Interview with Charles Henry Clarke. Three


Interview with Charles Henry Clarke. Three


Charles Clarke volunteered for the Royal Air Force when he was seventeen years old and flew operations as a bomb aimer with 619 Squadron from RAF Woodhall Spa. His aircraft was shot down on his 18th operation and he became a prisoner of war. He was held at Stalag Luft 3 at the time of the ‘Great Escape’. He talks about some of the men who took part in the escape and what happened to them. As the Russians were advancing the camp, he was evacuated and he gives an account of what became known as the Long March.




Temporal Coverage




02:11:34 audio recording

Conforms To


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TO: Right, er, good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, whatever the case may be. We’re recording this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre and the gentleman I’m interviewing is Air Commodore Charles Clarke. My name is Thomas Ozel and we’re recording this interview on the 4th of March. Could you tell me a little bit about where you were born and where you grew up?
CC: We’ll start when I joined the Air Force.
TO: The — I joined, I volunteered for the Air Force in 1941 and, er, we had to report to Lord’s Cricket Ground. Well, Regents Park Zoo, which was the Aircraft, er, Aircrew Reception Centre. We were billeted in flats, in my case Hall Road, about six of us in an ordinary bedroom in this flat. We used to dine, if dining’s the word for it, in the, what is now, the restaurant of the zoo and it’s little changed. It’s quite recognisable. We were only there for a couple of weeks whilst were given elementary drill and, at the time, even corporals and LACs were like gods. We were kicked around. I think I had three haircuts in about two or three days until the corporal was satisfied that my hair was short enough. We were inoculated and vaccinated, er, the — I’m sure all of us with the same needle. We then collected our kit from a garage just off the Edgware Road. And seeing we’d just been inoculated and vaccinated it’s no surprise carrying all our kit, that’s boots, great coat and kit bag and everything, that some of the chaps even passed out on the road, on the main road. After two weeks we were, er, allocated to some Initial Training Wings and we all wore a white flash indicating that we were UTA, Under Training Aircrew. And Initial Training Wings were located at seaside resorts and towns where there was, where there were hotels that were little used, like Paignton, Torquay, Aberystwyth. I was posted to, er, Scarborough and we were billeted in Scarborough College, in the main hall of Scarborough College, because I remember our beds were very close together and I was just under the, er, the stage. We were there for a while. We were instructed in hygiene, law and order, administration, navigation. Then, er, signalling, both Morse and Aldis lamp, and the Morse signalling was done on the seafront at Scarborough. Once again we had taken over small hotels. The lamp part of it, the Aldis lamp was along the seafront and I think we had to reach six words a minute, if I remember rightly. Halfway through we were for some reason we were moved from Scarborough College to old Ayton School. It was inexplicable but there must have been a good reason. Many years later I tried to persuade Scarborough to dedicate a weekend, a dead weekend, so inviting, er, some former UT aircrews to come back. It would have been good publicity for the town but they were too stupid to recognise the advantage of it, so it never happened. After Scarborough — oh, by the way we used to march up and down from the seafront to the school and there a slope and one chap who actually died of a stroke I think on that particular march. We, from there I was, we were all posted to Heaton Park, which is in Manchester, which was a holding unit and we were expecting to go overseas and our kit was marked accordingly. To my surprise some of us were posted to a UK training schools and I was posted to, er, Carlisle and fl— where we flew Tiger Moths from Stanwix, Stanwix, which is now an industrial site. After a while there I caught mumps, of all things, and I was put in a hospital along town with — I think I was the only patient and about seven nurses and I was there several weeks. When I came out I found that I’d been posted and back. Because my course had gone I was posted back to Heaton Park. Once again I expected to go overseas. It was a time the Lancaster was coming in and they were desperate for crews so I was reallocated to be navigator PW. Having joined up wanting to be a pilot, I actually cried. It was, you know, I was so disappointed but looking back it was the best thing that happened to me because so many of the pilots were killed because they were the last to get out of the aircraft. If you look at the veterans around there are very few pilots today, even today. Anyway, um, I was posted to Dumfries, where we flew in Bothas and Ansons. Now Botha had the shortest, shortest career ever of any aircraft and in fact I’m sure most people wouldn’t even know of it. We were there for a couple of — I don’t remember how many months. The weather was pretty ghastly at the time. And then we had our examinations at the end and to my surprise I was, I was given a piece of paper to go buy a uniform. I was commissioned. That was the only training that I had. I suppose the training at ITW was the sort of training you’d give an officer anyway. I then collected my uniform and overnight I became a pilot officer. We were then posted to North Luffenham, where they were flying Wellingtons, and you picked up a crew there. Now, the crewing system was very sophisticated. You put a bunch of people in a hangar and said, ‘Sort yourself out.’ And if you liked the look of a chap he was the chap you were crewing up with. I mean it was really like dating. And three of us got together. There was a Canadian pilot. A very old navigator. He was twenty-six. He looked, you know, I thought he was queuing up for his pension at that age because we were so very young. Anyway, the three of us got together. We flew — I remember flying with Jock Reid VC at one time. After completing a course there, we were posted to a Heavy Conversion Unit at Swinderby. The — where we were flying Lancasters. And there again we picked up the rest of our crew. That’s the two gunners, the radio operator and the engineer. So we were then were a crew of seven. The — after qualifying there we were posted to a squadron and I was posted to, or we were posted to 619 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. Now Woodhall Spa, the officer’s mess at was the Petwood Hotel which was the best officers’ mess in the country. It’s still — it would have been a Grade 1 Hotel if it had a swimming pool but it was sort of ideal. I mean, we were very fortunate. If you read Gibson’s book it tells you how he found this mess for his crew, er, for his crews, or discovered it. But, of course, that’s absolute nonsense because if 57 were there for a while just before us and then we moved in. The loss rate was fairly high and I think we lost about three wing commanding officers in a very short period of, of time. Anyway, we did, I think we did about eighteen operations if I remember rightly and of which six were to a heavily Ber— a heavily defended Berlin. It was certainly not the time to be in Bomber Command because that was when they experienced, the period when they experienced the greatest losses. Equally he weather was foul. Interestingly for you, at the Petwood Hotel, there was a so-called ‘Kinema in the woods’ at the back of the, of the grounds of the hotel, and many [emphasis] years later, sort of probably about 1990, I received a letter that had been written by a friend of mine on the squadron at the time to his sister, saying that he’d been to the Kinema in the woods with Charles Clarke, and then there was a bit about his girlfriend. It came at Christmas time and my daughter and her husband were here and I said, um, how immature the, the writing was and she said, ‘Well, I’m sure you were immature at the time.’ Because we were only eighteen, nineteen. He, he actually was a dedicated Salvationist and he was shot down on one of the Berlin raids and I went to see his parents. They were officers, Salvation Army officers, in Tunbridge Wells and I remember saying [unclear] he could be a prisoner of war but sadly when I came back after the war I learned that he’d been killed with all of his crew. In fact he jumped. A brother, who was, when I went to see his parents, was dying to join the Royal Air Force, or to join the services any way, eventually joined. I always assumed [?] the guards as a musician and became a musician for the Salvation Army. The — anyway we were — as I said the weather at that time was still very bad — we were one particular raid we were all scattered. We couldn’t get back to our own airfield. This was general and we landed at Pocklington and I remember sleeping in someone else’s bed and going into York wearing flying clothing which was all he had, to the disgust of the RAF policeman. By coincident only this week — I’m chairman of The Bomber Command Association, as you know, among many other things. One of my committee, a civilian, who worked at the museum said that he had — one of his relatives, young relatives, had said that their relative was on 619 squadron and, er, he said, told me the name. Well, I remember him well and he was one of those who was in an aircraft when we were scouting about and landed at Pocklington and he had to bail out with his crew. I don’t know whether really — they obviously run out of fuel and when he got back to Woodhall Spa found that he’d been awarded a bar to his DFC. Now, he didn’t even know he had a DFC and he went along wearing a drawing pin on his uniform. We had some interesting visitors at that time. Anyway on a raid to Schweinfurt we were hit by a fighter. The aircraft caught fire, the wing was dropping off, er, but it’s worth remembering that it didn’t matter how good your crew was — the fact that your three COs with their select crews. It didn’t matter how good your crew was if there was a fighter loitering near you, you were almost certain to be shot down. So the fighter had probably been coming from a warm mess thirty minutes before. Your gunners had probably been sitting there for about six hours, freezing. The visibility was limited, the fighter had upward firing guns so the rear gunner wouldn’t see him, his calibre was probably .5 an inch, whereas we had 303 so he knew he could shoot while he was still out of range. Furthermore, he could home in on your equipment. For example, we had a Monica on board, which was similar to what you have on cars, for their parking and things and, in fact, we did the trials at Defford on the visual monitor. Originally we did just peeping or audio and they, I’m sure they homed on that. So, surviving was a matter of luck rather than skill. Anyway, we were shot down and the amazing thing is that I knew roughly the area we were shot down. Only this morning I got a telephone call to say that someone had located the site, there was a memorial had been being built, that — for the three people in the aircraft who were killed, and actually they were amazed that someone was still alive and have invited me back to the town. I was always, I intended to go some day. I never got around to it. I’ve always been preoccupied. But I would have been very cagey about declaring my interest because it could be that aircraft could have landed on a block of flats and killed hundreds but obviously there will be a welcome there. Anyway, er, I came down. I bailed out. Four of us bailed out and three were killed. And I landed in the snow. Another one broke a leg. I mean, we didn’t see one another. I kept disappearing in the snow drifts and I could imagine myself being found in the spring. Remember, I was very much a tomboy, a young, a youngster. I’ve done a lot of skiing since, I mean, really skiing right into old age. And there were footprints, or animal footprints, around. I thought they were wolves but of course subsequently I, I learned they were mountain goats [slight laugh]. But anyway I kept, I was thoroughly exhausted, kept going in snowdrifts. Eventually, I found a mountain hut where I sheltered. I tried to — I was obviously very cold and exhausted — and I tried to light a fire in this mountain hut. I, er, I got out my — oh, by the way I’d started walking in the direction of Sweden — I got out my escape matches and they broke. They were useless. They were about an inch long. So then I decided I’d probably cut off slivers of wood from a bench and, er, start a fire that way. The knife broke so that was useless. I should also explain at this stage that we were very — we had a hell of a lot of training for parachuting. I jumped off a six foot ladder once onto bail of straw. That’s the only training I ever had. Anyway, eventually I had to get down onto a road because I was just passed caring at that stage and I came round the corner. The road ran along by a river and there was a, a detachment of Germans and when they — I looked, I wondered if I could run across the river because it was frozen but when they fired a shot, I decided that for me the war was over. The — interesting their reaction. They were — they cordoned off that area because they thought, well, they knew an American aircraft had crashed there and they were after the American crew and their, their reaction was interesting. It wasn’t particularly hostile. They were absolutely amazed that the RAF were employing children [laugh] because I looked very young anyway. Well, I was [emphasis] young but they were employing children, I mean, these terra fliegers. I was then taken to a prison cell and dumped into a cell. I started shouting in the hope that the other crew might be there and the Germans quite impolitely told me to shut up and keep quiet. So, I wondered what, what I could do to get over this problem. Now, about a week before I was shot down I’d been to a film London and I think it was called I think “Orchestra Wives” and in it was a song which was so appropriate. In those days the high spot of social life was the Saturday night dance. There was nothing and one of the songs in was “Missed the Saturday Dance” because they crowded the floor “Can’t get on without you. Can’t get around anymore” and I started singing that and I got a re— someone else joined in and so I, I believed there was another, sort of allied airmen, either Canadian or British or something, er, in there, in the, in this prison cell but I really didn’t know him. I was then taken to, er, somewhere anyway. We finished up in a guard room of, I think, an airfield and we were in this little guard room with a Feldwebel NCO and a couple of German soldiers for him and one, one was holding Sten gun or Sten type gun, like that, and he pulled the trigger and I thought he was going to murder me and I shouted at him but the Fedwebel NCO shouted at him so it was obviously an inadvertent firing that you would expect a young recruit might do in England. From there I was taken to Dulag Luft which was the interrogation centre for Frankfurt on Maine. We were put in tiny cells. Kept there I don’t know how many days where you know they, sort of, you had a shout if you wanted to go to the loo and try to exercise in this few square yards you had. After the war, er, some Germans were prosecuted for overheating [peep sound] the cells which apparently had asbestos linings. From there — I don’t know, I was there a few days. I can’t really remember. From there I was taken to Stalag Luft III with an escort of two or three airmen or, you know, German airmen. I was glad to have them I think when we were at Stuttgart Station because people were spitting and wanted to tear me apart because, well, to them I was the terra flieger. We went by train from there to Sagan railway station and, in fact, the railway station has little changed, you know, it’s quite uncanny in a way. And I can’t remember how we went from the station to the camp, which is about a mile away, whether it was by truck or we walked or — when we got in the camp — and the prisoners used to call new arrivals milk bottles because they were white. I mean, we were flying at night. We didn’t see much daylight. And I was questioned. We were all questioned to see whether we were plants by the enemy and then we were allocated a room and a knife, fork and spoon and things like that, which I still have actually, although the fork, the prongs have broken off and the knife is broken hallway because I used it as a, what we described, as a ‘pranger’ to make tin plates, as a hammer. Anyway, after I’d been there a little while the ‘Great Escape’ took place. I mean, I was not directly involved. I meant, it had been going on for months. The people that went out were mainly people who’d been prisoners for a long time or prisoners who’d been directly involved in the digging or, er, were continentals, could speak a language and had a better chance, for example, a chap named Tobolski, who was a Pole, and “Wings” Day went out together and the, the night before those who were in the lead of the tunnel, going first, were moved into the huts so there wouldn’t be too much turbulence and our hut was crowded. We knew the escape was taking place and we heard a shot in the night and realised they had been discovered. We, I’ve heard people say they, ‘I was in the tunnel and the only reason I was saved was because there was a bend in the tunnel otherwise the bullet would have hit me.’ Absolute rubbish and one of our members was so incensed with this correspondence in the newspaper, a very distinguished digger, who became a digger because he was Welsh and they thought all Welsh people were miners while he’d never touched — he was a tough character but he — I remember [cough] Ken Reece [?] phoning me and saying, ‘Charles, if all those who say they were involved got together in the camp there wouldn’t be room for them all.’ And it’s perfectly true. You know, I’ve heard so much rubbish. And the — another interesting thing, the chap in charge of the tunnelling had [emphasis] been a miner, so — but he was Canadian and, in fact, he acted as the technical adviser on the film “The Great escape”. He had been a miner but an opencast miner so — anyway he was in charge, Wally Floody. We were — life in the camp was pretty tedious and we never knew what was going to happen to us. Oh sorry, the night after the tunnel, escape had been discovered we were held out on the parade ground. It was bitterly cold, all day virtually, while they counted and recounted to establish how many people had escaped. And they counted and recounted with little help from us because we kept moving round deliberately and then I think they stopped food coming in and lots of things like that. The — we were fortunate, the senior British officer — an interesting thing about the camp, in officer camps the senior British officer by seniority was the boss, for want of a better description, but in NCO camps they were voted in a man of confidence, whether he be Army or Air Force, I mean Dixie Dean was a man of confidence that most people will remember. Anyway we, er, during the rest of the time in Stalag III we didn’t know what was going to happen to us after the shoot— I’m sorry, I really should have said about the senior British officer was a group captain and he was about to be repatriated on the Gothenburg (I think there were two repatriations during the war) and this was a few weeks after and this was fortuitous because he was able to give the information about the shooting, the murdering, first hand, to the extent that Anthony Eden stood up in Parliament and said, ‘We will exert exemplary justice on them when we find the culprits.’ And in fact, the wing commander, who was an ex-policemen, who did the investigation, post-war called his book “Exemplary Justice” and in fact, many moons ago he was given a OBE, many moons afterwards. His OBE was stolen and after he was, he died the RAF, we held a ceremony at Henlow, at which we presented a duplicate OBE to his family, and they in turn gave it back to the, er, the Service Police Department, detachment there, because that’s, they are based at Henlow and its probably still there. Anyway, food was very short, cigarettes were plentiful. When the Germans were beasty they, apart from stopping the, stopping the food coming in, they also punctured the tins so we couldn’t hoard them for escaping. Although escaping had been forbidden by the senior British officer anyway. We followed — when the invasion came we expected to be home the following day, kind of thing. Of course, it went on and on and on. We were very disappointed. We followed the invasion progress. We had a BBC radio and the news used to be read every day. The, the Germans also had their news bulletin. And the map we kept up, it was, er, updated by the German news and not by us, and it was a popular story that the commandant at the camp asked the senior British officer, ‘Where exactly are the British now?’ Whether it’s true or not I don’t know because he knew we had the radio. One story about the radio, there was a Church of England, an Anglican priest, minister, in the camp. He, er, was Army because obviously RAF chaplains don’t fly. He, er, as I say, he was doing his chaplaincy or ministry. He was Anglican. Another chap turns up who was Presbyterian and he was Army. He came into the camp and in his book it was interesting. It said, ‘I met the other chap, the minister. He greeted me warmly but his sermons were dull.’ When the — people often don’t understand why there were no Americans in the film “The Great Escape”, well — rather not in the film, in actual, there were no Americans killed. The reason was the Americans were involved in the digging but before the escape they were moved and there was a story that it was wondered how they would get the news across the wire. The Americans in their new camp would take time to either build a radio or scrounge the parts. And somebody hit upon the idea of just shouting it across the wire. Now this seemed to be insecure but, er, the, er, oh gosh, it was — the answer is very simple and I’ve just forgotten the word for a second. It was shouted across in the Scottish language, Gaelic, that’s right, Gaelic, the — and of course there was no hope in hell of any German speaking Gaelic. That particular chap, the Scot, came back and, in fact, we’ve seen him ministering in Bond Street Church, just off Sloane Square, Sloane Street, and eventually he became he Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and when he died Brown, the former Prime Minister, attended his funeral because Brown’s father was a contemporary of, of this minister and, in fact, I think the minister christened Brown’s child. Anyway, we, we were very short of food, so much so that if we got a loaf of bread that was made of wooden, er, made of sawdust virtually, there was one bread cutter on the camp and with a bit of luck you might book it, I mean, and you would then cut as many slices as possible. You’d bring it back, and put it on the table and you would cut cards for the choice of slice just in case one had a more than the other. If we had what we called ‘glop’ which was running with weevils, occasionally, we’d do the same. We would ladle out the glop in bowls and then cut cards just in case one had a spoonful more than the other. Then we’d cut cards for who would lick out the container. As I say, cigarettes were plentiful because they were duty free in Canada and America and the Germans were quite illogical in a way because they seemed to let them in when they wouldn’t allow food. The cigarettes were used as a currency. Every — we had an exchange shop called ‘Foodacco’. When I say shop, it was a local room, and you could buy any sort of commodity that came in a food parcel but it was priced in terms of cigarettes and, if I’m not mistaken, I didn’t smoke. I believe a two penny bar of chocolate was a thousand cigarettes and I remember saving up and eventually getting a — it was a Hershey bar, a hard chocolate, and breaking it up, and cutting the knobs of chocolate in half and cleaning my teeth (we had no toothbrush] and getting on my pit, as we called our beds, and with lights out at 10 o’clock and putting this bit of chocolate on my tongue to see how long I could make it last. It was sheer luxury. And we dined as a, within the room so we pooled all our, our rations. And, er, you had one stove in the room which threw out very little heat and you could just about boil a kettle on it. But you were allocated a half hour and it rotated for the one kind of cooking stove in the hut and so you had to have everything ready to throw on the stove and off again in the thirty minutes. We had two or three people in the room who were reasonable cooks, well at least, were prepared to cook. At night, as I say, the shutters came down at dusk and we were locked in. Interesting, every day we a had a quiet period and I think it was either between 1 and 3 o’clock or something like that, where you were forbidden to make a noise, to enable people to write or rest or read or do whatever they wanted to do. It was good discipline. We had two parades a day and usually when we were on parade the ferrets would become particularly active, searching rooms, and anyway after the invasion we thought we would be home the following day but it didn’t work out that way. We wondered what would happen to us, whether we would be held as hostages or whether we would shot like the fifty. And then in January we had a kind of prior warning on the grape vine that we would be moved. Well, the Russians were only twenty miles away and we could hear their guns and we were hoping that the Russians would overtake us that would have been disastrous. But anyway suddenly we were told we’d be on the road. We were going to be marched out and we left the camp at about two o’clock in the morning. I’d made a sledge like that there and, in fact, there’s a copy on the memorial. The, er, Germans had made no provision for food or accommodation on route. We were not equipped for that sort of thing. The temperature was minus thirty degrees centigrade. It was the coldest winter in Polish living memory and it’s been confirmed since. And there was a blizzard. It wasn’t a march. It was a trudge. People often say do you recognise this when you passed? All I recognised was feet, the person’s feet in front of me, you know, sloshing along and it was, as I say, thirty six hours before we got shelter. We were put in a barn. Those that didn’t get in got frostbite. Those that took their boots off had difficulty getting them on again because they were frozen. We got up the next morning, no provision had been made for anything and then we marched and this went on two or three days. One stop I remember we were very fortunate. We were in a glass factory so it was warm. I remember I had a little pot of something that I put in the kiln to, to — remember, we were carrying our blankets and our cooking pots and the — we also stayed at an artillery barracks and, when say we stayed, I think we only stayed a few hours. I don’t really remember that. We got to Spremburg which was the border between until recently, well, still is the border between Germany and Poland. Well, at one time it was manned but it isn’t now. And Spremburg hadn’t changed very much until about two years ago. Because every time we go there we hold a service and the buildings were still there. Occasionally, the Germans in recent years had always been helpful. We had a German escort for our — when we simulate the March. We, we had some interference with a few Germans but the German police have a wonderful way of dealing with it. They put the, they pick up the chaps concerned, put them in the back of a truck, drive them twenty miles outside Spremberg and dump them. It’s amazing. The mayor turns up and things like that and at Spremberg we were loaded into cattle trucks. I think fifty of us, something like that, in the cattle trucks. There was no room to stretch out. Some of us had dysentery and we had one bucket between us so you can imagine the stench but at least it was en-suite. Then the, er, we were there for several days. We parked up overnight and often we wondered whether we’d be victims of our own bombing. You know, we heard the bombing. The, eventually, we came to a place near Bremen, Tarmstedt, and we were pushed out and then had to walk about six, six hours or something to a camp. And certainly it was raining or snowing and it was cold. They seemed to search every one of us and when we got into the camp it had been wrecked completely. It had been a camp for mariners, either Navy or Merchant Navy. And they had wrecked the joint completely. They’d broken the windows, broken the beds, the boards, smashed the stoves. All we had was wet straw. And the reason they did that, yes, our own people, was they thought they were evacuating the camp to make way for refugees from Hamburg and Bremen and, of course, little did they — I don’t know how long we stayed there, probably a month or something. I remember spending a whole morning sitting on my haunches on a cinder path, picking up little bits of coke, you know, about an eighth of an inch, quarter of an inch, to fill a can to — so we could make a reasonable brew. On, on one occasion we saw or heard, knew that there was a bread van coming and we were obviously quite excited. The trouble was a Tempest or a Typhoon shot it up when it was near the camp. But if that aircraft had come down we would have lynched him. It was one of our own. Anyway, after a time we were going on the road again but this time we were living out all, all the time. We were sleeping in fields at night. We put out our towels to show POW for any aircraft. I mean, escape would have been easy, apart from it being [unclear] it would have been easy. But then you’d got to go through German lines and British lines and you were just as likely to have been shot by either of them. We crossed the Elbe and on the other side was a barge called the “Capella” and I went on to try and scrounge some food and the captain wanted me to stay as a kind of hostage but as I said the British were [unclear] on the side, the other back, so I mean the chances of surviving that were pretty remote. Anyway we went on. We were supposed to be going to Lu— to a camp at Lübeck but there was typhoid or typhus in the camp, er, in Lübeck so instead of after a lot of negotiation, we were dumped on a farm outside Lübeck, once again living out in the open, so just making shelters for ourselves. I remember there was a lake there. The Germans, the 21st Army Group, eventually crossed the Elbe and caught up with us but before that, er, a reconnaissance vehicle, one of these little things and you don’t know whether it was going or coming back, with two men in it, usually an officer and an NCO, came into the camp and we mobbed him. I mean we really mobbed him and I don’t think he was the advanced party. I have an idea he’d lost his way but anyway eventually the main body, the troops, came up and we were told to wait there. And so, the main, the main force came up and then they give us transport, buses, to be flown back to England and that was the end of captive world. Well, not quite the end. What’s going to happen to this? Is it going to be published or, or what?
TO: If you’re, if you’re OK with it being published some of it can be viewable online for people can watch. If you’re OK with that.
CC: Yeah, yeah. I won’t tell you — when it’s switched off I’ll tell you how I got back to England. But that’s a different matter.
CC: Turn that off.
TO: Shall I turn it off?
CC: Yes. OK. Andy Wiseman, he, was born in Berlin. His father was in the embassy, of Polish extraction. He spent his first thirteen years there. He went home crying because, er, they wouldn’t let him join the Hitler Youth and so his father said I must tell you a thing of two. Ian was also a lad he used to go to school with, he said, ‘I can’t walk with you because you’re Jewish.’ Anyway, he came back to England. It was claimed he couldn’t speak English but I don’t believe that. He, er, joined the Air Force at eighteen and by that time he was a remarkable linguist. He spoke French, English, Polish, Russian, um, anyway he, er, died. He was coming to me, with me. I invited him to come with me to the Defence Academy because I was giving a talk there and, er, he eventually wrote his book or had it ghost written and phoned me and he said, ‘Charles, would you write the foreword for me?’ I said, ‘Well send me the proof.’ And I think it was the Christmas before, probably Christmas before last, I was going to Oxford and I said, ‘I’ll take it with me.’ I didn’t read it. I wrote, wrote the foreword. I didn’t need to read it actually but when he asked me I said, ‘I’ll write it on one condition.’ You know he charged by the word because he was Jewish [slight laugh]. Anyway, the sad thing is he died before seeing the foreword, before seeing the book.
TO: Right.
CC: And a lady friend he had, who was about ten or fifteen years longer, younger, a couple of days after he died she had a stroke. And I’m in touch with her still. Anyway —
TO: I was wondering, when you were growing up were you interested in aircraft?
CC: Oh, yes. Ev— everyone was. I mean, I saw the Hendon Air show so, I mean, and I can remember being very envious of an Air Cadet (Air Defence Cadet because it was before the Air Training Corps) directing the traffic [slight laugh] under the control of a, a Service man, so, you know, when I go back to Hendon I think of that.
TO: So was your father in the First World War?
CC: Yes, he was but as I said we start with me.
TO: OK. Fair enough.
CC: He was actually. He was in the Machine Gun Corps. He was wounded and gassed.
TO: So, just to check? What year were you born?
CC: 1923. So long ago I’ve forgotten.
TO: Can you remember the Munich Agreement at all?
CC: I remember Chamberlain and all that, yeah.
TO: And what do you think of Chamberlain, looking back?
CC: It’s so easy to be critical after the event, you know. You could argue that he gave us time to prepare for war. You can argue any way. A neighbour of mine, who’s elderly, Len, I remember him saying something about history. Before you, when you look at history, you need to read two or three books for the three opinions and it’s perfectly true. I mean, you look at companies, as I know only too well. You look at the Chairman and think why doesn’t he do this? But he can only run as fast as the rest his committee or board and people forget that.
TO: And were you in London during the Blitz?
CC: In the early days, yes. I witnessed the Blitz.
TO: Is there anything that stands out for you from that time?
CC: Well, the bombing, the devastation, the fact that walking around, coming, walking around at night you didn’t — the bombing was not the main the problem. It was the shrapnel. You could hear the tinkle, tinkle. I mean, there were many more pieces of shrapnel than bombs.
TO: And, er, what kind of medical tests did you have for being aircrew?
CC: When I volunteered it was quite amusing. As a child I’d had, was told I had a weak heart so there I was at the medical trying to persuade them how fit I was. At the same time there was another chap being examined trying to proving a hole, saying how sick he was, because he didn’t want to be called up. No, the — it was quite strange the medical at the time.
TO: And, er, do you remember when America joined the war?
CC: Not specifically? I mean, I must have remembered but well, obviously a relief, because you know that we had an ally with us but probably at that age I wasn’t as involved in politics as I am now.
TO: What do you think of Churchill?
CC: He was remarkable man. Once again, I mean, you hear of his detractors but whatever you think, he had a remarkable command of English language. Disappointing that he — he probably had his reasons — the fact that he tried to back out from any responsibility for the bombing campaign. I get cross when people try to reinvent the time and, er, criticise Dresden. We — there’s no need to apologise for Dresden. Dresden was a transportation point. Furthermore, it was bombed at the direct request of Stalin. Stalin wanted so many transportation points bombed to ease the pressure on his Front. Three cities were chosen but I think it was Eisenhower who decided it was Dresden and the Americans bombed it at the same time. I got from the radio that Harris was in America at the time, I’m not sure. Once again, another remarkable man. I mean people, we always referred to him as “Butch” Harris but it was term of endearment, not criticism. I, er, I or we always thought the reason he chose our targets was that he was in bed and there was a map of Germany on the wall and he threw a dart [slight laugh] but I’m sure it’s not true. In fact, in one of the messes — let me think? Is it Cranwell or Henlow? They’ve got books of target maps of all the air bases that were bombed. About a year or so there was a book published so I got a copy (it was about forty pounds) showing, er, the site of every bomb that were dropped in England or probably London during the war. It, it is really quite interesting. Also, sorry, another thing about Dresden, people often say that, you know, it was near the end of the war. No one knew it was the end of the war and the Germans were still raining V-2 rockets on England whether it was nearly the end of the war or not. I mean, my wife and I were walking to Kingston, which is about five miles, and we deterred at one stage and I came across a memorial where a V-2 had landed, somewhere between here and Kingston.
TO: What did you think of other RAF leaders, like Charles Portal?
CC: I, I think we were very well served by them. One of the, we got to Sagan this year. We’ve been to Sagan. We go every year. We try to repeat the Long March. I emphasise about fifty officers and airmen, er, including the chief air staff. He came with someone on one occasion and this previous, this last chief air staff, was coming but he had to drop out at the last moment. I emphasise this is the first stage of the Long March. We only marched to Spremberg and nigh on a hundred miles and we stay in the barn we stayed in, which is still there, but they have camp beds and mobile cooking and things, heating and things like that. But, er, what was I thinking of?
TO: RAF leaders.
CC: Oh, the RAF leaders. The, the troops have to put on, what they call, a stand. They have to — they’re given a particular subject to talk about. One of the, er, subjects that often came up, I mean, would Bushell be sixteen [?] in the post-war Air Force? Obviously it’s no. You know, horse for courses.
TO: And —
CC: Just on leadership. I think the RAF have been lucky to have the chiefs we’ve had. I mean, all of them have been good. I can’t think of anyone that you’d say, ‘God, how did they get there?’
TO: And what’s your opinion on Harris?
CC: Harris was remarkable man. I mean, I met him. I’ll show you. Strangely enough, when you came I was just upstairs. I was going to photocopy something. On Monday, yes Monday, I’ve been asked to go to the RAF Club where someone is going to present the RAF Club with a picture of Harris. I’ve got a picture there. A signed picture of Harris. I’ll dig it out. There are some things that would interest you. But he was certainly a great man. I mean, he was single-minded. He was articulate. You couldn’t have wished for a better chap. It’s just unfortunate that he got the so called approbation [?] of the bombing campaign but certainly there should not be any apology for the bombing campaign. After all, the Germans invented area bombing by Rotterdam and Guernica and places like that. I mean Guernica was in the Spanish Civil War.
TO: And just as a side note I have something I have with me that [unclear]
CC: Pardon?
TO: There’s something I have with me that you’ve probably already seen it. There’s a speech Harris gave in 1977 about Bomber Command that I give to all the veterans, Sir. You might want to have a read of that later.
CC: Oh, I’d love to. I’ll have a copy of that if I may?
TO: That’s why I brought it, Sir. You might have heard it yourself right from him.
CC: Er, just turn it off just for a second.
TO: OK, sure.
CC: I [pause]
TO: Do you remember what films they were showing at the cinema during the war?
CC: Certainly. I mentioned one earlier “Orchestra Wives” and in fact we, in the prison camp, er, we had one film, I remember, shown in all the time I was there and what I remember about it is either the, either, the power was cut off or the projector broke. It was while someone was singing a song [unclear] and so we never did hear the end. It was a very popular tune at the time but, er, I suppose Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, things were popular at the time.
TO: And how was morale in the Air force during the war?
CC: It was very good. We were young and fit and I’m talking about aircrew really — young, fit, filtered — I mean to get in the POW camp you’d been filtered so many times. You had volunteered, selected, examined, interrogated, and then shot down. You’d survived and you’d got to the camp and you were still alive so it was a great filtration system and I don’t think there was any problem with morale. And I have people often ask me about lack of moral fibre. I never met anyone that I had were classed by LMF. One person I met after the war intrigues me because I’m sure, er, he was commissioned and then he became a flight sergeant. His story is that he decided that he didn’t he wanted to be an instructor. I can’t believe that’s true. That’s the only one where I expect that might be the case but I could easily be wrong. The other thing too is, er, survival after the war. The — once again, we were all young and fit. We didn’t have post-war stress, but I know two people who actually went in a mental home. One was a friend. One was in the POW camp. He was put in a mental home and there was another one who died recently. I went to his funeral. He had two or three sessions in a mental home. So some people were affected.
TO: How did you feel you feel when Churchill announced that the RAF would begin its bombing campaign?
CC: He what?
TO: When, when Churchill announced that, er, the RAF would be beginning the bombing campaign against Germany?
CC: Oh, the bombing campaign really existed throughout the war. There was no start to it. I mean, the — there were POWs who were shot down in Hampdens, you know, in the early days, and Whitleys and when I, when I joined the Air Force in Oxford we were accommodated overnight in what was a cinema or a theatre in the High Street. It was full of beds about six inches apart, Safari camp beds. The chap in the bed on my right was a sergeant air gunner from Abingdon, flying Whitleys, and he horrified me with his stories [unclear] I was beginning to wonder whether I was doing the right thing, volunteering, and then a few weeks later I saw a film “Target For Tonight” and the hero was Pickard, who was a squadron leader then. He was acting squadron leader. And once again I was wondering whether I’d made the right decision but that was the only time I had any doubt about my survival. Pickard became a group captain eventually and was shot down on the, er, Amiens raid I think.
TO: And what did you — did you see news reels at the cinema?
CC: Sorry?
TO: Did you watch news reels at the cinema?
CC: Certainly, yes. Whilst I was in England, yes.
TO: Yes. Did you ever wonder if they were being truthful?
CC: Oh, I think it was pretty obvious they were being faked. They had to be, I mean, even then. And if you read, if you read the Telegraph today, the despatches from the First World War, and you read them and, er, we won every day but the war went on for four years. It’s interesting to see how — there was very famous commentator. There was a film about him. He came, he came with the squadron and flew on one occasion and he presented us with a, a rather swish radiogram which was all singing and all dancing in those days and subsequently when the squadron moved to Coningsby there was an argument whether the radiogram was presented to the squadron or the mess. Oh, what was his name? He was very — I mean, you would know him.
TO: Was it Ed Munro?
CC: Ed Munro?
TO: Murrow.
CC: Ed Murrow. Yeah, it was Ed Murrow.
TO: He gave the broadcast during the Blitz.
CC: That’s right. Yes.
TO: And do you, er, remember hearing about the raid on Hamburg?
CC: Surely. That’s why, I mean, a great deal publicity was given to it because you have to remember that this was the only way the country could fight back at the time and it was certainly a morale booster to think something like that was happening.
TO: And do you remember the thousand bomber raid?
CC: Yes, I do. Yes. Once again it was a remarkable feat. Then when you hear, subsequently, the efforts that were made to get a thousand aircraft in the air it was quite something.
TO: And, er, how did the mission briefings work?
CC: It, it was to a formula. It went very well. You didn’t know until the day where you were going. You had some indication from the, the great [unclear] there was a few of those so you knew roughly the distance. The briefings were all done very correctly. And, er, in fact there’s a company that does briefings now. They dress up as airmen and they do it very, very well. I can’t remember the name of the group. I saw them performing at Duxford and I thought they were remarkable.
TO: And, er, what was the procedure for when you actually you left the briefing area and you began to prepare for the mission?
CC: Well, after the briefing you left the briefing you went back to the mess to read prior to flying and, yeah, obviously, recognising there was a greater danger going to Berlin than anywhere else. What is interesting about — once again, going back to the mess, last year I went to Potsdam where the forty-eight, the fifty are interred. If you look along the graves there are three or four at the end that are not in order, you know, in a straight line. I looked at them and thought, you know, just the crew together. I, when I left I looked at what you call a [unclear] a long list of names and I found that they were on my squadron, not only that, they were on my squadron whilst I was there and the fact that I didn’t know them, didn’t even remember, indicated they could have been on their first trip. I could have been on leave while they arrived. It indicated the short life. I mentioned this chap who I said went into a mental home twice, he was shot down on his first trip. He was —
TO: And do you — could you tell me about your first ever mission over Europe?
CC: It was to Mönchengladbach and I always — it became the headquarters of the Royal Air Force of the Forces in Germany as it became later. So much so, I laid a foundation stone there because I bombed it. But I remember it very well and was very satisfied I got back but, I say, we never expected anything to happen to us. It’s silly really when I look back.
TO: And what was, what were your duties specifically on the bomber?
CC: Well, I was the bomb aimer, map reading, bombing generally, acting as look-out on the front. There was a, there was a turret and I heard of, of people say they sat in the turret all the time except for the bombing. Pretty pointless because, I mean, eighteen thousand feet nothing there was going to happen from the front turret.
TO: So, where did you sit, near —
CC: Well, in the bombing nose in the front.
TO: And what were the conditions like aboard the Lancaster?
CC: Cold, hungry, you know, difficult to get to the loo if you wanted it, er, noisy. When I say noisy, um, about twenty years ago the Government gave ten thousand pounds to everyone who complained about being partially deaf from what was called “Lancaster Ear”. Strangely enough, I mentioned it to an audiologist, was it yesterday or the day before? I went and had my hearing tested and I mentioned this thousand — I never got it myself but I know people who applied for it at got it with little argument. So obviously the noise level was exceptionally high. I say, the aircraft was very cold.
TO: Did you have any heating in your section?
CC: No. We had — we wrapped up warmly. Then they brought in an electrically heated suit which was good. It improved things.
TO: And what was the flight procedure for take-off?
CC: Oh, you got out of the nose and propped yourself up against the main spar.
TO: And do you remember what your thoughts were during a mission?
CC: Pardon?
TO: What were you generally thinking about during the mission?
CC: Well, you were so busy looking out, you know, the — put it this way there were no deep thoughts [laugh]. Survival thoughts more than anything else.
TO: And was there heavy flak during the missions?
CC: Partly. You’d go through heavy periods and you heard a heavy thump and the aircraft would rock if it was near. I don’t remember actually being hit but once again it was a matter of luck. Occasionally you’d be caught in a searchlight and there was a, the, there was a thing called, oh, “corkscrew” to sort of evade being shot down. I don’t think it did much good.
TO: Did you ever have to ask the pilot to correct his course?
CC: Oh, all the time. I mean, it was a mutual thing. I mean, the navigator and yourself knew more than the pilot and certainly over the target you were aiming for the target markers.
TO: Was this left by the Pathfinders?
CC: Pardon?
TO: Were these target markers that were left by the Pathfinders?
CC: Yes and one time being shot became a kind of game which was terrible but we must have been foolish but we certainly wasn’t very popular with our own crew?
TO: What was, what was your duty once you got over the target?
CC: Well, to pin-point the target and drop the bombs.
TO: Could you see anything other than the flares that had been left?
CC: Oh, well, I mean flak all round and searchlights and aircraft blowing up too. I didn’t realise, I said earlier, that when we were in the prison camp they used to close the shutters when there was a raid but on the march, for the last time, when we slept out in the open we’d see the raids, the American raids and our own raids. And you’d see the aircraft shot down. Some would explode immediately, some would catch fire and you’d see some of the crew bail out and if they didn’t you knew how many were in the crew and you’d think the poor devils, you know.
TO: Were you ever — were your missions always at nights?
CC: Pardon?
TO: Were your missions always at night?
CC: Yes, yep.
TO: And what were the targets generally be?
CC: Mainly Ruhr targets. I remember Stettin, Mannerheim, Schweinfurt, Berlin, Mönchengladbach, you know, typical.
TO: And what did you think of other bombers like the Wellington?
CC: Compared with the Lancaster it was third class but it was what we started with at the beginning of the war and the great thing is it could be patched up more easily because it had geodetic construction with fabric and —
TO: And what about the Halifax?
CC: Halifax, well, was once again inferior in performance. It’s height and range inferior to the Lancaster. I mean, we were lucky to be on Lancasters. There’s no doubt about it. And even earlier on, Whitleys even more — and even earlier Hampdens were shot down.
TO: Were the missions to Berlin the most dangerous ones you could have?
CC: Yes. I mean, you could argue, like the dams’ raid, but they were exceptions rather than — well, I mean, one thing that’s forgotten about Berlin, there was a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns. Those anti-aircraft guns, they were the same type as were used for anti-tank purposes.
TO: And when you got back did you think about the losses that had been suffered or did you just carry on?
CC: You couldn’t help thinking about them because usually it was someone you knew but, I mean, it was a well organised system. Very quickly they swept the room and all traces were remove almost the same day.
TO: And would you say you were good friends with everyone in the crew?
CC: Yes. I mean, once again, it’s quite remarkable. As I said, we became almost forced marriages in a way but we certainly I never regretted the crew we had. We were remarkable.
TO: What is your best memory from the war?
CC: Coming home after the war. [laugh]
TO: OK. And do you think there was anything the RAF could have done to reduce the losses they suffered?
CC: No. Everyone was working to achieve a reduction of the losses. I mean some of the best friends in the camp were working on it and it certainly had priority over other things. With hindsight you could think of things but certainly at the time it was impossible to do that. I mean every development from the development of aircraft to the equipment used in the aircraft were designed to reduce the loss rate.
TO: And what, did your, was window ever used on your missions?
CC: Oh, every time, or practically every time as far as I was concerned, and it was effective, particularly at the beginning.
TO: Was there anything that Germans have anything to counter it?
CC: Not that I was aware of but I’m sure they did.
TO: And what do you think was the most important campaign of the war?
CC: I think the Berlin campaign. People who criticise the bombing effort should listen to chaps like Speer, who was the armaments minister, and if you look at his quotations and interviews he had no doubt they were effective.
TO: On the missions were you given a specific target or was it just a certain area that you were bombing?
CC: We were given a specific target and it was marked by the Pathfinders.
TO: And what did you think of the aircraft that the Germany was using?
CC: I had no knowledge of it except they were effective. I mean, someone said the, the aircraft that shot me down or shot us down was, I can’t remember the type, but it was a heavier type, more like a bomber than a fighter, so probably a medium lighter bomber with guns fitted to it so obviously it was a more superior performance than the Lancaster but the attrition rate was such that the Germans were doing quite well. I mean the fact that, what was it? Fifty-five thousand bomber crews, a very high prop— proportion, and people often forgot the ten thousand prisoners of war that were shot down.
TO: And aside from the mission in which you were shot down which mission stands out the most to you?
CC: I, I can’t think of any one. They were all the same, you know, I think the Berlin ones. I suppose the one where we were scattered coming back and had to land at Pocklington and others were bailing out left, right and centre.
TO: And did you have an escape hatch where you, near where you sat?
CC: Sure. Yes. The escape hatch was in the news, in the nose and that’s why you find more bomb aimers survived than pilots and the first thing when the aircraft was aflame and I think it was a mutual decision. I don’t quite know how it was, who said, ‘Bail out. Bail out’. I can’t remember how that happened. It was always — but I, I opened the hatch, got rid of the hatch, and just waited a second until the first person behind me came because I had no intention of jumping out and then finding that I was the only one out and the aircraft got back.
TO: Did you, so did you have to wait until the pilot gave you clearance before you jumped?
CC: Yeah. I don’t quite know how the decision was made. I think it was pretty mutual. The aircraft was ablaze. I’m sure he said, ‘Jump.’ But, you know, I can’t remember specifically.
TO: And did you wear your parachute at all times?
CC: No. And you got to remember, the, er, rear gunner was interesting. The — I hadn’t realised until after the war and I should have known. The rear gunner’s parachute was in the body of the aircraft and he to get out he had to rotate his turret so his, the exit of the turret was aligned to the fuselage, then had to reach for his parachute in the fuselage, get out and put it on. Well, now, if the hydraulics had gone he’d have to wind it by hand. So, once again, it was not easy for a rear gunner to survive. I didn’t realise that until I was looking at the Lancaster Museum at — just outside — oh, gosh. Anyway, just outside the Canadian city — I’m just trying to think what it is — I think the museum is at a place called Nankut and its devoted entirely to the Lancaster.
TO: So, where was your [emphasis] parachute stored?
CC: In a rack. I should think somewhere to the side and, of course, you’re all plugged in to the intercom and electric suit you were wearing so you had to get rid of those at the last moment.
TO: Is there anything more you remember about when the aircraft was attacked?
CC: Just the noise of the shells pumping in the aircraft and the flames, that’s all. Oh, yeah, the only other thing I remember bailing out and as I say having had so much instruction in parachuting I remember counting because I was afraid, I mean it’s unbelievable now, I was afraid the shroud would get caught in the aircraft. I mean, it seems unlikely but I did count before pulling the chute rip cord to extend the chute.
TO: How high do you think you were when you opened the chute?
CC: I’m guessing about ten thousand feet.
TO: Could you see anything below you or around you?
CC: Not really. It was night time. It was a survival frame of mind. I can’t remember looking down as I came down.
TO: When — what happened during the landing?
CC: I just fell in the snow and then I took the parachute harness off and buried it and, you know, covered it with snow. And slavishly cut a piece of material out of the parachute, which I mean, when I look back, I think as crazy. I’ve still got that piece of parachute somewhere, so much so that my sister in law embroidered on it sort of the name of the target and things like that.
TO: Were you on your way back to the target or on the way there?
CC: On the way there and when we got there we jettisoned the bombs too. That was one of the first decision that had to be made.
TO: And what time of year was it that this happened
CC: February and bloody cold.
TO: And what actually was the terrain like around you?
CC: As I say, mountainous, covered in snow, probably a ski centre in — it would be interesting to go back.
TO: And when you’d actually — I don’t know if you could see much around the area but could you see any huts or villages?
CC: No. Only when I came across this mountain hut. That’s all I saw.
TO: And what about the other people who bailed out? What happened to them?
CC: One broke a leg. The others were picked up but I don’t know their individual stories. I mean, looking back, it didn’t occur to me. I mean, were all had a similar experience. I mean, a great friend of mine — we’ve just arranged to go to Buckingham Palace — he’s about four years older than me. A great friend. About fifteen years ago or twenty years ago, he suddenly said, ‘Charles I didn’t realise you were on the Long March.’ I mean, it’s uncanny in a way but he was not aware of it because he was not on the March.
TO: And did you have any rations with you when you landed?
CC: Only a few — oh, we had, I think we had some Horlicks tablets or something. Emergency rations and probably a few boiled sweets or something.
TO: And when you landed were you worried how the Germans would treat you?
CC: Pardon?
TO: When you were captured were you worried about how the Germans would treat you?
CC: Well, naturally. I was amazed and admittedly it was probably more in the country than the town. As I say, the abiding memory I have of them is their amazement of the children the RAF were employing to fly.
TO: And did you see any civilians when you were captured?
CC: Mainly they were servicemen there.
TO: And were you, did you have to go through an interrogation after that?
CC: Well, that was the interrogation centre at Dulag Luft, Luft, which everyone seemed to go there. My son-in-law had to go to Frankfurt to speak at a big medical conference and I told him to start off by saying, ‘Hands up anyone whose father was employed at the interrogation centre.’ [slight laugh] I’m not saying he didn’t but it was a thought, I mean, a thought but you know [unclear] interesting about the Germans, you see, I met Germans sort of ten years ago who are afraid to come to England because they are afraid of the reception we would going to get. Equally go back to the Long March — I’ve been going back for the Long March — I’m amazed at the warm welcome we get by the Germans. In the area of the camp or in Sagen itself. In Sagen, it’s now Sagen with a ‘Z’ but it was Sagen with an ‘S’ and although it’s listed as Stalag Luft III it was an offshoot of the officers’ camp. I think of all the people I’ve met there I think only about two people who remember the POWs and they were children. I think one tells the story of how he was given some chocolate by a POW and he said, ‘Hey you. Inside I’ve got two brothers and sisters.’ I’m a Freeman of Sagen now and I opened a big school nearby of about a thousand pupils. The, the Germans have quite a — I don’t know if you’d call it a celebration — but they mark the 24th of March. They have sort of, er, parades and things like that. It’s interesting. Of course, its tourism too for them. The school, when they asked me to open it, said they wanted to call it the “School of Martyrs”. I said, ‘No way.’ And, er, we compromised. The “School of Allied Aircrew” and I, I remember my wife saying, ‘What are we going to do in the afternoon after the service?’ I mean, there were ambassadors and Uncle Tom Cobley was there and, um, when they had the service of, a three hours service, in the church and they said, ‘We don’t expect you to sit there for three hours. Come for an hour and we’ll reserve a front pew for you.’ And, er, we went in and the guard of honour that had been parading during the unveiling ceremony for — there’s a tablet — the guard of honour was in the church, in the aisle, oh with their rifles, bayonets and things and I remember saying, ‘See you afterwards. Are you there to force people going in or stop them from leaving.’
TO: And how did the guards treat you in the camp?
CC: The — we were, as I said, we were not encouraged to talk to the guards. The guards — there were specific contacts that were appointed to keep in touch with individuals, that helped the bribery and all the rest that goes with it. And the ferrets in the camp — these were what I had in mind. They were army outside, you know, they were manning the sentry box and things but the so-called ferrets, who they used to probe round because the huts were raised on bricks so they could probe around underneath them. Anyway, as I say, they had people allocated to them which was a jolly good move really. One chap told me a story, Andy Wiseman, but then he had so many stories I’m not sure it’s true, said a ferret came to his room and said, er, he was looking for, what was it? Maps or something. And Andy said, ‘I’ve got this and now I’m looking for maps.’ Whether that’s true or not I don’t know.
TO: And how did the guards seem when the news of the shootings came through?
CC: I have no direct knowledge of that but I can say the commandant was shocked. And, in fact, I was sorry to hear he was court-martialled after that. One of his crimes was there was an acoustic device that rings the camp and it was not working. It was being repaired or something and that was one of his crimes. The story goes that he was from a good English family, a good German family, and because of that he was put into a mental home to escape the court-martial. Now whether that’s true or not I don’t know and well, he, eventually he was released and in fact returned to the area as second in command of the French force. Now, whether that’s true of not, but what I think is true that this chap who became Moderator of the Free, Free Church of Scotland, er, kept in touch with him after the war to the extent that he officiated at his funeral. Now whether that was at his request or the request of family, you know —
TO: And how did you and the others feel when you heard about of the news of the executions?
CC: Shocked because we always said that in the early days in was very much easier. I mean, you’ll hear, there’s no doubt about it, escaping was a sport in the early days, but you know, come the time of Stalag III and things like that it was no longer a sport. The Germans — and I’ll show you later — put up a notice that said ‘Escaping is no longer a sport. You’ll be shot’. Nobody knows how the fifty were chosen. It was quite inexplicable. No one’s really — that is a depiction of the tunnel. [background noise] I’ll pull it out if you want to — and all around it is the, all the pictures of fifty that were murdered. Now, that was Tobolski who was caught in Stettin with “Wings” Day. Tobolski was murdered. “Wings” Day was put in Sachsenhausen. Once again, there’s a remarkable story. Tobolski — now I can’t remember at what stage they were moved from camp, but anyway, Tobolski’s widow and his son Paul used to come to our reunions. When the widow died Paul, the son, commissioned that in memory of his father and it’s a limited edition and I was given a few, which I’ve distributed to messes and the RAF club. I mean, I could sell them for a fortune, um, but I’ve got some pictures there of the Long March and other things. I’ve got lots of pictures there of sorts.
TO: I recognise some trivia here. I’ve been to — I was in Jersey with my cousin a few years ago and they actually had a board up about Scheidhauer, the one who was captured with Roger Bushell, the French one.
CC: Strangely enough, the Governor of Jersey is the former chief air staff.
TO: Is he?
CC: Yeah. I think he’s just taken over.
TO: Would it be OK if you turned back this way, Sir.
CC: Sorry?
TO: Would it be OK if you turned back this way, Sir.
CC: Sorry?
TO: Would it be OK if you rotated your chair — there, thank you. And when, when you arrived at the camp how long was it before you heard about the escape plans?
CC: I couldn’t remember that. No, I couldn’t remember that.
TO: Do you remember how you felt when you heard about it though?
CC: Not really. I mean, I was so new, relatively new, it was very much a new period of my life. I was very much the new boy. There was no way I could probably — there were some who were very proficient in international languages and so stood a better chance of getting home. There was a very good theatre in the camp too. A number of them became quite famous after the war. I mean, Mayberry [?] was at — Rupert Davies was a typical example and I know there’s two or three that’s still acting. Certainly one I know is still acting.
TO: And what are your thoughts on Roger Bushell?
CC: Well, I didn’t really know him. I met him so it’s very difficult to judge, but from his reputation I don’t think he would have succeeded in the Air Force. He was too much an individual but that’s just reading. I mean, it’s not for us [unclear] he was a remarkable man but once again the, er, I went down to Brixham after the war. It must have been, must have been about ‘55 I suppose and much to my surprise there was a fishing trawler in the harbour called the “Roger Bushell”. I often wonder what the connection was.
TO: And what was your daily routine in the camp?
CC: Exercising each day, walking round the, er, so-called bashing the circuit, walking round the outside grass ring. Reading. There was a good reference library. It was a good library anyway with lots of books. We’d play cards, rather, I say a lot of reading and, er, you got your own chores, your own laundry and we made a daily stake out of a tin can. When you had a pair of them [unclear] when you washed you had a pale of water, hot water, to do your daily — you had to get it from the kitchen, so-called kitchen. You do your — you had some very hard German soap to do the laundry, your — and then trying and hang it up. Drying it was difficult. In the winter you put it out on the lawn on the, on a line, and then you’d bring it in and you could stand it up against the wall. It was frozen to that extent so — and that was a struggle to get it dry. I mean we didn’t have much to do, just our underwear and shirt, socks and things. We didn’t have a lot of gear.
TO: Sorry, just going back. I meant to ask you this earlier. What, what kind of clothing did you have when, er, you landed, after you bailed out? Was it enough to keep you warm?
CC: Reasonably warm. The — I mean, after all, we’d go this electric — probably got a sweater and an electric suit. I mean, we were given Irvin jackets but I mean you never wore those. They were too bulky. What, what did we have? We had an inner suit and then an outer suit, you know. I think, er, some of them were called Sidcots, if I remember rightly.
TO: And did you hear anything about what was happening in Britain with the V-2s and V-1s?
CC: Yes, well we had the BBC news although, of course, the BBC news was guarded because they didn’t want to give the information to the Germans so, you know, it was obviously limited.
TO: And what — and just before the Long March becan, I think I read somewhere, maybe it’s wrong, that Stalag III was kind of more or less dismantled by the prisoners, was it?
CC: Stalag III?
TO: Was it, was any of the camp dismantled before the March began?
CC: Dismantled? I mean, I used an old Red Cross box. Our, our seating was made out of kind of tea chests, the Red Cross tea chests. I put a couple of runners on a Red Cross box and they were, er, two bed boards and we had no tools. I think, I mean, I sort of got some nails out of the wall and hammered those in. I mean, it wasn’t dismantled. We didn’t have time or the inclination to worry about that. We had lots of cigarettes, not me personally, but the cigs had been held in the Foodacco for example. We, er, tried, I say we generally, tried to make them unusable and, of course, but they won’t burn. cigarettes won’t burn so people were urinating on them to make sure they wasn’t used. It was a silly problem we had after how short we had been. We had after, you know, on a Sunday we had lots of lectures of sorts, from psychology to metrology. I mean, people put on kinds of things, I mean people — I’m trying to think — a very famous Chancellor of the Exchequer took a law degree in the early days in an NCO camp. I’m just trying to think of his name. In the library the most popular book, funnily, was, “The Sex Life” — it was illustrated — “The Sex Life of a Savage” and I think there was a two year waiting list for that. [slight laugh]
TO: And did you get Red, Red Cross parcels delivered?
CC: Occasionally, spasmodically. There was no regular supplies. Sometimes the Germans would often have half a Red Cross parcel per man, not that we split it. I mean, we pooled it in the room, all the, er, Red Cross parcels. They weren’t given out individually, you know. The, the Germans were quite illogical in a way but certainly they stopped them at times like the Great Escape and things like that. And yet the cigarette came in.
TO: As the war continued was anyone worried at all that the Germans might start executing the other airmen?
CC: Oh, sure. That’s what I’ve said earlier. It was the uncertainty of what would happen to us at the end. Having murdered the fifty anything was possible. We didn’t know whether we would be murdered, held as hostages or what and, even now, I don’t think anyone really knows what he intention was, whether they were going to use us as hostage or not.
TO: And what — could you tell me a bit more about the morning when “Harry” was discovered?
CC: Well, we were put on the, er, parade ground and kept there nearly all day in the, in the — I mean, it was freezing, whilst they recounted and recounted us to establish how many were missing and the Red Cross parcels stopped and things like this.
TO: This may or not be a true story but I saw an interview with someone, I think Jack Lyon his name was?
CC: I know him.
TO: He says the commandant was threatening to shoot a prisoner who was continuing to move around or something? I don’t know if that’s true or not.
CC: It’s possible. Once again I haven’t heard that one. Tempers were short. I mean, you can imagine the frustration of the Germans to think that fifty had got away or a number had got away from them.
TO: Did you think it was a good idea at the time to try and get, well, fifty out at once?
CC: To escape? [sneeze] Yes, I mean, when you think they had to memorise the whole country to search for them. That idea in itself was worth it, I think, you know. They put in a lot of effort on the day.
TO: And, er, what kind — during the Long March did — were the Germans short of food as well?
CC: Were they what? Short of food? No, I don’t think they were but they didn’t know where they were going. I mean they were as mystified as we were, I think, to my knowledge anyway, but I, whether the officers knew what was planned I don’t know. What was — another interesting thing about the first march was is that a rugged — in my room there was probably the toughest, scruffiest man I ever met. He had been, er, boxing and billiards at fairgrounds in America. He joined the Marines and was in their Golden [unclear] team and eventually I think he was stationed at the Panama Canal and then he joined the Air, Royal Canadian Air Force and then, I mean, he was certainly a rough and crude chap. He had three — there was hospital for VD people in England. I think it was at Brighton or Spilsby and he’d been there three times so you could see his character. He was a keep fit expert in the days before the days keep fit was popular and he had a home-made bell bar which he used to use and then in the same room we had a chap whose legs were like sparrows. He was once again in the Canadian Air Force but on the march, um, the sparrow like character survived and Jack Fielding didn’t. I mean, fell out some time ago. Last I heard of him was from a Canadian who is director of television of Ottawa I was talking to. I think he said Jack had finally settled in Toronto and, er, he was American and had a wife and about three kids and had a flag pole in his garden and used to fly the flag every day. I often wondered whether his wife knew of his background. He was a rough and tough character, Jack Fielding.
TO: Did anyone or did you see anyone try and scavenge for food during the march?
CC: Oh, sure, yes. I don’t know whether you saw a film on television the other night about the Russian football supporters. It was horrific. I mean, on the train they behaved like animals. [unclear] what [unclear] must think. But why I mention that, as I say, I mentioned cigarettes were plentiful. I’ve seen up there somewhere on the march a butt of a cigarette and seen the Russians fighting for it like dogs. I mean, scavenging, I can remember going into a [unclear] and picking out the [unclear] tops that had been put aside for animals and cleaning those up and boiling them so we were very short of food. The Long March — there’s a very good video of the Long March made by a chap who was based in Bromley. He actually came with us on one occasion and filmed us on one of these staff rides, as we called them, and it’s quite a good film but then he wanted some extra footage so he went back to take pictures of the railway station and he wanted people forming up by the wayside to give it impact so, as I say, he got some film extras but after I said to him afterwards, it was a con because these extras weren’t carrying anything. We were carrying our blankets, our cooking pot, any other stuff we had. One of the films — people often ask me about “The Great Escape” as [unclear] did until he died. Yeah, people often ask me about the “Great Escape” film. My answer every time is this. It’s a good film, an entertaining film, but there’s too much saluting, too much of an Oxford accent all [emphasis] the time, er, the — too many uniforms. I mean, we didn’t have them. There were some uniforms chaps had sent for in the early days of the war but — and of course, Steve McQueen wasn’t there but who would remember the fifty who were killed without that film, “The Great Escape”? I think, I mean, equally, people moan about that it took so, so long to, er, get a recognition of Bomber Command crews and I advocated our use for the Bomber Command medal with some little support from surprising quarters. Eventually, there was a — they agreed to the bar to the, er, to the medal, rather than a medal itself. It really saddens me talking about that. [unclear] Anyway, what is often forgotten too is that once we were there and I wondered whether to raise the subject with the Daily — Sunday Express were here but I hadn’t finished with it yet, it’s probably the wrong time, while we were there, I didn’t know at the time but subsequently I discovered that some of our pay had been deducted. Did you know about this? The POW pay had been deducted and I didn’t know about this until I went to Canada and was invited to go on television to talk about it and there was a flight lieutenant who had retired to Canada was moaning about it. I remember saying I couldn’t really criticise my country when I was in someone else’s, some other country, but anyway they deducted some of this pay, on which income tax had been paid, and it was ostensibly to provide necessities for the POWs. It never happened. It was going to be given to the protecting power except a small amount was given for an NCO camp and this was officer pay which was deducted so it was fair enough. After the war I became involved in the arguments to try to get it back and I remember, even in about ’64, being dragged along to a press conference with the Minister of Defence and I remember a chap with me, a Naval captain who tried to draft the press release, and it was — I re-wrote it I know. But anyway, subsequently, I had four people working on this: a group captain who was in the Battle of Britain and was one of Churchill’s pall bearers, the Naval captain who was in charge of the conflict during the Cod Wars, Blenheim’s squadron leader and a lieutenant colonel (I don’t know quite how he fitted in this) but I had the four of them working on it full time and we petitioned the Government so many times and, er eventually the four of them wanted to return their DFCs and their CBEs and things like that to the Queen but I argued this would be pointless because the Queen didn’t directly influence this. I, when the last of the four died, I was left with a couple of, er, tea chests full of documents, er, which are somewhere around. Really I don’t know where they are now, left with a relative one of them. I say, I had three choices: to give it to a law form to pursue on a pro bono basis, give it a newspaper to make a scene of it, or go back to the Government again, this fourth one. Anyway, I raised it again with the Government about a year ago, a year and a half ago and got a nasty reply that it had been looked at before and dismissed and this time I suggested that obviously POWs couldn’t be recompensed because some were dead anyway and I suggested giving a, a sum of money — I wanted to put token sum but I decided not to put token because they might give you a penny — a sum of money to me or The POW Association of which I would give half to and half to the Benevolent Fund and half to the POW Association. I got this standardised reply from this Minister of Administrative Affairs and I’m now going to have another go. I seriously, I say, I seriously considered raising it when the Sunday Express people were here but I decided I’d give it one more go and start the press thing. I decided I’m going to wait, er, [unclear] put me back a bit. I’m going to write to the Prime Minister. She was once very helpful on another thing through one of her constituents in Maidenhead I think. And I’ll try and there are two things in our favour. Firstly, there’s the Libor money which is available now and being given to charities and secondly there’s a move now to confiscate all accounts that have stood for fifteen years into the — for charity. I mean, but if someone claims subsequently, they still get a refund. I had some of money, strangely, I had a sum of money last week. I got a letter from a company, would I confirm my address? Well, seeing as he letter was addressed to me at my address it seemed pretty pointless and I thought it was a scam and I then, er, checked on the internet and found they were a legitimate company and they, they collect money on behalf of companies or trace. I then saw that they charged to do it and so I then phoned — it begins with a X- something. They keep a record of all, all investments and I said could you tell me what shares I have in various companies. They started to tell me and I said, ‘No, stop there. I don’t really want that as a question. I want to know anyone that I’ve not been in touch with.’ And they came back and said, ‘Yes. Abbey National.’ And there was some money in it from about, it must be about 1970 or something like that. So they said, ‘We’ll charge if we recover it.’ So, I thought to hell with that and so I went along to Santander and raised the matter with them and sure enough I got the money back but I had to pay thirty pounds. I mean, money I didn’t know existed. It wasn’t very much but it was worth having.
TO: Do you mind if we pause there for a bit? Is it OK if we pause there for a while?
CC: Yes.
TO: So how did you feel when you heard the war was over then?
CC: Elated, obviously. I mean, it was hard to believe that at long last it had happened. We’d waited for so long for it but probably at that stage it was still a surprise even though we’d been waiting for it.
TO: And on the Long March did anyone get frostbite?
CC: Sure, yes, and some fell by the wayside. What happened to them I don’t know but I do know a chap who was an artist who wrote the Long March, a book called the Long March, he actually fell out halfway through, a Canadian. He’s dead now. I think he went into hospital. I, I’ve got his book somewhere. Buckham I think his name was, Phil Buckham.
TO: Was there anyone who tried to stay behind and be liberated by the Russians?
CC: I’ve heard of someone who did but of course it was a bad move. The think the prisoners at [unclear] but one of the camps, they were not on the Long March and were liberated by the Russians but were kept there several weeks afterwards whilst, er, the Russians wanted to, were trying to barter them for other prisoners that they wanted to exchange them for and I, I think they were delayed by several weeks and Andy Wiseman, the chap who was a Jew and was born in, er, Berlin, he was an interpreter with the Russians, because he could speak Russian, and he was quite amusing about this story about going to greet the Russian tanks.
TO: For some reason it [background noise] so can you tell me about the role you played in getting the memorial in Green Park?
CC: Most of the Royal Air Force — I’ve forgotten [unclear] take it back. Take it back.


Tom Ozel, “Interview with Charles Henry Clarke. Three,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 30, 2023,

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