An RAF legend, a remarkable man and great friend of the RAF, Air Commodore (retired) Charles Clarke OBE, passed away peacefully on Tuesday morning.
Very sad news about Air Cdre Charles Clarke OBE - WW2 Lancaster aircrew, Stalag Luft 3 POW, a remarkable individual who will long be remembered for his courage, exceptional career and enduring support to the RAF. An inspiration to all of us. pic.twitter.com/B20EzlUisZ— ACM Stephen Hillier (@ChiefofAirStaff) 8 May 2019
Air Commodore Charles had a distinguished career in the Royal Air Force. He retired in 1978 and worked tirelessly as President of the Bomber Command Association, was involved in RAF Centenary celebrations last year, and recently visited Zagan, Poland to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape in March this year.
Charles started his RAF career as a teenager, training as a bomb aimer on Lancaster Bombers during WW2. On the night of 25th February 1944, Charles, aged just 20 years old, was high above the German skies on a bombing raid near Stuttgart when his Lancaster Bomber was shot down by a German night fighter. Charles was lucky enough to bail out over the Black Forest, but was captured and eventually taken to the Great Escape Camp, Stalag Luft III. Arriving a month before the famous escape, Charles acted as a stooge, looking out for German Guards or ‘ferrets’, whilst Squadron Leader Roger Bushell and his team prepared tunnel Harry, and themselves, for the mass breakout.
Charles did not leave the camp until January 1945, when he and his fellow RAF colleagues were force marched out of the camp on what famously became known as the Long March. Terrible conditions ensued, with temperatures dropping as low as -25°C. The Prisoners of War, many whom had been incarcerated for up to 5 years, were malnourished and some still wore the same clothes they were shot down in.
Charles once said:
‘Internment is not something that I would willingly do again, but not a day goes by in which I do not draw strength from the experience.’
After WW2 Air Commodore Clarke’s many appointments included tours in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the then Air Ministry, the Ministry of Defence, commanding an RAF Station (Stafford) and various overseas tours such as Aden, Malta and Palestine. He retired from the RAF in 1978 and held a number of business appointments until 1995. He has always kept the RAF close to his heart, working closely with the Air Cadets, RAF trainees and RAF personnel in many projects. Many of these were in Poland, where he retraced his steps on the Long March each anniversary. He helped build a replica barrack block – Hut 104, the hut which housed escape Tunnel Harry – and a replica guard tower. These projects were often Charles’ ideas which have not only enhanced the museum site at Stalag Luft III but helped keep younger generations connected with the events of WW2.
In addition to this, Charles kept himself fully employed as President and Chairman of the Royal Air Force's ex-Prisoner of War Association and separately as Chairman of the Bomber Command Association. To find out more about Air Commodore Charles Clarke, The Great Escape and the Long March read “The Last of the Kreigies’ by Steve Darlow. See information on The Great Escape here. In October 2018, Charles also had the opportunity to return to where his Lancaster crashed in Germany. To read about Charles’s visit to his crash site click here.
Charles was interviewed by Squadron Leader Tim Barlow in Sir Arthur Harris' office at Air Command in February 2019. They spoke of their relationship and journey to Charles' crash site in Germany back in October 2018.
A gentleman, hero and a great character; when he was Station Commander of RAF Stafford, he famously opened the new swimming pool by diving in fully clothed (in his No.1 Uniform)! Charles has been, and still is, an inspiration to many. He will be sadly missed.