RAF veteran held in Great Escape war camp proud of centenary

An RAF veteran who was shot down and imprisoned in the Great Escape prisoner of war camp has said he never imagined he would see the centenary of the service.

RAF veteran Air Commodore Charles Clarke
RAF veteran Air Commodore Charles Clarke

Air Commodore Charles Clarke joined the RAF at the age of 17, flying in Lancasters as a bomb aimer in 619 squadron during the Second World War.

It was during a sortie in early 1944 that his aircraft was hit by enemy fire, forcing him to parachute out of the plane where he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Stalag Luft III.

The infamous camp in Poland was where Allied PoWs constructed tunnels and attempted to make a daring bid for freedom in March 1944 – known as the Great Escape.

But it was in January 1945 that Air Cdre Clarke was evacuated from the prison as Allied forces advanced and ordered on the long march with other PoWs by the Nazis before being rescued.

On Sunday as the RAF marks 100 years since its creation, Air Cdre Clarke will pass a specially designed baton to one of the youngest RAF members, sending it on a 100-day tour.

The 94-year-old from London said ahead of the event: “The glamour of the RAF was the main attraction to me as a young boy.

“I was first taken for a flight when I was about eight years old, and of course the Battle of Britain was happening just before I joined.

“Even though I was young, I never regretted my decision to join, and the RAF has always been very good to me.

“I never expected this anniversary to take place in my lifetime, but I am full of admiration for the current generation coming through - they are such a wonderful crowd.”

The baton relay will start outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London before visiting every region in the UK as well as overseas locations such as the Falkland Islands and Afghanistan.

With 20 RAF sports associations involved in the relay, the baton will also be carried by a variety of RAF equipment including aircraft and vehicles before it returns to London on 10 July.

The RAF 100 baton itself is made out of brass, oak and aluminum to symbolise aircraft construction through the years and was designed and manufactured by RAF apprentices.

In the shape of the RAF roundel, rings of red, white and blue LED lights will illuminate the baton, and it will also feature the RAF badge.

Air Cdre Clarke is set to pass the baton to Aircraftsman Adam wood based at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire whose grandfather was also in the RAF.

“I’m really proud to have been chosen, as one of the youngest airmen in the RAF, to receive the baton from Air Commodore Charles Clarke,” the 16-year-old from Aylesbury said.

“Having looked on the three services’ websites I was attracted to the RAF, and logistics stood out for me.

“The RAF, with its opportunities for training and qualifications, sports and travel looked just like the lifestyle that would suit me. I am really looking forward to April 1.

“Then it’s drill training and preparing for my graduation on April 13 when my family will be here and I hope all that hard work will have paid off.”