A Doncaster World War Two ace who flew a series of daring bombing missions across the Channel has died at the age of 102.
Brave Flt Lt Eric Clarke was involved in a series of Bomber Command sorties - risking his life on 26 separate occasions.
As a tribute to one of the town’s most distinguished servicemen, we are republishing a feature first printed in the Doncaster Free Press in 2012 when Mr Clarke spoke about his experiences during the war.
Virtually every inch of space in Flight Lieutenant Eric Clarke’s bungalow home is a stirring testament to his past.
Evocative paintings of vintage aircraft hang from the walls, there are piles of books devoted to aviation history, faded letters, photos, a sheaf of propaganda leaflets dropped onto the fields of Germany and France during the Second World War and even his original leather flying helmet.
The unveiling of a new memorial to nearly 56,000 Bomber Command airmen who lost their lives in World War II has thrown a new spotlight onto those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Features editor DARREN BURKE spoke to one of the unit’s oldest surviving veterans about his memories - and why we must never forget.
There’s his service badge, medals, squadron emblem shields, models of aircraft - and a framed certificate which records his mention in dispatches too.
Flt Lt Clarke is, quite rightly, a proud military man. Just one year shy of his 100th birthday, he’s believed to be one of the oldest surviving Bomber Command veterans and despite his age, it’s obvious he still has an intense passion for the dark times of 1939-45.
But entwined with tales of his missions of immense bravery are thoughts of those who never made it back - the many friends and colleagues who climbed into their aircraft at air fields across Britain, never to return.
He says: “I have a little saying ‘in friendship and in service, one to another, we are pledged to keep alive the memories. If it is not written down, photographed or recorded, it is lost forever.”
Mr Clarke, who now lives surrounded by his memories at his home in Carcroft, was just one of scores of veterans to attend the recent unveiling of a huge new scuplture by The Queen in London’s Green Park, bringing to an end a long campaign to honour the 55,573 whose lives were lost.
“It is vitally important that these people are never forgotten, ” he said. “The memorial is wonderful. It has brought a tremendous upsurge of public interest on Bomber Command.”
As war loomed on the horizon, newly married office worker Mr Clarke, who had become accustomed to seeing military aircraft in the skies over Doncaster following the opening of Finningley air base, signed up.
He offered his services as navigator but as he didn’t have a grammar school education, he was offered a role as wireless operator and air gunner - a role he would successfully carry out on 26 bombing raids across the Channel over 15 months from 1941-42.
His early sorties were aboard the “very cramped” Hampdens, then he moved onto Manchester bombers before carrying out his last 12 missions aboard the legendary Lancasters. Most air crew survived little more than 7-8 weeks at that time.
He said: “As we rumbled down the runway, thoughts would start going through your mind. I would think about my wife Gladys at home, whether we’d be burned alive or end up ditching in the North Sea. But then the professionalism kicked in - we had a very important job to do and we were there to do it.”
It was his role to provide vital navigational information to the pilot - and despite a few near misses, he returned safe and sound from each and every one of his missions, each detailed in pristine handwriting in his yellowing but immaculate log book which still takes pride of place at his home. “On one occasion, we got hit by flak which tore a six inch hole in the port wing. We had to fly very low and it was a nervous return flight but we made it back in one piece, ” he said.
He was also part of the so-called thousand bomber raids on Cologne when wave after wave of British bombers pummelled the German city and also flew a daring nine-hour low-level daylight mission to Milan to bomb the Italian city’s marshalling yards. “We could see people waving at us in the fields below - we were really low but we returned safely - and I consider myself very lucky, ”
But some of his comrades were not so fortunate.
“We had to deal with fatalities and tragedies on a daily basis, sadly, ” he said.
And as members of his 49 Squadron, which was based at Scampton in Lincolnshire, were scrambled on February 12, 1942, one crew member, Sgt Brian Hunter, realised he didn’t have his regulation flying boots - and Mr Clarke came up with a solution. “He borrowed mine, ” he said. “Their plane was shot down over the Channel. I never saw him again.”
During the latter years of the war, he became an instructor and following his demobbing, began a successful career in local government in Doncaster, rising from the rank of temporary clerk up to the post of Deputy Chief Financial and Rating Officer, a post which he retired from in 1978.
He is still a member of the Bomber Command Association, has been involved in the RAF Association for 67 years and regularly meets up with his one-time comrades at reunions and service events across the country. He added: “People always used to say ‘all you ever do is talk about the war.’ But now they realise how important it was, the contribution so many people made and why it is vital to remember what was done. I am a very, very lucky survivor - in more ways than one.”
And he intends to take a closer look at the new £6m sculpture in the capital soon. “I would like to spend some time there with my thoughts and remember those who didn’t come back. The unveiling of the monument was very moving - a momentous day.”
BOMBER COMMAND FACTFILE
* Formed in 1936
* Mission to attack Germany’s airbases, troops, shipping and industrial complexes connected to the war effort
* Crews from UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all corners of Commonwealth plus occupied nations including Poland, Czechoslovakia and France, and allied countries such as the US
* Average age of bombers about 22
* Switched to inaccurate night bombing to reduce casualties
* First “thousand-bomber raid” in May 1942 - against Cologne, three months after “Bomber” Harris made commander in chief
* Famous Dambusters raid of May 1943 struck at dams surrounding Ruhr Valley
* PLEASE NOTE THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2012.