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Doomed RCAF bomber pilot and his six crewmen averaged just 21 years of age

German defences hit Halifax bomber on return trip from night-time raid over Stuttgart

Editor's note: Citizen reporter Ted Clarke, while researching a story about his uncle Ted, a bomber pilot during the Second World War, learned that during the war in Europe it was not uncommon to give teenaged pilots like his uncle the task of flying dangerous missions with increasing low odds of survival that often ended tragically for those young flight crews. Stories like these give us an appreciation for the sacrifices our armed forces have made to give us our freedom

Within months of earning his wings in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the height of the Second World War, 19-year-old Samuel Edward (Ted) Clarke was handed the massive responsibility of piloting a bomber.

Not only did his own life depend on the flying skills he’d acquired over the past year but so did the lives of six other airmen performing their duties in their four-engine LW242 Halifax Mk II.

Known as the workhorse of the RAF Bomber Command, the Halifax was the Cinderella sister to the better-known Lancaster. Of the 39,000 bombing raids the Royal Canadian Air Force flew, at least 29,000 were Halifax missions. Weighing 60,000 pounds, with a bomb carrying capacity of 13,000 pounds, it flew 82,773 missions and dropped 224,207 tons of bombs. 

Powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the Handley Page (Mk II) Halifax Clarke flew was underpowered and could not reach high altitudes, limited to a ceiling of 22,000 feet, a top speed of 282 miles per hour and a range of 2,350 miles.

Considered death traps until the Mk III version was introduced early in 1944, they were dangerous to fly because they were heavy and had too much drag, largely caused by the placement and design of the gun turrets.

They were vulnerable to fighter plane attacks and the design flaws limited them to night-time raids only. Of the 10,659 Canadians killed in action serving on bomber command, 7,461 were flying in Halifax bombers. There were 6,178 built by the Allies and 1,833 of those planes were lost during the war. 

On Jan. 18, 1943, Clarke was posted to RCAF No. 419 Moose Squadron, based at RAF Middleton, St. George, Durham, England - one of the most decorated RCAF units in the war, participating in 342 bombing missions, 53 mining operations and three leaflet flights until April 25, 1945. 

Moose Squadron lost 129 aircraft and the war’s toll was especially deadly from January 1943-March 1944. During that 15-month period, they flew more than 200 sorties, lost 59 aircraft and 415 airmen were either killed or captured. The average crew survival rate was two to three months or 20 missions. A late-1942 study determined bomber pilots had a 43 per cent chance of surviving their first operational tour and only an 18.5 per cent of completing a second tour. Survival rates improved significantly when the Halifax was re-equipped with more powerful Bristol Hercules engines, starting in November 1943, and by 1944 they were proving their superiority over German fighter aircraft. But those improvements came too late for Clarke and his crew.

Born on Oct. 5, 1923, in one of his last letters sent to his family in Parkside, Sask., Clarke wrote about his war experiences and the inherent dangers of a bomber pilot’s life.

“We were night flying again last night and it looks an awful lot like I will spend my 20th birthday up there,” he said. “Strange as it may seem, by adding just this one year to my age I seem at least four years older because when one passes the ‘teen’ age, there is nothing but worry and anxiety.”

Promoted to flight sergeant in June 1943, Clarke fulfilled his second-pilot obligations on Nov. 4 and had completed one operational mission as lead pilot with his new crew when they received what would be their final call of duty. Assigned to Clarke’s plane was Flight Sgt. John Vinton Dillon of Tecumseh, Ont., the 25-year-old co-pilot and oldest of the seven airmen. Also on board was air gunner Everett Williams Chalk of Brantford, Ont., 20; air gunner James Lyall Truax of Maxwell, Ont., 20; navigator Lloyd Pierson Webster of Roland, Man., 22; wireless operator James Robert Henderson of Tweedmouth Berwick on Tyne, England, 20; flight engineer Jack Dandridge Whittingham of Shipley, England, 19. The average age of the crew was 21

Bombing attacks on major cities in Germany intensified in early October 1943 and for the next seven months more than 100 flight crews from 419 Squadron were dispatched to bomb German cities. On each raid, a pathfinder force would fly in at lower altitudes minutes ahead of the main fleet to identify the targets, their locations indicated by dropped coloured flares. The German defences on the ground used radar-controlled searchlights bright enough to spot aircraft flying as high as 30,000 feet and temporarily blind flight crews, who went into spiralling dives to try to evade the lights. 

On Nov. 26, 1943, 419 Squadron received orders to attack a diversionary target in Stuttgart, while a larger bombing force went to Berlin. The sky was partially cloudy that night and target markers were used but the Germans deployed dummy markers of the same colour, which tricked some of the bombing crews and diminished the effect of the raid. Five of the 178 bombers sent to Stuttgart, including Clarke’s, did not return.

Not long after dropping their load of 18 500-pound bombs, Clarke and his crewmates were flying over the German town of St. Ingbert, 200 kilometres northwest of Stuttgart, when they drew flak, either from the Luftwaffe fighter planes or anti-aircraft guns on the ground, and their Halifax suffered catastrophic damage.

It’s impossible to imagine the terror they experienced as their plane plummeted to the ground, whether the men inside were able to strap their parachutes on their backs to try for the exits before they crashed in a residential field. There were no survivors.

The bodies of the seven Moosemen were originally buried in St. Ingbert on Nov. 30, without military honours, a practice for enemy soldiers that had recently been banned by the Nazi party. After the war they were moved to Rhineberg War Cemetery near Dusseldorf where they remain.