History of War

SURVIVING STALAG LUFT III AN INTERVIEW WITH AIR COMMODORE CHARLES CLARKE OBE

“FOR THOSE WHO WERE HELD CAPTIVE IN STALAG LUFT III, THE ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF BEING A POW WAS A HARD ENDURANCE TEST OF ALMOST CONTINUAL SUFFERING”

Apart from Colditz Castle, no other prisoner-of-war camp of World War II captures the public imagination quite like Stalag Luft III: a vast complex of wooden huts, compounds, barbed wire and guard towers. The camp became most famous for the mass breakout that occurred on 24-25 March 1944 when dozens of Allied POWs escaped through a tunnel. This event later became the stuff of cinematic legend, but for those who were held captive in Stalag Luft III the actual experience of being a POW was a hard endurance test of almost continual suffering.

One of those who survived was Charles Clarke, who was then a teenage pilot officer in RAF 619 Squadron. Now a retired air commodore, Clarke is one of the few men still alive who not only witnessed the ‘Great Escape’ but also survived a little-known but horrendous forced march through central Europe that killed many Allied prisoners of war, known as the ‘Long March’. The following is a gritty endurance story where Hollywood myth collides with the grim but courageous reality.

Joining the RAF

Clarke joined the RAF in 1941 and was a keen recruit. “The war was on and like other schoolboys I was enamoured with the Royal Air Force. I had flown when I was about eight in a De Havilland Dragon Rapide and came across the RAF in about 1937 when I went to a flying display at Hendon. I then volunteered in 1941.”

However, Clarke’s initial enthusiasm was dampened when he went to Oxford for his RAF examination. “We slept overnight in a cinema, and the chap in the bed next to me was a sergeant at the nearby airfield. He was on Wellingtons and told me about how many people they were losing, and it really made my hair stand on end. About a week or two later I saw the documentary film Target For Tonight, and it again showed how RAF losses were higher over Germany. I thought afterwards, ‘Perhaps I’m not doing the right thing.’”

Although he was accepted into the RAF, Clarke’s dawning awareness of the air force’s dangers would prove to be justified. During WWII, 55,573 RAF personnel were killed flying with Bomber Command, which was a death rate of 44.4 per cent. Its prolonged bombing offensive against Nazi Germany was extremely destructive, and Clarke flew in the thick of it.

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