Ron Clarkson will be three weeks short of his 97th birthday when he takes part in Albury’s Anzac Day commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of Anzac. Here he tells DI THOMAS the incredible story of how a young man from South Australia found himself as a gunner in a Halifax plane from Bomber Command, surviving 40 sorties over Europe during World War II.
IT is more than 71 years since Ron Clarkson, DFC, flew his first mission over Europe as an air-gunner in a Halifax bomber named Friday the 13th.
The South Australian-born veteran flew 36 missions in the plane as part of a crew of seven in the Royal Air Force’s 158 Squadron.
He flew another four sorties with other bombers over Berlin, Leipzig and Dunkirk before returning to Australia.
He settled down with his young family in Wodonga in 1954.
So how did the young man from Adelaide, newly married and living in Melbourne in 1943 end up in Britain, at Lissett Air Base, Yorkshire, with a Halifax crew of four British airmen and two others from New Zealand?
Mr Clarkson had enlisted in the Army in South Australia, transferring to Air Force aircrew before he was posted to Sale in Victoria to complete an air gunner’s course.
His overseas posting was to England and he left his bride of just four months, Berny, to join 240 airmen sailing via New Zealand, the Panama Canal and New York to Britain in June 1943. They arrived in September.
From February to August 1944, Ron and the crew in Friday the 13th flew 36 operational sorties during their tour of duty.
The plane that bore the seemingly unlucky skull, crossbones and scythe decals on its nose and an upside-down horseshoe above the door, completed 128 sorties, more than any other Halifax.
Friday the 13th was awarded the Victoria Cross and was put on display in Oxford Street, London after the war.
After it was later rebuilt, it has become an exhibit at the Elvington Museum in Yorkshire, where members of Mr Clarkson’s family have been to see it.
Mr Clarkson said the symbols of bad luck had had the reverse effect for the plane’s crews throughout the war when most similar bomber planes had an average life of just 10 missions.
“We had the same pilot, Cliff Smith, all the way through,” he said.
“I think the good fella upstairs put in a word for us.”
Mr Clarkson makes multiple references to the “man upstairs” looking after the Friday the 13th crew when he talks about their sorties during their six-month tour of duty.
They did few daylight missions but one he refers to, both in his conversation with The Border Mail and in his memoirs, involves the bomber approaching a target and Mr Clarkson, in position as the gunner, noticing another Halifax flying directly above Friday the 13th.
“It was no more than 20 feet away and when the bomb doors of ours were opened, so did his,” he said.
“I knew that when he dropped our bombs that he would drop his, and there I was directly looking up at the row of bombs.
“I was so close I could read the markings on them — there were 25 bombs.
“As soon as the bomb-aimer called out ‘bombs away’, down they came — they seemed to flutter around our plane.
“A bomb takes a few seconds to straighten up before it falls perpendicular.
“I was scared for a few minutes — just kiddin — I was scared out of my bloody wits.
“They fell all around, in between the tail plane and one scraped alongside the fuselage between the engine and my turret.
“It was just as well it wasn’t a delayed-action bomb.
“When we got down, we found a deep scratch running down the fuselage.
“Someone up there must have been looking after us.”
Pilot Cliff Smith’s wife had made each of the seven crew members a large stuffed elephant that became their mascot during their tour of duty.
Mr Clarkson’s elephant is the only one to survive and, with a twinkle in his eye, he quips that it’s “full of cash” when its weight is commented upon.
The elephant is a little worn but it still bears the signatures of all the crew as well as the dates and destinations of each of their sorties over that six months.
Their longest trips were the eight-hour missions over Germany to Berlin but there was one aborted attempt to send them further afield.
“One day we were supposed to go to Russia but, when we were on our way, we were turned back because they realised our tanks would not hold the fuel we would have needed to return,” he said.
Mr Clarkson’s memoirs also tell the story of how the Friday the 13th crew returned home from an eight-hour sortie over Germany on June 6, 1944 — D Day.
“We were nearly home when we found the sky full of planes of every description — anything that could fly was sent up,” he said.
“There were literally hundreds of them — they seemed to fill the sky. We knew it was D Day.”
“The English Channel was just one mass of boats.
“Any boat that would carry soldiers, even yachts were used.
“We got back to base and only had a couple of hours sleep when we were briefed and sent out again.
“We were cautioned to keep an eye out for German jet fighters — as if we wouldn’t be any way.
“The target that night was a town the size of Albury — it was a tank stronghold that was holding up the invasion. It didn’t hold us up for long when 40 bombers finished with it.”
Just before Mr Clarkson was posted to 158 Squadron at the end of 1943 came the news that he had become a father with Berny, giving birth to their first son, Terry, on November 1, in Melbourne.
In his memoirs, he describes that November winter in Yorkshire as “the loneliest time of my life — my arms used to ache just to feel Berny and to hold our son”.
One of his diary entries from June 2, 1944, after Friday the 13th and its crew had completed a mission over Trappes in north central France, makes the poignant reference: “This is one of the worst trips I have been on. I saw 12 bombers go down in flames in as many minutes — it was hell.
“I have given up making pals on the squadron. As soon as I get to like some of the boys, they go missing.
“I wonder if I will get through a tour. I have been recommended for a commission.
“I’ve always been true to my darling for she is mine and I am hers. I love her with all my heart and soul. I wish I could see my little boy.”
Mr Clarkson and the Friday the 13th crew did see out their tour and he returned to Australia at the end of 1944, sailing into Sydney Harbour before boarding a train to Melbourne where he met Terry, then aged 15 months, for the first time.
In September 1945, Mr and Mrs Clarkson were invited to Government House in Melbourne where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery during his service with Bomber Command.
The family had settled in Melbourne and another son, Leigh, was born in June 1946 before they moved to Wodonga where Mr Clarkson was a hairdresser at the Bandiana Army Camp.
He later pursued a clerical career at Bandiana after training at the Wodonga Technical College.
He built their home in Wodonga where the Clarksons raised their sons and lived for 50 years before a moving to Lutheran Aged Care’s Dellacourt in West Albury.
Ron and Berny celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary in February 2011, ahead of Mrs Clarkson’s death in November that year.
Ahead of next Saturday’s Anzac Day and commemorations marking 100 years since the landings at Gallipoli, Mr Clarkson’s sons, and their wives, Sue and Marilyn, will support his participation in this year’s Albury Anzac Day march. Several family members including grandchildren and great-grandchildren will also visit for the occasion.
“It’s good to remind the young ones of the sorts of things we went through, to put our experiences on record,” he said.