they had been resident in the UK sufficiently long enough to be granted British citizenship they were still denied the right to fight for the domestic crown – a situation that wasn’t extended to their white counterparts; Australian George Cook and South African Ben Foord were allowed to fight for the British heavyweight title in 1934 and 1936 respectively.
Not to be outdone by his great friend, ‘Buzz’ also took some distinguished scalps during his career. The likeable Jamaican defeated men as experienced as Johnny Clements, Bill Hardy and Roger Cadot – the latter in a memorable bout in Jersey described at the time as the best anyone had ever seen in the Channel Islands and one that, “will be remembered for many years for its pace, clean hitting, science and sportsmanship throughout.” He also drew with – then beat – the respected former British champion Dave McCleave, and enjoyed victories over Eddie Pierce, Seaman Jim Lawlor and Eddie Maguire – all top-rated boxers of their day.
Due to wartime service as, firstly, an air raid warden, and secondly with the RAF Volunteer Reserve, by the time of his defeat to Roderick however, Barton had only fought four times in the previous three years – and he had lost three of these (one to future British heavyweight champion, Freddie Mills, the subject of another tragic boxing story in the years to come).
Barton was unusual in that he joined the RAF from England, rather than from the West Indies – who provided more recruits (5,500) for the RAF than any other part of the Colonial Empire. 900 of these were from his country of birth – with about 100 of these commissioned as officers.
Able to travel the country to compete as a boxer and as a resident of London, witness to the physical and psychological damage caused by the war in general and German bombs in particular, Barton saw, first hand, the effect the war was having on the public so it is perhaps easy to see why he volunteered for the APR and then, after recruitment was opened up in 1943, the RAF.
Few interviews with him exist, and those that do almost exclusively deal with his role as a boxer yet, like many Jamaicans, his reason for supporting the war effort was almost certainly motivated by pride and loyalty to both Britain and his own homeland as part of the British Empire. As one Jamaican RAF volunteer said in 1989:
“When we saw it in the Daily Gleaner…that England needed men as soon as I was 18 I volunteered for the Royal Air Force…because I believed that the way of life in the British Empire, although not perfect, in the long run it was better for myself and my family.”
However, Barton was also unusual in that he was a volunteer AND a professional sportsman who was denied a chance to win the national title of the country he was competing in – and defending – due to his colour. It was a paradox too stark to be ignored.
The situation whereby black boxers were allowed to fight for their country in war but unable to fight for a British boxing title was not lost on some of the sport’s leading commentators. In April 1944, Frank Butler – arguably the most famous boxing writer of the day – stated that the news Barton had been declared ‘Missing in Action’ following the raid on Villar Perosa, “emphasizes the disgraceful ruling of British boxing that a coloured citizen is not allowed to box for a title of the country for which he is prepared to fight and die.”
No long after this, it was discovered that Barton’s great friend, Lefty Flynn, who served with the Merchant Navy during the war, had been torpedoed by a U-boat. Flynn survived the war and was still fighting as late as 1954.
The colour-bar ruling was only lifted after the war, in 1947. A year later, Dick Turpin, elder brother of Randy, became the first black English-born British boxing champion when he won the middleweight crown at an open-air show at Villa Park.
Barton’s defeat to Roderick in Manchester was his last recorded professional contest. He never fought in a ring again. Seven months later his plane was one amongst 17 of the 76 sent to Italy that November night that never returned due to extreme bad weather. It crashed North of La Spezia near Polverara during a violent thunderstorm.
Not one of the planes that took off from Tunisia managed to release their bombs, let alone hit their intended target. The factory, the target of so much Allied attention, survived the war pretty much intact and now supplies ball bearings and other metalware for the Italian home goods market as well as car parts for Fiat, the Italian motor manufacturer.
In the days that followed the loss of so many RAF aircraft, local people around Bratto, close to Genoa, would find the wreckage and bodies of the lost planes and airmen scattered over the hills and fields of this otherwise picturesque and quiet corner of North Western Italy. Sometime after the crash the grandfather of one of the villagers, Paul Pini, found a foot in a boot when he was digging in the fields. He buried the grim reminder of the tragic events because, “it seemed the right thing to do.”
In October 1945, a remarkable letter was received by the family of air-bomber, Sgt Stephen Fraser Smith, who died alongside Buzz in the same plane, at their home in Ben Rhydding, Ilkley, West Yorkshire. In it, Eraldo Manfroni, a teacher at Polverara who witnessed the crash and acted as coffin bearer at the airmen’s funerals on 30 November 1943, described, in faltering English, how hundreds of locals came from miles around to pay their respects. He refers to the burning of incense, the sad faces on all those present, and how women and children continuously placed flowers on the coffins of the crew throughout the service.
“Between two lines of crowd defile the coffins,” he wrote. “In every glance, in every gesture, in every attitude, an expression of sadness is marked. I uphold the coffin from one side and I think – If my hand might have shaken the young aviator’s hand when he was to liberate towards the blue sky, instead of this piece of wood; if my arms might have embraced the shining body of the hero while he was going towards the extreme sacrifice, instead of these wood slabs….I walked and upheld that sacred weight; I would defend it for a sense of pride that made me fervent, for a sense of sorrow which tormented myself.”
Through documents, letters and photographs found in the wreckage, Manfroni was able to contact directly the families of three of the five men who died, but sadly not Buzz or navigator, Flight Sergeant Horace Peter Hurnell.
After the war all the bodies were exhumed and re-buried in Staglieno cemetery close to a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. The graves are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but, for most of the year, it is the locals who tend the cemetery. They cut the grass, pull weeds from the stones and wipe the dust off the marble that is blown over the Mediterranean by North African winds. The winds that, together with torrential rain, thunder and lightning, combined to force so many planes to ground that fateful, November night over 70 years ago. “We shall never forget,” one woman said at the 2009 festa held in her house. “Even if the British no longer think of them, we will always remember.”
In 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the crash, Stephen Pemberton, the nephew of Stephen Smith visited the site to visit his uncle’s final resting place. The event was attended by dozens of villagers, including the family of Eraldo Manfroni – the Italian who wrote the gratefully received letters describing the funerals of the men to their families all those years ago. A host of local dignitaries also came, as did church leaders, a TV crew and children receiving their confirmations that day – there was even a flypast by a Forestry Commission helicopter. A plaque, bearing the names and ranks of the crewmen, commemorating the event was also unveiled whilst a band played the Last Post and its Italian equivalent, the Silenzio Militare Italiano.
Such is their affection for the airmen who lost their lives on Italian soil all that, every year, the people of Bratto also hold a mass for them – the brave, young men who fought and died so that we might enjoy the freedoms we do today. Amongst them, over 5,000 miles from home, lies Sergeant Stafford Alfonzo ‘Buzz’ Barton. A true boxing hero.
Vickers Wellington MkIII call sign “F” for Freddie, registration HF694, of 142 Squadron took off from Oudna in Tunisia at 1647 hours on 24th November 1943, never to return.
Pilot: Sgt Douglas Henry BETTS
Navigator: Flt Sgt Horace Peter HURNELL
Air Bomber: Sgt Stephen Fraser SMITH
Wireless Operator/Gunner: Sgt Cyril Thomas BOWMAN
Air Gunner: Sgt Stafford Alfonzo BARTON
Jamaican boxing referee Gordon Scotter paid tribute to Barton after the fighter’s death was confirmed in summer 1944. “One of the best middleweight boxers Jamaica has produced,” he said. Barton was, “a clean, colourful and courageous fighter…We can be sure that Buzz died as he fought, cleanly and courageously.”
As well as Jamaica, RAF 40 Squadron included many other non-British members, including volunteers from the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force which also recruited personnel from the West Indies.
“For the suffering of those who are alive, for the martyrdom of those who are dead – let God send his benediction to this suffering Europe, to give wisdom to the Governments, so that good understanding and harmony between the peoples prevails and all menace to peace disappear…Happy Christmas.”
Letter from Eraldo Manfroni to William Smith, father of Stephen Smith. 8 December 1945.
Gary Shaw is a sports historian and author based in Liverpool. He has written extensively on the history of Liverpool Football Club, boxing on Merseyside and the history of black boxers in Britain.