Untold story of the first black paratrooper to land on D-Day – who was from Portsmouth – will be revealed in new film

The amazing untold story of the first black paratrooper to land in Normandy on D-Day is to be dramatised in a new film.

By Tom Cotterill
Monday, 8th April 2019, 6:52 pm
Updated Monday, 8th April 2019, 6:57 pm
Sergeant Sidney Cornell (circled)
Picture: Pegasus Journal/Solent News
Sergeant Sidney Cornell (circled) Picture: Pegasus Journal/Solent News

Sergeant Sidney Cornell, from Portsmouth, was a paratrooper in the 6th Airborne Division of the British Army during World War II and landed in occupied France on June 6 1944 as part of Operation Deadstick.

The film Paratrooper tells how he was the first black soldier to be dropped behind enemy lines that day and was tasked with running messages between military headquarters after radio communications failed.

This was one of the most dangerous jobs during the war, especially on D-Day when it was unclear where German soldiers might lie in wait.

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Sergeant Sidney Cornell (circled) Picture: Pegasus Journal/Solent News

Sgt Cornell bravely spent all day weaving to and fro and penetrating enemy lines, while being shot at, to deliver vital information to the front line. He had to kill at least one German soldier to survive during his missions that day.

During another operation a few weeks later he was again tasked with relaying messages and was shot twice by enemy machine gun fire, but struggled onwards and was still able to relay crucial communications despite injuries to his arm and carry on fighting.

He was wounded four times during operations but completed every mission and was never evacuated.

In another notable episode, he and his Major carried out a two man hunting mission where they tracked and killed snipers who had been picking off men over an orchard.

In recognition of his bravery and professionalism throughout the Normandy campaign, Cornell, was promoted from Private to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

However, Sgt Cornell sadly died at the age of 30, just two weeks before the end of the war during Operation Varsity.

He and 25 other men were crossing a bridge in the German town of Neustadt when it was blown up by two Nazi youths no older than 15 years old.

Sgt Cornell was part of the 7th Parachutist Battalion. Of its 300 men he was one of just three black soldiers.

He was well known and respected among the division after becoming the battalion boxing champion.

Paratrooper follows Sgt Cornell's story from a child growing up in Portsmouth to the day Allied forces regained control of France.

He was born in Chatham Row, off North Street in Portsea on Boxing day 1913 into a large family, five sisters and three brothers – there were 13 in total including those who died as infants.

His father was an American acrobat with the Barnum & Bailey Circus - which inspired the Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman - but ran away when the circus came to England.

Sgt Cornell grew up in the city with his parents and brother and two sisters before marrying his childhood sweetheart Eileen when she was 16 and he was 19. They had two sons together, of whom Alan went on to have children called Aaron and Penny.

When the war started he joined the Army.

Although the film doesn't depict his death a subsequent TV series is planned, which will tell the untold stories of other brave men and women who gave their lives during the war, with one episode telling how Sgt Cornell was killed.

The film is being filmed on location in Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and Normandy.

Sgt Cornell's character will be played by Tobi Bakare, 30, best known for his role in the BBC One detective series Death in Paradise and the action film Kingsmen.

The citation on Sgt Cornell's army record reads: ‘This soldier was one of the parachutists who landed behind the German lines in Normandy on the night of the 5th/6th June 1944.

‘During the next five weeks he was in almost continuous action of a most trying and difficult nature.

‘Cornell was a company runner and has repeatedly carried messages through the most heavy and accurate enemy mortar and Machine Gun fire.

‘Four times wounded in action this soldier has never been evacuated and carries on with his job cheerfully and efficiently.

‘Very many acts of gallantry have been performed by members of the battalion but for sustained courage nothing surpasses Cornell's effort.

‘His courage and many wounds have made him a well known and admired character throughout not only his own battalion but also the whole brigade.

‘Space does not permit a record of all his feats as he distinguished himself in practically every action and fighting took place daily.’

The film and series will be directed by award winning writer and director Lance Nielsen.

Mr Nielsen said it would be a chance to tell the story of a remarkable individual who gave his life so that we might enjoy freedom.

The 49-year-old, from London, said: ‘The untold story of Sidney Cornell is an absolutely fascinating one to tell.

‘He was the first black soldier to parachute into France and then went on to be one of the first to be dropped behind enemy lines in Germany.

‘These stories are quickly being forgotten and the sacrifices of these men who gave absolutely everything - in some cases the greatest sacrifice - so that we can enjoy freedom, must not be forgotten.’

Sgt Cornell's great nephew, Chris Cornell, said the film helps give belated recognition to the roles black soldiers played in the British Army during World War II.

Mr Cornell, a 62 year old lab technician, said: ‘I'm very excited and very proud about this film. My grandad was Sidney's brother and my own father, Donald, always talked about Uncle Sid as a great war hero.

‘He may have been a legend in our family but it was very pleasing to be approached about making this film as it feels like Sidney's efforts are finally being given wider recognition - like a lot of his comrades, his actions went largely unnoticed.’

Mr Cornell added: ‘It's rather strange that when you look back at old photos of World War II you tend not to see non-white faces.

‘I think this film helps to redress that balance. People should realise there were black men fighting in the British Army - black war heroes who have not been properly recognised.

‘It seems that the establishment may not have wanted to really recognise that at the time. In the pictures we have, Sidney is nearly always stuck on the end of a line of soldiers. I wouldn't like to say that was definitely on purpose, but it does make you wonder.

‘At least in the British army soldiers of colour fought alongside white soldiers. In the American army it was worse because of segregation.’

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels actor Jason Flemyng is an executive producer on the series.

The 52-year-old actor, said: ‘This is a film I really want people to get behind.’

There is a crowd funding campaign for the film at indiegogo.com/projects/paratrooper-ww2-film-normandy-filming/x/3828678#/