F/L Fredrick Edsall Clarke RCAF 414 Army Cooperation Squadron 1917 – 2005

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
F/L Fred Clarke – colourised B&W image. (Photograph Chris Clarke)

This is the story of Fred Clarke Jr. (known as Freddy / “Knobby” in the RCAF) who was born in 1917 in West Byfleet in Surrey, England while his Bajan father Maj. Frederick C Clarke MD MC 1883 – 1941 was serving in France with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) during World War I.

After the war, Fred spent ten of his first twelve years of life in Barbados, the paternal homeland. Fred always considered himself a Bajan even though he lived for most of his life in Canada.

Fred’s father, Dr. Clarke moved his family from Barbados to Calgary in 1929, where he attended Crescent Heights High School. Fred later studied at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba, but was compelled to return to Calgary in 1937, when his father fell ill. Fred then joined the Calgary Flying Club and learned to fly in 1938 and applied to join the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outbreak of war. Fred was posted to 400 and then 414 Squadron in England, and flew Lysanders, Tomahawks and the early Mustang 1 in an Army Co-operation Squadron whose purpose was to supply Allied Army Intelligence with photo reconnaissance and to undertake ground attacks where necessary.

On 19th August 1942, during the Battle of Dieppe, Fred volunteered for a second sortie over enemy territory and was shot down. He “ditched” his aircraft in the English Channel and was saved by a Canadian soldier who swam over to his aircraft, pulled him unconscious from the cockpit, and swam him back to the landing craft that had just left the beach at the end of the Dieppe Raid. Fred’s fractured skull that occurred when he hit his head during the ditching, eventually led to him blacking out while flying and in May 1943 his Commanding Officer grounded him for the rest of the war. Fred remained in 414 Squadron and became the Squadron’s Operations Liaison Officer and served in Holland and Belgium when the squadron relocated there during the invasion of Europe in 1944.

While in England, having left his girlfriend Ruthie behind in Calgary, Fred met and later married Helen Hope, who was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne to Scottish parents. Helen became the love of his life, and they were married for sixty-two years. An accomplished salesman, Fred also served his community faithfully as a member of the Rotary Club, as a member of the Calgary Stampede Parade Committee, as the Commanding Officer of 2403 Airforce Reserve Squadron, and as A/Wing Commander for the province’s air cadet league.

The original version of this story was published as “Western Pilots In Army Cooperation From Depot To Dieppe: A Case Study In The Making Of An Army Co-Op Fighter Pilot” by Ian Clarke, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism on 10th May 1991. It has been updated here by Fred’s two sons Christopher and Ian Clarke. Christopher like his father was born in England in 1943 (a war-baby). Ian was born in Calgary in 1946 (a baby-boomer).

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
RCAF 414 Squadron Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk Formation – F/O Cliff Horncastle (KIA), F/O Jack Amos and F/O Fred “Knobby” Clarke. (Photograph Chris Clarke)

Fred Clarke Jr. (1917 – 2005) who was known as Freddy in the RCAF, was born into a Barbadian family of colonial politicians whose health and careers would have a profound influence on his life. Fred’s father, Frederick Clarence Clarke (1883 – 1941) left Barbados to study medicine at McGill University in Montreal. He then served as a doctor in Canada and during World War I in England and France. After the World War I he practiced medicine in Barbados for ten years before returning to Canada in 1929. Fred Clarke Jr.’s grandfather, Sir Frederick James Clarke (1859 – 1944) was the Speaker of the Barbados Assembly from 1898 to 1934 and one of the founders of the Barbados Museum in 1933.

In 1929, at the age of twelve Fred Jr. arrived in Calgary from Barbados when his family returned to live in Crescent Heights on the North Hill where Dr. Frederick Clarke MD MC had originally settled in 1911, two years after graduating from McGill University in Montreal. It was there that his father had established the medical practice he would sacrifice in 1914 by joining the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps for overseas service. In 1929 they entered the Great Depression and as plagued by the cash-poor depression economy as were most of Dr. Clarke’s patients, the family was still able to send Fred to Winnipeg in 1935 to St John’s College at the University of Manitoba where he entered a classics and humanities programme.

Despite having come to Calgary to escape the debilitating heat and humidity of his tropical home, Fred’s father, Dr. Clarke was struck down by a massive stroke in 1936. Fred was forced to end his studies and return to Calgary to support the family and he took a job at the Alberta Wheat Pool. Fred’s parents then returned to Barbados in 1937. His father would die there less than four years later, while Fred was serving in England with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Without a car, or the apparent need for one, Fred had never acquired a driver’s licence, but in 1938 he began flight training at the old Renfrew aerodrome with the original Calgary Flying Club, then known as the Calgary Aero Club. It was a childhood dream that he had nurtured since the day in the mid-twenties when Barbados had been visited by:

“Captain Lancaster in an Avian [who] was island-hopping down there. It was a tremendous thrill. He came and landed on the golf course. It was tremendous. Of course there were lots of aircraft in this area when we came to Calgary in 1929.”1

[Seawell aerodrome was established in September 1938, prior to that Rockley Golf Club was used as a makeshift airstrip.]

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
Calgary Aero Club Gypsy Moth. Fred Clarke Jr. far right. (Photograph Chris Clarke)

Within the year Fred had soloed in the Aero Club’s Gipsy Moth biplane. Building up his hours as quickly as a Wheat Pool salary would allow, he had earned his pilot’s licence by June 1939. When war broke out in September, Fred and a few of his flying club chums signed up to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Conceivably, they might have been overseas for the last months of the Battle of Britain, had not a recruitment officer used their sheaf of applications “as a door stop,” as he and his Flying Club colleagues characterized the carelessness. Somewhat anxious that they had been turned down for flying service, the bewildered recruits inquired as to their status only to find that the sloppy record-keeping at the recruitment centre had delayed their induction by half a year. They found it galling that several Americans, who had also come through the flying club, had already been given “provisional Pilot Officer” status by the RCAF:

“and there we were waiting to try and get in the air force, waiting for word. We had applied right off the bat. Eventually we did get in and we found out . . . that they had found a whole pile of applications stuck behind a door with about an inch of dust–mine and a whole bunch of others.”2

In the late spring of 1940, toward the end of the “Phoney War” in western Europe, the RCAF finally found the missing applications and in early June, Clarke and the others who had applied with him in September joined the ranks of the RCAF Reserve.3  Ironically for the new aircrew-in-training, the Calgary Aero Club, one of seventeen like it in the country, became the No. 5 Elementary Flight Training School in Lethbridge, Alberta.4  Encouraged by their good fortune in having learned to fly at the parent flying club only months before of the outbreak of war, the new aircrew-in-training were amazed to find out that the Air Force would not recognize their private licences.5

It was in many ways a time of repetition and retraining for the young pilots, but it was intense and highly professionalised. It also gave them a new experience with the well-powered De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane, equipped in this training version with a sliding weather canopy.6 The Tiger Moth added the thrill of torque to the manoeuvrability of bi-plane performance and gave the students more than enough aircraft to test their mettle. Between 25th July and the end of September 1940, Clarke put in more than 42 hours under instruction and more than 28 solo hours in the Tiger Moth. The routine of practising the obligatory “sequences” was broken into a series of test flights, the twenty- and the fifty-hour tests, and a cross-country flight. Lethbridge was merely the first stop in a lengthy odyssey that would take many of them overseas and into combat. After graduation the class gathered itself for the most serious phase of their training in Canada. Number Three Service Flying Training School at Camp Borden near Barry, Ontario was dedicated to the next phase of flight training which included the separation of the men into the various flight crew streams. It was after this advanced training that Clarke was streamed into army cooperation flying and posted to Canada’s army co-op squadron in England, thus guaranteeing his opportunity to fly fighters operationally.7

The first real traces of a Canadian air force had originated with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe, 1914-1918. Because of the seniority of the army within the military, the air force was closely tied to the concept of army support.8  Having served honourably, and having produced a number of air aces during the war, after re-establishment back in Canada, the Royal Canadian Air force was born in 1924.. At first the RCAF was largely responsible for civil aviation.9  Through the early years of the Depression, appropriations for the air force shrank as government policy retreated under the first onslaught of fiscal collapse. By 1935, the Conservative government in Ottawa had reversed its course and began a programme of public spending to alleviate the most drastic symptoms of the Depression. The air force particularly benefitted from the increased spending, and a new government in 1935 ensured that the RCAF would continue to expand as a “purely military organization.”10

It was at the beginning of this new military era that No. 2 Army cooperation squadron was formed, signalling one of the RCAF’s most important roles during operations over France and the rest of north-western Europe commencing with the Dieppe Raid in August 1942.11  Throughout this period, the RCAF was striving for increased independence, and in 1938 it moved from under the army’s Chief of the General Staff to a direct reporting relationship to the Minister of National Defence through the Chief of the Air Staff.12

The recruits who had survived elementary flight training graduated to the advanced schools in Ontario. In early October,1940 Clarke arrived in Camp Borden and was assigned to No. 1 Intermediate Training Squadron where for two months he flew his first mono-winged aircraft. The Training Squadron used the North American Yale, a fixed undercarriage version of the Harvard, and a considerable step up from De Havilland’s Tiger Moth biplane on which he had begun his flying career. After a one-hour familiarization flight, Clarke began a complex series of flights that included an altitude test, formation flying, instrument instruction, night flying, and complex cross-country navigation flights over unfamiliar terrain in western Ontario.13

In early December 1940, after he had completed his intermediate training, his Commanding Officer rated him as an average pilot, as had his elementary training instructors in Lethbridge. This was to change in the advanced training component of his RCAF service in Canada. Through a month and a half, while assigned to training in “G” Flight of No. 2 Squadron, Clarke acquitted himself well on the North American Harvard, including over thirteen solo hours and two reconnaissance training flights out of Collingwood. It was also the first time since taking his private license back in Calgary that he was required to practice forced landings, a skill that would save his life within the next two years. On 20th January 1941 he completed his advanced flight training with an “above average” rating as a pilot and an “average” rating for his navigational skills.14 Two months later, the newly commissioned Pilot Officer Fred Clarke was in a Westland Lysander above Old Sarum, Wiltshire in England doing a familiarization flight with Pilot Officer Brown of Britain’s No. 1 School of Army Cooperation.

The Advanced Flight Training graduates had all been granted leave before embarking for England. Most of the westerners came home for final good-byes only to return to Halifax by train. A delay in the sailing date for their troop ship forced the young pilots to spend more leave days at the Eastern Air Command base near Halifax. Clarke was able to pass the time with some of his mother’s relatives who had settled in Nova Scotia.

Clarke and a number of his classmates from western Canada were posted to No. 110 “City of Toronto” (Army Cooperation) Squadron stationed at Odiham, Hampshire. Processed at Uxbridge, the new pilots were posted to the squadron’s home aerodrome at Old Sarum, where it had first been located on arrival in England in February 1940.15  Within the week he was compelled to fly three successive dual training flights with the Chief Flying Instructor, Squadron Leader Campbell-Voullaire, an officer as protective of his school’s aircraft as he was of the men who flew them.16 Apparently Campbell-Voullaire approved of what he saw. During the next fifty days, Clarke flew ninety-four times and managed to log over sixty-two solo hours on the high-wing Westland Lysander.

The training included intensive reconnaissance and aerial photographic skills as well as basic air-to-ground and air-to-air battle tactics. Perhaps most importantly, because of the emphasis placed on the RCAF’s army cooperation tactical reconnaissance (tac R) role, “close tac R” and “low tac R” were a particularly important part of the training for the Canadians at Old Sarum. Pin-pointing features and objects, vertical and oblique photography, artillery ranging, direction finding and low- and high-level dive bombing as well as fighter tactics filled the two months of intensive flying. The night flying would help a year and a half later when Clarke and his wingman took off in the early hours of the Dieppe raid to perform the first of their two reconnaissance sorties. Despite some difficulties with Morse code and wireless telegraphy, and a less than stellar performance in ranging the ground artillery onto target, his army cooperation schooling was only marred by a lone incident in air-to-air gunnery practice when his gunner, Sergeant Mayes, managed to shoot off the Lysander’s radio antennae.17

Having survived the intensity of the training regimen at Old Sarum, and the scrutiny of the eccentric Campbell-Voullaire, Clarke was finally posted to an active squadron in mid-May of 1941. He joined the first organized unit of the RCAF ever to set foot on English soil, known as the “City of Toronto” (Army Cooperation) Squadron,18  now known as 400 Squadron. Appropriately enough the squadron had first arrived at Campbell-Voullaire’s Old Sarum before moving on to Odiham, Hampshire in June of 1940.19  They were still there when Clarke joined “A” Flight under Flight Lieutenant G. H. Elms, although before “A” Flight moved on to fighter tactics training, he was sent on to Croydon in the formation of 400’s sister squadron, No. 414.20

Clarke’s first month with 400 Squadron did not go particularly well. Hitting power cables on one practice low level area search and then breaking his tail wheel in a forced landing having lost his way from Gatwick to Odiham on the same day would have done little to endear him to Squadron Leader Campbell-Voullaire. Clarke returned to the Army Cooperation School, not to upgrade his skills, but to participate in the conversion from Lysanders to the new Curtiss Tomahawks with which 400 Squadron would soon be equipped.21  The C.O. performed two flying checks at the end of May. Since the second only lasted a scant five minutes, barely long enough to take off and land downwind, apparently there was nothing wrong with Clarke’s flying skills.22 He then began a series of six flights in a Harvard to familiarize himself once again with the characteristics of a single engine, low-wing monoplane included circuits and landings as well as aerobatics. This led to six flights, all under an hour each, in a Tomahawk, the first three practising circuits and landings and the last three devoted more to the joy of flying his first real high performance fighter aircraft. The elation was short lived. Within hours Clarke was flying back to Odiham in one of 400 Squadron’s Lysanders with Jack Amos, a Pilot Officer from North Battleford, Saskatchewan in the second seat. It would be nearly a month before Clarke was given another turn on a Tomahawk. Meanwhile he began the serious business of learning the skills of a tactical reconnaissance pilot.

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
RCAF 400 Squadron. Fred Clarke and Cliff Horncastle rear row, 3rd and 4th from left. (Photograph Chris Clarke)

As junior members of the squadron the newly attached pilots ferried airmen and soldiers to various airfields in southern England while building up hours in formation flying, dive bombing practice, towing drogues for anti-aircraft units, aerial photography, and the detailed routines of close, contact, and tactical reconnaissance. On the 2nd  July 1941 on a practice reconnaissance flight Clarke’s radio/telephone (r/t) failed, foreshadowing the problems that would plague him a year later on the day of the Dieppe Raid. On the 4th July, a more serious problem occurred in the same aircraft when the throttle stuck open at 1,650 rpm leaving him in the air for three hours trying to ride the aircraft down. Three days later he spent an hour and twenty minutes working with the same problem on the same aircraft.23  The rest of July passed almost uneventfully, a considerable amount of time being devoted to the drudgery of towing drogues for ground and air gunnery practice, a task always relegated to the junior officers of the squadron. On the 24th July, in the company of one of the squadron’s administrative officers while touring the coast of Wales at “zero feet” in another Lysander, Clarke felt the aircraft shudder as one of the heavily cowled main wheels struck a wave. He instantly pulled the aircraft into a steep climb while his passenger remained blissfully unaware of the danger to the aircraft and to himself.24

August 1941 opened somewhat more auspiciously as Clarke was given a Tomahawk for the day. The exercise went considerably deeper into combat tactics than he had been allowed to go before. In five separate flights he practised air to ground strafing, air-to-air rear quarter attacks, and air-to-air beam approaches. Later in the month, a new posting gave him even better opportunities to fly the single seat fighters. On 13th August, along with A Flight’s complement of pilots, the ground crew and other support staff received orders to proceed to Croydon where they were to join the new 414 Squadron, a move that would alter the entire course of Clarke’s life. It was in Croydon that he would meet his future wife, and it was with 414 Squadron that he would both participate in the Dieppe raid and shortly afterward lose his best friend, Cliff Horncastle.

Clarke was posted to 414 only two days after it was created. The RCAF’s twelfth squadron formed overseas and the second army cooperation squadron, 414 was known as the “Sarnia Imperials.” Like its sister squadron, 414 would be redesignated as a fighter reconnaissance squadron in June 1943,25 not long after Clarke had completed his last operational flights before accepting a new posting to 39 Reconnaissance Wing as a Flight Lieutenant in Operations.26

Two Tomahawk “flips” with his new squadron later in August, one in which he had to contend with an “oil gusher,” a fairly common complaint in the P40s, seemed to bode well for his advancing status as a pilot.27  It was, at the same time, an indication of the progress being made in converting the two army cooperation squadrons from Lysanders to the more operationally useful and certainly more powerful Tomahawk. By September, Clarke and at least two others from the original group at Lethbridge, Jack Amos and Cliff Horncastle, had achieved full-fledged fighter pilot status with the new squadron. Amid a certain amount of ferrying that needed to be done to bring the squadron up to operation strength with the new aircraft, Clarke added twenty-four hours to his Tomahawk totals including a considerable amount of formation flying. These included squadron formations, formation landings, section formations, and low-level practice. Other than managing to “bury a propeller” on one landing after formation practice, the flying seems to have gone as planned.28

Having quadrupled his time on Tomahawks in September 1941, Clarke doubled it again in October, adding another 20 hours to his cumulative totals. The first part of October began with great excitement, although the squadron had still not performed its first operational flight of the war. In their Tomahawks he participated in a “vic” formation fly-past for the Duke of Kent, and practised section attacks on armoured divisions, low flying aerobatics, low flying formations, and section “vic” formations with landings. It was a new high point for the squadron, but it was short lived. In fact, 414 would not fly its first operational mission until June 1942 primarily because the squadron had been dedicated to “obtain . . . photographic reconnaissance for Allied invasion planners.”29  Since no tactical invasion planning occurred in Europe until the summer of 1942, the Tac R squadrons remained in a continuous training mode until the planning for the Dieppe Raid required their photographic assistance.

What had been rather exciting in October began to prove routine and somewhat tedious in November. Clarke’s hours on the Tomahawk slumped from a previous high of twenty-two to fifteen, and in December to little more than eight. At one point he even resorted to the use of the squadron’s Tiger Moth for forty-five minutes of low level flying practice.30

The period between October 1941 and August 1942 may have become something of the doldrums for the squadron but it was actually an encouraging high point in Clarke’s flying career. In January he was promoted to the command of the squadron’s A Flight, and then in June, he and the squadron were introduced to the new North American P-51 1A Mustang. Meanwhile, Pilot Officer Hollis (“Holly”) Hills, a Californian flying with the RCAF, joined the squadron at Croydon. Hills would figure prominently in the incidents over Dieppe later in August.

February 1942 passed rather quietly. Clarke flew under fifteen hours total as leader of “A” Flight. Only fifty minutes of these were in a Tomahawk, but he began to lay claim to three favourite aircraft including the Tomahawk RU-F for “Freddy” which he came to rely upon.31  In March the carburettor heater in RU F failed on landing after a formation practice, forcing him to make a particularly difficult landing approach in a nose-up, “stall” attitude from which both he and the aircraft recovered. He would require these skills over Dieppe. A week later he was participating in a formation flight for the benefit of General Bernard Montgomery, a fitting demonstration for the commander of the Commonwealth armies in Europe. Before the month was out, Pilot Officer Clarke had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant, a rank more befitting a flight leader.

In April 1942, the idiosyncrasies of the Tomahawk cost the squadron the use of aircraft RU A. After another bout of formation flying, F/L Clarke experienced an oil pump failure and proceeded with emergency procedures to make a forced belly landing in a farmer’s field near Cliddesden.32  The aircraft was unserviceable for a considerable length of time, but was eventually repaired and flew again. By then Clarke was flying one of the squadron’s new Mustangs that had been christened RU-A.

In mid May 1942, just before the conversion to Mustangs, the squadron’s training program changed abruptly. This was a response to the new offensive strategies being adopted by fighter and bomber command in mid-1942, including the Canadian army cooperation units. Invasion planning, prompted by the pressure to open another front against the Germans in Europe, led to the decision to use a major foray against the fortified French coast to gather critical invasion intelligence. The reconnaissance squadrons were about to be brought into action over France. Of twenty-two flights that month nineteen were made in Tomahawks practicing tactical reconnaissance in poor weather and performing “weather tests” in low-level practice. Formation flying with a covering “weaver” anticipated the squadron’s precise role over Dieppe on the morning of 19th August 1942.33

For F/L Clarke in particular, and for the squadron in general, June signalled the major change in training. Although many were of shorter than usual duration, he flew fifty-six times, far more than any previous month during this extended training period. An intensive series of air-to-air tactics consumed most of his time on Tomahawks for June. Then, at mid month, the first Mustangs arrived at Croydon. Most of them appear to have come from the AG series and would likely have been among the first 100 Mustangs to have been produced. After two weeks of familiarization exercises, F/L Clarke and two others in “A” flight participated in 414 squadron’s first operational sortie, a “dusk patrol” along the coast in which no raiders were seen.34

The Mustang was identified as the successor to the Tomahawk, even as the Purchasing Commission was ordering them for the RAF. Unlike the supercharged Merlin engine versions of the Mustang 1B, the Allison engine in the 1A was not as effective at altitude, but in a low-level tactical reconnaissance role, these disadvantages were nullified. Some pilots complained about the Mustang’s large gun site and its brutal plate of armoured glass. Ultimately Clarke would have good reason to complain when it fractured his skull. Even with the same effective power plant as the Tomahawk, the Mustang’s superior design made it 50 knots faster. It was a crucial advantage over the Tomahawk that the Mustang would take into combat over Dieppe against Germany’s superior fighter, the Focke-Wolfe 190.35  It was doubly critical in view of the dozens of German fighter squadrons in the aerial combat over Dieppe in what many describe as the greatest air battle of the war.

On 30th July 1942, less than three weeks before the Dieppe raid, F/L Clarke took Mustang AM167 up for a practice flight but shortly into the flight the radio burned out and he had to abort. This tendency would cost Clarke dearly over Dieppe. August continued with relatively light flying duties. On the 6th August he flew a practice “contact recce,” a system which was intended to provide direct tactical support to ground troops. Then, during the evening of the 18th August, under the cover of darkness, Clarke and his squadron flew to Gatwick in preparation for the Dieppe Invasion.36

The squadron had a limited, singular task to perform as outlined in the battle plan. The rumour of the presence of an armoured division on leave from the eastern front and stationed in Abbeville or Amiens east of Dieppe, dictated that 414 would fly set patterns on the routes east and southeast of Dieppe. Early in the morning of the 19th August, before sunrise, flying Mustang AG 655, Clarke took off with P/O Hills flying cover. They were the first up of any of the four Mustang squadrons, two RAF and two Canadian. With Hills weaving above and behind, Clarke was to perform a road reconnaissance and to report on the movement of any armour toward the coast. Searchlights at the coastal installations allowed Hills to see Clarke’s Mustang quite readily; but once they had crossed the French coast just southwest of the town of Dieppe, Hills could see nothing on the ground or in the sky, including his leader. Trying to finish the mission alone he was unable to see any of the mapped roads, nor did he see any sign of the armour. Hills “returned to Gatwick, alone and with no damage.”37

Meanwhile Clarke was having much the same experience. Without cover he proceeded as best he could to track the road toward Amiens and Abbeville beyond Dieppe. Even this early, Dieppe, was marked by a considerable amount of fire from the Royal Navy’s long-gun barrage, and the searchlights of the German artillery positions searching for the Boston medium bombers that had been sent against them. As twilight bloomed on the north-eastern horizon, having seen nothing of the armoured division, Clarke turned back toward England on a course that would take him over an anti-aircraft position. Flying at “zero feet” he fired a short strafing burst at the emplacement without enough time to record his hits and proceeded out over the channel. In the distance, coming off the English coast he spotted a speck that rapidly grew into a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Both aircraft streaked past one another without firing a shot and F/L Clarke continued on to Gatwick in the belief that they were both simply glad to be making it back in one piece.38  He would not receive so happy a reception on his next sortie later that morning.

Originally scheduled for only one sortie over Dieppe, Clarke and Hills accepted responsibility for another in the late morning during a particularly chaotic moment in the squadron when the scheduled flight crew chose to stand down. Without the cover of night, it was particularly important that the relationship between the observer and his covering “weaver” be maintained at all points during the mission. Observing radio silence according to the standing orders, they had no way of knowing that Clarke’s Radio/Telephone had failed him once again. As they crossed the channel, it became readily apparent from the crowded sky that they had become part of the greatest air battle yet fought over Europe.39  Nearing the French coast west of Dieppe, Hills spotted a flight of four Focke-Wulf Fw 190s at about 1,500 feet, on a course that would take them directly over the two Mustangs as they crossed the coast. Hills broke silence and called twice, the second time after F/L Clarke had turned left toward the Amiens Road but directly under the Germans, giving them an ideal attack advantage.

Realizing that Clarkes radio had “packed it in” and that he would have to take extraordinary action, Hills swung wide to his leader’s left:

“This put me right over town dusting the chimney tops. I believe the 190s had lost sight of me as I had stayed under them. My plan was to cut off the lead Focke-Wulf before he could open fire on Freddy. My timing all went to pot when a crashing Spitfire forced me into a sharp left turn to avoid a collision. That gave the Focke-Wulf pilot time to get to firing position and he hit Freddy’s Mustang with his first burst. . . . Glycol was streaming from the radiator but there was no fire. I was able to get a long shot at the leader but had to break hard right as the number two man was having a go at me. He missed and made a big mistake sliding by my left side. It was an easy shot and I hit him hard. . . . I knew that he was a goner. . . “40

Clarke was oblivious to the action that was unfolding above his head until the first shells slammed into the oil cooler of his aircraft’s Allison engine:

“The next thing I know is there is all Hell and corruption going by. . . . I’d been hit. . . . The radiator was shot up, my instruments on either side of me were gone. The armour plating saved me. So I jettisoned the hood hoping that it hadn’t been jammed with the shots, and it wasn’t. And I thought, `They’re right, it’s nice–not windy in here at all.’. . .”

Instinctively he had pulled his aircraft into a hard climbing right hand turn:

“I got about 800 feet. That’s all she’d get.”

Without his radiator he knew that it was only a matter of time before the engine seized completely. Although the pilots had been offered the inland racetrack as a potential crash-landing site, he had no intentions of risking capture, and preferred instead to take his chances in the channel. He would never have made it had it not been for the timely return of Hills to the scene of his leader’s obvious distress. Assuming the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 now tailing the stricken Mustang was hoping for the capture of an intact Mustang, Hills saw him begin to slide in behind for the kill to stop Clarke short of the channel.

“I had to try to stop him so I gave a short high deflection burst at him. I was hoping to get his attention and it worked. He broke hard left into my attack.”41

As Hills attempted to “mix it” with the German, proving that the Mustang could at least out-turn the Focke-Wolfe, Clarke continued in his struggle to reach the water. It was a perilous moment, considering that no one had been known to “ditch” a Mustang and survive, principally because the large air scoop under the belly acted to direct the nose of the aircraft immediately toward the bottom. This did not happen in Clarke’s case, although It is still unknown as to exactly what happened in the last seconds of the crash landing. Clarke’s memory has survived only to include the moment above the water at 10 feet, his airspeed indicator reading 90 knots, and then the moment when he woke up in the bottom of a landing craft:

“I limped out to the water. Just as I crossed the coast that prop . . . seized. . .solid. . . . There I am down wind, across the trough. . . . Everything’s ag’in ya. Using my trim to keep my tail down, the last thing I remember is about 90 knots on the clock, trying to get that tail down. I wanted the tail to hit first to kill the speed before she flopped in, because it would just go in if you hit the air scoop. The next thing I remember I came to in a landing craft. . . . I hit the gun site I think. The perspex was coming out of my system until ten or fifteen years ago [forty years later]. They say a young army guy hit the water with his arms going and got me out of the aircraft. I would give anything to have known who he was.”

With other wounded soldiers from the raid, Clarke was transferred to the Destroyer HMS Calpe which was itself under extremely heavy attack through the late morning and early afternoon while they tried to retrieve those whom they could save. After being treated for the wound to his head, he finally returned to Purely near Croydon where he and Holly were billeted in a requisitioned house. Hills recounted:

“About five the next morning, my door burst open. I was grabbed in a bear hug by what smelled like a huge clump of seaweed. It was Freddy Clarke, rescued by the Amphibious forces as I had told the squadron on my return from the mission. His head sported a huge bandage covering the severe cuts he had received in the ditching. We had been warned that ditching a Mustang could be hazardous to your health.”42

Despite the concussion and the fractured skull, Fred was flying operationally within weeks of his adventure during the battle of Dieppe. Ultimately, Fred’s flying career was about to suffer a fatal blow. In the spring of 1943, some of his fellow pilots approached the Commanding Officer with the suggestion that he should do a check-out flight with Clarke because they had noticed some anomalies in his flight behaviour. During their flight, C/O Roy Begg realized that Fred was passing out at the controls of his aircraft, sealing his fate as a pilot. Upon landing, Begg grounded Fred for the remainder of the war. It was an unwelcome recognition of the actual injuries that Fred had suffered at Dieppe. Happily, he was able to remain with the squadron and became one of the officers in charge of flight “operations” for the rest of their time in England and then in France and Holland after the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

Below is an interview with Fred Clarke and his wing-man Hollis Hills. The interview explores their story of the Dieppe raid on 19th August 1942, engagement with Focke-Wulf 190’s and decisions to bail out or head home. If you listen carefully you will be able to pick out Fred’s Bajan roots mixed in with his Canadian accent.

CBC 10-10 The Homestretch Jeff Collins interview of Fred Clarke and his wing-man Hollis Hills 50 years after the Canadian raid on Dieppe on 18th August 1992.

Further details of that mission over Dieppe is covered in articles in the March/April 2019 edition of “FlightLines,” the magazine of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum: Mustangs at Dieppe – Hollis Hills Remembers and 414 Squadron and the Dieppe raid and Charles Herbert “Smokey” Stover.

Fred healed well enough over the three months after his crash to marry his English sweetheart, Helen Hope on 7th November 1942, who he had met in a Croydon pub close to where 414 squadron was based. Tragically, his best friend and original “best man,” Cliff Horncastle died at their aerodrome only days before the wedding. After take-off, Horncastle’s Mustang caught fire. He was able to land but Clarke and the squadron watched helplessly as the Mustang burned while Horncastle could not escape the cockpit. Although Fred’s sons never knew Horncastle, he was always “Uncle Cliff” to them. Fred’s son, Christopher born in England in October 1943, middle name is “Clifford” in memory of his best friend F/O Clifford Leonard Horncastle.

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF

Best Friends: Cliff Horncastle and Fred Clarke. Cliff and Fred met at the flight training school at Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, in late 1939/40. They became best friends and were both posted to RCAF 400 then to 414 Squadron. Fred had asked Cliff to be his best man at his wedding and he accepted. Cliff was killed in a fiery crash on take-off at RAF Tangmere (near Chichester, West Sussex) on 3rd November 1942, just 4 days before the wedding was to take place.

Having followed his squadron through Europe during the last two years of the war, Fred returned to Canada with no intention of leaving the far RCAF behind. In 1949 he joined the Air Force reserve along with a number of his fellow 414 Squadron colleagues, and was part of 403 and then 2403 Squadron, headquartered in Calgary. In the mid-fifties, promoted to Squadron Leader, he became the Commanding Officer of 2403 Squadron: “A radar unit charged with the control of Calgary’s skies, and the guiding of interceptor aircraft onto unidentified aircraft.”

In 1957 Fred was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration (C.D.), for his many years of dedication to the RCAF. His last honour, and one he treasured, was his promotion to Acting/Wing Commander over the Alberta Air Cadet Command. Fred’s time with the Airforce Reserve came to an end in the 1960s, as he dedicated the rest of his working life to raising his family and caring for his invalid wife, Helen, who had contracted Polio during the terrible 1953 Polio epidemic in Canada.

A consummate salesman, Fred spent his post-war working life in sales for three successive liquor companies: Alberta Distillers, Seagram’s, and McGuinness Distillery.

Fred’s love for his homeland, Barbados, never wavered. By 1960 the family interest in their sugar plantation at Coverley called for the sale of the property. As a surviving grandson, Fred received a large enough proportion of the sale to consider establishing himself in the hospitality/tourism industry in Barbados.

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
Barbados Nightclub – Club Morgan Brochure from 1952.

Fred’s first venture to invest in a hotel on the west coast fell through and he followed up by purchasing the Club Morgan Nightclub at its previous inland location and installing an American friend from the Calgary hospitality industry to manage it. Unfortunately, after a hugely successful New Years Eve that grossed thousands of dollars, a couple of months later the “friend” bought himself and his family return tickets to Los Angeles and then cashed in the return portion never to be heard from again. In his time at Club Morgan the manager had paid very few bills and pocketed most of the receipts. This left Fred bankrupt, but for the honour of the Clarke name on the island Fred refused to file for bankruptcy. Instead, on his salesman salary and commissions, Fred patiently took fourteen years to pay off all the debts he had been saddled with. It broke Fred’s heart. The Club was to have been Fred’s ticket back to life in Barbados where he believed the healing powers of the Caribbean Sea would have been so beneficial to his invalid wife, Helen.

Fred did take his family to Barbados for an occasional holiday and as a teenager Ian joined him and Helen there in 1960. It was then that Ian, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather, Dr. Frederick Clarence Clarke, was identified by the “pro” at Rockley Golf Course as “you must be Clarence’s boy.” It was a huge compliment even if the generation was a little mixed up and amazing in its own way, since Clarence had been dead for nearly twenty years by that time. Ian claims that as soon as he stepped off the aircraft with his dad at the Grantley Adams Airport, Fred immediately fell into Barbadian patois, and Ian could barely understand him for the next two weeks.

In 1980 Fred gathered more of the family for one last time on the island. With Chris and Ian and those of their families who could make the trip, it was a huge and nostalgic celebration of the Clarkes on Barbados. It is safe to say that when they could afford a tropical get-away, the Clarkes still choose Barbados above all else, although it is not the same without Fred and Helen.

In the mid 1980s Fred retired from his sales position with McGuiness Distillers and pursued his favourite hobby of “rock collecting” with great vigour, polishing his special finds to gem-like quality. From the car or her wheelchair, Helen would study the ground for her own rock collection, happy to be with Fred wherever they travelled into the Alberta Badlands, the British Columbia interior, or the southwestern States. In failing health both Fred and Helen found peace and comfort in their retirement community, eventually ending their days in a Calgary seniors care home.

Fred was gifted with eight grandchildren, four granddaughters and four grandsons, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. They include a couple of lawyers, an Everest summiteer, a teacher, a political scientist, an ER nurse, a dedicated mum, and a film script writer. Fred was inordinately fond and proud of all his grandchildren and they loved him dearly.

On 23rd May 2005, Fred passed away from an unfortunate hospital-induced pneumonia. Helen, who always believed she would leave Fred first, passed away on 7th February 2007 also of pneumonia in the same hospital, having spent the year and half with Fred’s memory so vivid in her mind that she never felt alone.

F/L Fred Clarke RCAF
Fred Clarke and Helen Clarke grave marker. (Courtesy of Milou – FindAGrave)


Use of “Ibid.” (the abbreviation for “ibidem”, meaning “in the same place”) refers to the work cited in the preceding footnote or to the preceding work within the same footnote.

  1. Interview with Squadron Leader F. E. Clarke, RCAF, Ret., Calgary, February 20, 1991. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., S/L Clarke recounts the difficulty that the seemingly interminable wait for a response from the air force to their application created: “There I was, working at the wheat pool, not really getting interested in anything too much, and everybody saying `Hey Ace, when are you going to get into the air force?’ It was all you needed.” ↩︎
  3. R.C.A.F.–R. 188, “Royal Canadian Air Force Certificate of Service, Issued to Officers,” to Flight Lieutenant Frederick Edsall Clarke, July 4, 1945. ↩︎
  4. Frederick E. Clarke, “Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book,” R.C.A.F. Form R-95, entry preceding July 25, 1940. “There were two classes in Lethbridge and then they moved to High River because it was too windy in Lethbridge.” Interview with F. E. Clarke, February 20, 1991. ↩︎
  5. Interview with Frederick E. Clarke, Squadron Leader, RCAF, Ret., February 20, 1991. The “seventeen civilian flying clubs then in Canada” were called upon to provide elementary instruction but when the newly licensed pilots arrived in Lethbridge, the level of instruction at Number Five School of Flight Training seemed little more advanced than the courses they had just completed at the Renfrew Aerodrome. “Actually having flown, I had my license, they didn’t give us any special treatment. You started out as though you had never been in an aircraft before. . . . They put you through the regular Air Force issue avenue of training.” ↩︎
  6. Samuel Kostenuk and John Griffin, RCAF Squadron Histories and Aircraft, 1924-1968, (Toronto: Samuel Stevens Hakkert and Company, 1977), pp. 18-19. Kostenuk and Griffin point out that in the year before the outbreak of the war the RCAF had turned out only 45 pilots despite an official strength of 4,061 “officers and aircrew.” The British Commonwealth Air Training Programme, on the other hand, called for the administration of 40,000 “trained personnel” and the training of 20,000 aircrew plus their groundcrew support each year that the BCATP remained in effect. As for the cost of supplying weather canopies from a government that had always been parsimonious about air force expenditures, a relatively urgent training schedule had been established in order to equip the RCAF, the other Dominion air forces and the RAF with combat-ready pilots. The weather was not going to disrupt that schedule, careless recruitment officers notwithstanding. ↩︎
  7. Interview with F. E. Clarke, May 9, 1991. Neither fighters nor army cooperation were Clarke’s first choice. Because of the commercial viability of multi-engine training and the popularity of flying boats as the aircraft of choice in the airline industry, he had hoped for a coastal command posting. ↩︎
  8. A little more than a month after the outbreak of World War I, the Minister of Militia authorized the formation of a “Canadian Aviation Corps.” The CAC comprised two officers and one mechanic, none of whom were qualified to fly the Burgess-Dunne biplane or any other aircraft. Unfortunately, when the Burgess-Dunne disintegrated in the damp of Salisbury Plain in England, the CAC vanished along with it. See: Kostenuk and Griffin, RCAF, p. 1. Until 1918 Canadian pilots served with the Royal Flying Corps, an army-oriented air force, which toward the end of the war was finally designated as the Royal Air Force, still strategically tied to ground operations, but tactically independent as a result of the combat with the German air corps. Canadian Air Force (CAF) organization in the last months of the war proceeded rather sporadically, and it was not until a week after the Armistice had been signed in November that Numbers 1 and 2 squadrons were formed. Then, in June 1919 they received orders to disband and were succeeded by the Canadian Air Force Packing Section, created to crate the airplanes and equipment for shipment back to Canada. The CAF was re-established back in Canada in 1920, but it had no permanent, operational existence. ↩︎
  9. This time, an operational squadron (Number 2) was located in Alberta at High River some thirty miles south of Calgary. The High River Squadron survived only two years when another reorganization reduced the RCAF to three bases, one each in Ottawa, Camp Borden, and Vancouver. ↩︎
  10. Kostenuk and Griffin, RCAF, p. 17. ↩︎
  11. Christopher Shores, History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, (Toronto: Royce Publications, 1984), p. 28. No. 2 had been preceded by No. 10 (Army Co-operation) Squadron (Auxiliary) at Toronto in October 1932, becoming the “City of Toronto” Squadron in 1935. Similar Army Co-operation squadrons appeared in the Auxiliary in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver at the same time. Then in the militarization period, No. 10 became 110 Squadron. Mobilized on the day war was declared and brought into the Active Service, it was ultimately assigned to overseas duty with the Canadian First Division in France and Belgium. Three squadrons made up this first contingent of RCAF pilots and groundcrew. Two of them were Army Co-operation squadrons flying Westland Lysanders. ↩︎
  12. Kostenuk and Griffin, RCAF, p. 18. ↩︎
  13. See: Frederick E. Clarke, “Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book,” R.C.A.F. Form R-95, entries for October 8, 1940 to November 26, 1940. ↩︎
  14. See: Frederick E. Clarke, “Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book,” R.C.A.F. Form R-95, entries for December 5, 1940 to January 20, 1941. ↩︎
  15. Kostenuk and Griffin, R.C.A.F., p. 40. ↩︎
  16. Despite his eccentricities, Campbell-Voullaire was well respected for his skills and his experience. Decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and a Distinguished Flying Cross for his participation in the Battle of France as an army cooperation pilot, he was eminently qualified to instruct the young Canadians. ↩︎
  17. Interview with Frederick E. Clarke, Acting Wing Commander, Royal Canadian Auxiliary Air Force (RCAAF), Ret., March , 1991. The incident never made it into Clarke’s log book. ↩︎
  18. The Historical Section of the Royal Canadian Air Force, The R.C.A.F. Overseas: the First Four Years, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 6. ↩︎
  19. Kostenuk and Griffin, RCAF, p. 80. ↩︎
  20. See: Frederick E. Clarke, “Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book,” R.C.A.F. Form R-95, entries for August 24, 1941 ff. ↩︎
  21. The Tomahawk was a close cousin of Curtiss’s more famous Kittyhawk, the P40 made famous by General Charles Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” in China. It was a relatively powerful single seat fighter, fitted with an oil cooled, in-line, Allison engine, capable of 370 knots. Like the North American P-51 Mustang 1A that followed it, the Tomahawk was developed especially for the Royal Air Force, to RAF specifications. It became a particular favourite of pilots like Fred Clarke who were more than six feet tall, primarily because of its extraordinarily spacious cockpit. The British Purchasing Commission had seen the Tomahawk’s prototype, the Curtiss P40 Hawk and orders for the RAF version began in 1940 bringing 1740 aircraft across to Britain despite the American neutrality embargo. The Tomahawk’s Allison was particularly suited to low-level tactical reconnaissance and attack, but the engine was not supercharged and did not function well at altitude. This problem plagued the P-51 Mustang 1A with a similar Allison, but the streamlined design of the Mustang made it a superior aircraft even for low-level work by minimizing the loss of efficiency due to drag. See: William Newby Grant, “P-51 Mustang,” in Classic Aircraft of World War II, (Greenwich, Ct.: Bison Books, 1981), pp. 272-73. ↩︎
  22. See in particular: F. E. Clarke, Log Book, for May 19, 25 and 31, 1941. ↩︎
  23. See in particular: F. E. Clarke, Log Book, for July 4 and 7, 1941. ↩︎
  24. Ibid, July 24, 1941. ↩︎
  25. Kostenuk and Griffin, R.C.A.F., pp. 80 and 104. ↩︎
  26. See: F. E. Clarke, Log Book, for May and July, 1943. ↩︎
  27. See: F. E. Clarke, Log Book, for August 26 and 27, 1941. ↩︎
  28. Ibid., August 1941. The note about “put[ting] the prop in on landing” occurs on September 19. ↩︎
  29. Kostenuk and Griffin, R.C.A.F., p. 104. ↩︎
  30. See: F. E. Clarke, Log Book, for November and December, 1941. The reference to the Tiger Moth appears on December 12th. On Boxing Day he carried out more low flying practice in a Miles Magister, but finished off the month with two and a half hours of low flying, fighter tactics, formation and cloud flying as well as R/T work in a Tomahawk. “I remember the first time I tried to fly a Tiger Moth in England after I had been flying the fighters, and I couldn’t get it back down on the ground. I couldn’t fly it slowly enough to land it at first. I floated clear across Croydon aerodrome–had to go around and readjust my sights and come back in.” Interview with F. E. Clarke, February 20, 1991. ↩︎
  31. The two army cooperation squadrons had only been assigned squadron identification numbers in October of 1941. No. 400 Squadron used the SP series while 414 was assigned RU. ↩︎
  32. F. E. Clarke, Pilot’s Log, April 14, 1942. Fred Clarke recounts the story that when his oil pressure disappeared he waved off his wing man, Stuart “Chappy” Chapman, who simply continued to follow him down assuming that they were continuing with low level formation practice. Only when he saw the propeller of RU A’s propeller quit and begin to scrape through the earth did he realize that practice was over. Clarke meanwhile clambered out of his aircraft to be greeted by a little boy who came running across the field to ask, “Is it true that you’ve had an engine failure, and had to do a forced landing in this field?” “Oh yes,” came the response through paroxysms of laughter. ↩︎
  33. Ibid, May 1 to May 30, 1942. ↩︎
  34. See Kostenuk and Griffin, R.C.A.F., p. 104; and F. E. Clarke, “Log Book,” June 30, 1942. ↩︎
  35. The allied air forces became intimately familiar with the capabilities of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 when a Luftwaffe pilot mistakenly landed at the RAF aerodrome at Pembrey. It confirmed their worst fears. On the 9th of August the report issued by the RAF on the captured aircraft emphasized its “exceptional flying characteristics,” the superlative search view from its well protected cockpit, and its outstanding aileron controls. It surpassed the Spitfire V in every respect, . . . only the new Spitfire IX really compared favourably.” As cited in: John P. Campbell, “Air Operations and the Dieppe Raid,” Aerospace Historian, (Spring, March 1976), p. 10. ↩︎
  36. F. E. Clarke, “Log Book,” July and August, 1942. See in particular the entries for July 30 and for August 6. ↩︎
  37. Hollis F. Hills, “Mustangs at Dieppe,” unpublished manuscript, (np, nd), p. 1. ↩︎
  38. Interview with F. E. Clarke, March , 1991. ↩︎
  39. “Starting at sea level and going all the way up to contrail level, the sky was full of Fighters in one massive dogfight. I was busy but in hurried glances counted eleven parachutes at one time.” Hollis F. Hills, “Mustangs at Dieppe,” p. 2. ↩︎
  40. Hollis F. Hills, “Mustangs at Dieppe,” p. 3. ↩︎
  41. Ibid. ↩︎
  42. Ibid, p. 4 ↩︎

Response to “F/L Fredrick Edsall Clarke RCAF 414 Army Cooperation Squadron 1917 – 2005”

  1. Sean Chandler

    Wow – Bajans have been moving to Calgary for a long time!
    We moved to Calgary in 2014.

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