Segregation & Sacrifice: Htin Yain Lao & Black American Troops in the New Forest

With it being the 80th anniversary of D-Day this year, it’s more important than ever to look back at the sacrifices made. I think it’s fair to say that the contributions of Black and Asian troops are often overlooked, particularly when we see the photos of the men and women involved and read the stories. But many different people from different backgrounds played vital roles in the assault.

Among them were Black American troops stationed in the New Forest in the lead-up to D-Day. One memorable story recorded by the New Forest Remembers Project of 2013 relates to the landlord of the Royal Oak pub at Hilltop, Beaulieu. He threw White American airmen out of the establishment after they had prevented Black servicemen from remaining. Incredibly, Black and White US Army units were segregated during wartime, and this would have been witnessed in the area by New Forest villagers. 

I don’t believe any Black Americans left the New Forest in combat roles on D-Day itself, as the majority of them worked in logistics and support, so it is unlikely they embarked for Normandy on June 6, 1944. However, some were photographed in Brockenhurst in July 1944, quite possibly en-route to France in a support role, post invasion.

black us troops in the new forest
These 2 photos features GI Robert Watkins and GI Albert Williams in Brockenhurst, July 1944 (Photo by Stan Orchard from the Tony Johnson collection).

It was a very different story in the Royal Air Force. During the Second World War, many nationalities flew in combat for the RAF including Black Caribbean men. Among these unsung heroes is the tale of Htin Yain Lao, a young man whose journey epitomises the courage, determination, and resilience of so many. He was born in Burma (now Myanmar), a land as far removed from the New Forest heathland and villages as one could imagine.

He joined the Burmese Volunteer Air Force in November 1940 along with four other ex-college students. After Japan invaded their homeland, the four of them came to Britain and volunteered to serve in the RAF. Lao and a fellow Burmese pilot, Selvyn Khin, were eventually drafted into 257 Squadron and trained to fly Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers.

Htin Yain Lao 257 squadron
Htin Yain Lao (2nd from left) with his Burmese compatriots.

In April 1944, four RAF squadrons, including 257 with Lao and Khin, were posted to a temporary airfield named RAF Needs Oar Point, just south of Buckler’s Hard and to the west of the Beaulieu River. It was from here they would fly operations over northern France, tasked with softening up targets before the D-Day invasion. This included attacking railway junctions, viaducts, and V1 flying bomb sites that were under construction.

It didn’t come without a cost. Through April, May, and June of 1944, thirteen pilots from Needs Oar Point airfield were killed in action whilst supporting the lead-up to D-Day and the weeks afterwards. Three were also taken as prisoners of war after crash-landing in France. Thankfully Lao and Khin were not amongst these casualties. In fact, during this period, Lao married an English girl in the New Forest.

In July, the pilots of 257 Squadron RAF left England for advanced landing grounds in France and continued to support the Allied invasion. Lao flew in combat whilst his new wife remained in England.

Htin Yain Lao 257 squadron
Htin Yain Lao (back row right) with 257 Squadron RAF, probably at RAF Tangmere.

Tragically Lao was killed on 20 January 1945 when his Typhoon was lost in a snowstorm south-west of Utrecht. He is buried in Dordrecht General Cemetery in the Netherlands, over five thousand miles from his ancestral home.

But perhaps the saddest postscript to this story is how the wife Lao, married in the New Forest just weeks before D-Day, was pregnant at the time of his death. The baby was born four months later and named David. The boy never got to meet his father; a brave young man from Burma, who came to England, flew from the Forest, and ultimately sacrificed his life for others.

Lao’s story, and the stories of others who served in the New Forest during wartime, underscores the universal spirit of valour that transcended borders and backgrounds in the lead-up to D-Day and beyond.

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