Battle of Britain: Last of ‘The Few’

Terry Clark, a former air gunner and radar navigator, sitting in a Tucano, named after the Battle of Britain Spitfire 'City of Leeds,' which was bought by the citizens of Leeds.
Terry Clark, a former air gunner and radar navigator, sitting in a Tucano, named after the Battle of Britain Spitfire 'City of Leeds,' which was bought by the citizens of Leeds.
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To mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Chris Bond talks to one of the last remaining survivors.

ON JUNE 18 1940, Winston Churchill gave a rousing speech to the nation in which he proclaimed “... the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

It was the start of summer and Britain stood alone in solitary defiance against the Nazis who hitherto had crushed everything in their path. The battle began in mid-July and over the ensuing couple of months both Fighter Command and Bomber Command were pushed almost to breaking point as they held off the Luftwaffe and saved the country from invasion.

Afterwards, it was Churchill who again found the right words and spoke for a grateful nation when he said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Today, 75 years after this crucial moment in our island’s history the few are an ever dwindling number and in Yorkshire it is believed there is only one.

Sergeant Terry Clark was 21 years old when the Battle of Britain began having been sent to 219 Squadron, a Blenheim fighter unit based at Catterick, in May 1940.

For many people, the Battle of Britain conjures images of dogfights in the skies with daring fighter pilots pitting their wits against the might of the Luftwaffe. But there is another side to the story.

By day the Spitfires and Hurricanes fought the German fighters, but part of Hitler’s assault on our shores was a bombing war that required the total destruction of the RAF, paving the way for Operation Sea Lion - the invasion of Britain.

Some of these raids took place under the cover of darkness and the nightfighters in which Terry flew played a crucial role. As a qualified air gunner he was among those tasked with defending York and the surrounding airfields against night raids by Heinkels and Junkers.

After a few weeks his squadron was moved down to Surrey where they switched from Blenheims to the Bristol Beaufighters, a two-seater nightfighter aircraft. Terry went from being an air gunner to a radar navigator. It was Terry’s job to track enemy aircraft. It was tiring work and one mistake could lead to you being shot out of the sky instead of the enemy. “It was my job to get our aircraft behind the enemy aircraft and as soon as my pilot could see it then it was down to him to shoot them down.”

Nightfighter crews slept during the day and flew during the hours of darkness and in between honed their card playing skills to relieve the boredom until the call came in to scramble.

He says you had to banish any thoughts of dying to the back of your mind. “I didn’t think about the danger and I think it’s wise not to, because if you start thinking about the chance of being killed you might get worried and not do your job properly.”

As well as fighting the enemy flying new aircraft at night brought added risks and in the space of one week at his airfield two planes crash landed killing both sets of pilots and navigators.

But there was little time to mourn the friends and colleagues you lost. “The next time you were off duty and in the pub you would raise a pint to them,” he says.

The risk of nightfighters being shot down was relatively low, unless they ventured across The Channel. “If we were chasing an aircraft the moment we were in enemy territory we were under instruction to drop off and come home, because you didn’t want to get shot down over enemy territory with your radar,” he says.

“There was one occasion when we shot an aircraft down and I suddenly noticed big puffs of smoke around our plane and the pilot said we were being fired at from the ground. I said ‘put the nose down and let’s get out quick.’”

During another encounter they intercepted a couple of German bombers. “There were two of them from a special German bombing squad and we destroyed the first one and saw it crash on the ground. There was a mighty explosion and I remember thinking ‘My God, what was he carrying?’

“We located the second one and my pilot was about to start shooting when all of a sudden the aircraft blew up in front of us.

Bits of the fuselage started peppering us and I just prayed it didn’t hit our propellers.”

They found out later that the bombers were on their way to attack Chatham, home to a key naval station. “We saved a lot of sailors and no doubt the village, which is next door would have been hit, so we probably saved quite a lot of lives that night.”

Now 96, Terry, who lives near York, is still as sharp as a tack and looking back 75 years on is proud of the part he played in the Battle of Britain. But he shakes his head when I suggest he’s a hero in the eyes of many people. “If you want a hero think of the bomber boys because they were going across to Germany not knowing if they were going to come back.”

He still misses his friends who didn’t make it but says that was the price they paid for the freedom we all enjoy today. “We destroyed enemy bombers as fast as we could along with the fighter boys and we managed to keep them at bay. If all of us hadn’t done what we had to do and done it willingly, then you and I would probably be speaking German, because there’s no doubt an invasion was coming,” he says. “But we don’t feel like heroes, we were just doing our job.”