Robbie Clarke: Britain's First Black Pilot

On 4 August 1914, Britain and her Empire went to war with Germany. At first, the British Armed Forces maintained a ‘colour bar’ and very few African-Caribbean or Asian volunteers were accepted into the ranks. Officer commissions were also denied to anyone not ‘of pure European descent’. As the forces expanded, and casualties rose, this restriction was relaxed, and an unknown number of Black personnel joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the Royal Naval Air Service and, from 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force. Britain’s first Black pilot was Sergeant William Clarke, and 26 April 2017 sees the centenary of him being awarded his ‘wings’.

William Robinson Clarke, circa 1914


William Robinson Clarke was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 4 October 1895. After receiving a decent education, ‘Robbie’, as he was known to his friends, learned how to maintain motor cars and became one of the first men on the island to drive. Clarke was employed as a chauffeur, but in 1915 he decided to travel to Britain to play his part in the war, paying his own passage to come. The obvious question is ‘why?’ Why would an intelligent young man, with a respectable job, travel thousands of miles at his own expense to fight for the country that had enslaved his ancestors?

A total of 15,600 Black volunteers joined the British West Indies Regiment, and like young men all over the Empire, some enlisted for economic or personal reasons or to seek adventure. There were those, however, that had a deeper understanding of what was at stake. Black people were only too aware of the past, but seeing beyond the horrors of slavery and the injustices of colonialism, many still considered Britain the ‘mother country’ and strongly identified with her culture, institutions and ideals. For them, the war was being fought to defend Christian civilisation and they would do what they could to help. They would also show that as loyal subjects of His Majesty they deserved better treatment and perhaps even independence from British rule. This sentiment was forcefully expressed by Jamaican Sydney Moxsy in his poem ‘The Motherland’s Call’.

“Strike, Brothers, Strike! a blow for England’s sake,

Brave hearts that blow shall even stronger make,

When England calls what British heart would shirk?

She only calls in need for Empire’s work.

Colonial hearts in loyalty must stir,

Face danger, death face all for sake of her.

They rush to aid her and for England stand,

No distance chills the love for Motherland”. [1]

William Clarke arrived in Britain and, on 26 July 1915, joined the Royal Flying Corps. At first, Clarke served as an air mechanic, but on 18 October, he was posted to France as a driver with an unidentified observation balloon company. In a letter to his mother, written in early 1917, Clarke described the company’s work directing artillery fire but added the balloons “can’t do anything unless it’s a clear day, which is very rare now as its still winter”. He enclosed a small piece of green balloon fabric as a keepsake and mentioned that he would like to transfer to another squadron to serve alongside a friend.

Sgt Clarke's RAeC photograph, 26 April 1917 (By kind permission of the Royal Aero Club Trust)


Clarke’s real ambition was to fly, and in December 1916, he was accepted to undergo pilot training in England. Having completed the course, Robbie qualified on 26 April 1917, receiving Royal Aero Club (RAeC) Aviators’ Certificate number 4837. Clarke’s RAeC photograph is held in the RAF Museum’s Archive as is an accompanying index card that describes his nationality as ‘British’.

Sgt Clarke's RAeC Index Card (By kind permission of the Royal Aero Club Trust)


Promoted to sergeant, on 29 May 1917 Clarke returned to the continent and joined the strength of No. 4 Squadron RFC at Abeele in Belgium. At this time 4 Squadron was engaged on artillery observation and reconnaissance operations and was equipped with two-seat Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8s. Nicknamed the ‘Harry Tate’ after a music hall comedian of the day, the R.E.8 was from 1917 the most commonly used British reconnaissance aircraft. A full-size replica R.E.8, ‘A3930’, is on display in the RAF Museum’s award-winning ‘First World War in the Air’ exhibition in London.

RAF Museum R.E.8 replica 'A3930'


Sergeant Clarke began flying R.E.8s over the Western Front just before the opening of the Battle of Messines in June 1917.

Sgt Clarke and his R.E.8, circa June 1917

Sgt Clarke and his R.E.8, circa June 1917


On the morning of 28 July, Clarke and his observer, Second Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, were conducting a photographic mission aboard R.E.8 A4691 when they were attacked by enemy fighters. Robbie described the action in another letter to his mother:

“I was doing some photographs a few miles the other side when about five Hun scouts came down upon me, and before I could get away, I got a bullet through the spine. I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly any more … My observer escaped without any injury.”

Sergeant Clarke was evacuated to Britain and remained in hospital at Lichfield in Staffordshire until November 1917. Happily, he recovered from his wounds and returned to duty, at first with an RFC Reserve Depot and then as a mechanic with No. 254 Squadron based at RAF Prawle Point in Devon. A portrait photograph taken after the Armistice clearly shows the pain etched into his face. Clarke was officially discharged on 24 August 1919, and given a one-off payment of £60; a considerable amount in those days. In addition to his campaign medals, the young Jamaican also received the Silver War Badge issued to those honourably released from military service due to wounds or sickness. [2]

Sgt Clarke, March 1919


Robbie Clarke returned to Jamaica to work in the building trade. He was an active veteran and was eventually appointed Life President of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association. In common with so many of those who have served ‘at the sharp end’, he chose not to talk about his experiences. William Robinson Clarke, the first Black pilot to fly for Britain, died in April 1981 and is interred at the Military Cemetery at Up Park Camp, Kingston.

When, in 2013, the RAF Museum and Black Cultural Archives were creating the exhibition ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’, historian Mark Johnson was particularly supportive. Mark is himself of Jamaican heritage and in the 1980s he served as an officer in the Jamaica Defence Force. Interestingly, he had never heard of William Clarke. I told him that we had only discovered him by chance when one Monday morning a volunteer named Andrew Dawrant opened an RAeC album of aviator’s photographs and saw a Black face. It was as fortuitous as that and it taught us a lesson: if Robbie Clarke was there then there might be other African-Caribbean people in our archive, and in archives all around the world, who have yet to be discovered.

We are proud to say that ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ has recently travelled to the Caribbean at the invitation of RAFA Jamaica. The exhibition will be displayed at the Jamaica Defence Force Museum in June 2017 and it is hoped that it will serve to raise awareness of the inspirational story of the RAF’s African-Caribbean personnel, commemorating and celebrating their contribution to the defence of Britain and the defence of freedom over time.

Sgt William Robinson Clarke, Britain's first Black pilot, circa June 1917


References:

[1] Richard Smith, Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of National Consciousness (Manchester University Press, 2004), pp.42-43.

[2] Paul Reed, Great War Lives: A Guide for Family Historians (Pen & Sword, 2010), Chapter Eleven.

Stephen Bourne, Black Poppies - Britain's Black Community and the Great War (The History Press, 2014), Chapter Ten.

Peter Devitt: Assistant Curator
About the Author

Peter Devitt: Assistant Curator

Peter Devitt is an Assistant Curator at the Royal Air Force Museum and has studied ethnic diversity in Britain’s flying services while working closely with the African-Caribbean, Asian and Polish communities. In 2013, he curated ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force, the award-winning exhibition produced by the RAF Museum in partnership with Black Cultural Archives.

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