582773 – REGINALD JOHN CLARKE, RAF
A call to the Nelson RSA concerning medals that had been handed to the NZ Police in Richmond, Nelson was recently referred to Medals Reunited New Zealand to try and find the owner. A small clear plastic bag containing war medals had been found at the Richmond recycling station by the loader driver. The driver, Yogi T. told Police he had spotted the bag under a picture frame as he was about to push a pile of rubbish into the pit for destruction. Yogi thought that someone must have accidentally dumped them with rubbish. He was keen to have them returned and so handed the bag in at the local Police Station.
The bag contained a medal brooch bar with two medals attached – 1939/45 War Medal and 1918-62 General Service Medal (GSM) with Clasp: NEAR EAST. Also in the bag were a set of miniature medals for wearing with evening dress, a set of RAF Pilot Wings and a slip of paper with the man’s rank and name – FLT LT R. J. CLARKE R.A.F. The engraving on the edge of the General Service Medal tallied with the name in the bag however there was no evidence of a service number (which was the norm then for medals issued to RAF officers). The 1939/45 War Medal was as issued – un-named as were all WW2 service medals. Without a service number and/or forenames my search for an owner was at a disadvantage from the outset as there are no doubt thousands of RJ Clarkes worldwide.
My immediate thoughts on looking at the bag’s contents were that the medals & wings had probably belonged to either an Englishman or a New Zealander, whom had served in the RAF as a Pilot, possibly lived (or deceased) in New Zealand, or that the medals had belonged to a descendant relative who may have lived locally (may be deceased?). It was also apparent that since the 1939/45 War Medal had been issued on its own (i.e. not accompanied by any of the usual WW2 Stars or the Defence Medal), it had likely been issued towards the end of WW2 – 1945ish, which meant sufficient service to qualify for its issue but less than 6 months at that point. This was an likely indicator of age (young in terms of WW2 service?) and possible employment locations. The Clasp on the General Service Medal – “NEAR EAST” – told me the recipient’s operational service included a period around 1955-56-57 in the Middle East and Mediterranean. I was also aware that the Royal Air Force’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) had been headquartered in Cypress around that time operating from two bases, one for fighters/bombers and the other a transport base.
So, I was probably looking for a young RAF regular, volunteer or reserve pilot of fighter, bomber or transport aircraft; an Englishman or New Zealander who had served in the Middle East around the time of the Suez Crisis (1956) and who possible had returned/emigrated to New Zealand anytime after 1957.
To find the owner I started with UK on-line Archive records to find try and decipher the initials (R.J.) of the recipient and the units he had flown with. These records were not too helpful as they largely give access to WW1 era records, with an Army focus, and it was too soon in my research to start purchase files from the UK Archives.
Next I checked the obvious – telephone White Pages for the local Nelson–Tasman area – nothing; then I tried local Cemetery records – zero there; RNZRSA membership – nil. Next stop was Ancestry.com Family Trees & Military Records – still no result; then I looked at on-line Electoral Rolls for Tasman. I knew from looking at the medals that I only needed to look for this man from about 1960 since the Suez Crisis was well over by then and therefore Flt Lt R. J. Clarke could have returned or immigrated to, or deceased in NZ after this time ? …. several R.J. Clark’s appeared but not spelt with an ‘e’. I then expanded the geographical search to include Wellington and Marlborough, and ….. YES ! – the 1969 Marlborough Electoral Roll contained the only R. J. Clarke – Reginald John Clarke – Civil Pilot, and also a Janet Isabel Clarke – married – of the same address. Back to the telephone book for Blenheim this time – no R. J. Clarke (I feared the worst – deceased?) however there was a J. I. Clarke. A phone call to Janet Clarke confirmed I had located the correct family – Reg Clarke had been a pilot for SAFEAIR at Woodbourne, had re-married, retired and was alive and well in Nelson for the past 20 years. Janet was able to give me Reg’s contact details. She also told me that Reg and wife Pat had been preparing to move into a retirement village and that son David had visited recently to assist. When I told Janet that Reg’s medals had been found at the local dump she said that David had mentioned to her he had carted a load of rubbish from the garage to the dump for his father; the medals must have been in this – great, this was a key step forward on the road to reuniting the medals with their owner.
The NZ Police at Richmond kindly allowed me to borrow the medals and wings so I could have Reg positively identify them as his – this he did. The astonished (and very grateful) Reg had no idea they were even missing but was certainly delighted to see them back. Reg also showed me another Clasp: CANAL ZONE and ribbon he had. Reg had qualified for this Clasp which had been sent to him by the RAF after he had left the UK. This Clasp was supposed to have been added to Reg’s GSM (NEAR EAST) but he never quite got around to fitting it, and so luckily it had not been put into the medal bag. It could have been the only item left had the medal bag not been found.
Being an ex-airforce type (non-aircrew) during a former life, I was privileged to take a great trip down memory lane with Reg as he sketched out his fascinating flying career to me from his FIVE Logbooks.
Reg had been born in Suffolk in 1927 and at age 15 and a half enlisted into the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice at RAF Halton during the final six months of WW2, 1945. Over the next two years he worked on and qualified in overhauling Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engines at a base in Wales and then another six months on Meteor aircraft engines. In 1948 then Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Aircraft Mechanic Clarke decided to have a crack at pilot training and was successful. After 18 months officer and flying training at No. 6 Flying Training School, RAF Tern variously flying the Percival Prentice Air Trainer, Vickers Varsity and North American Harvard, Pilot Officer (P/O) Reginald John Clarke was commissioned into the Royal Air Force, graduating as junior pilot who would be flying transport aircraft.
By mid 1951 now P/O Clarke had gained his PIC – Pilot in Command qualification at 24 years of age. He was posted to No. 53 SQN at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire flying Handley Page Hastings aircraft from the then largest transport aircraft base in England (the MoD closed RAF Lyneham in 2002 to become a ground training establishment and moved the resident squadrons to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire).
Reg recalled one very long, three week flight in 1952 from RAF Lyneham to Australia carrying scientific and support equipment for the British nuclear missile testing program – Blue Steel and Blue Streak at the Woomera Rocket Range, and for the forthcoming nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga – both in South Australia.
In 1955-56 now Flying Officer (F/O) Clarke had his first overseas posting – a 12 month tour of duty to the RAF’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) flying one of eight Vickers Valettas of No. 216 SQN and operating alternately for a six month period between RAF Nicosia in Cyprus (HQ of FEAF and transport aircraft hub) and RAF Fayid in Egypt (fighter/bomber aircraft) located about 80kms NE of Cairo. It was during this tour F/O Clarke was also selected to be the personal pilot for the Commander of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Lieut. General Sir Gerald Templer, to fly throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean areas of operations, and to/from the UK as required in a VIP configured Vickers Valetta.
On his return to the UK at the end of 1956, F/O Clarke was posted to No. 47 SQN at RAF Abbington flying the Blackburn Beverley making supply runs around the UK and to the Near East, conducting supply air drops, and as a vehicle for parachute training. Whilst at RAF Abbington F/O Clarke was promoted to Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) and also married Janet Isabel BOND in 1957.
In 1963 Flt Lt Clarke joined 114 SQN at RAF Abbington flying Bristol Freighters and whilst there also gained his PIC qualification on the twin boom tailed Armstrong Whitworth Argosy aircraft. Reg also piloted the Vickers Viscount, the Vickers Varsity again and on occasions the de Havilland Devon.
One interesting anecdote Reg mentioned was a task he had flying the Sultan of Muscat & Oman, Taimur bin Feisal from the UK back to Muscat (RAF stations Masirah and Salalah). Since the main fish dish available in Muscat was usually variations of shark, the Sultan took many containers of Kippers back with him. The Sultan’s son Qaboos bib Said, a Sandhurst Military Academy trained infantry officer, overthrew his repressive father in a 1966 coup, united the Port of Muscat and Oman, to become the Sultan of Oman – I wonder if he also took over the ‘Kipper Run’?.
After the RAF
After 18 years of RAF service, Flt Lt Reg Clarke then in his mid 30s had to elect to either discharge from the RAF at that point, or re-engage until he was 50. Reg decided he needed a change and so opted for the former. In September 1966 Reg, his wife and two young boys emigrated to Marlborough, New Zealand.
Before leaving the UK, Reg had heard that the Straits Air Freight Express (SAFE) company based at Woodbourne, Blenheim was flying Bristol Freighters, an aircraft he was very experienced in flying, and that SAFE was also considering adding the Argosy to its fleet. As a very experienced PIC on both aircraft types Reg took a chance and fronted up to SAFE, then re-named Safe Air Ltd (SAFEAIR), before years end applying for a flying job. He was hired without delay and put to work – as a junior Bristol Freighter pilot! Reg was now caught in the grip of ‘Union Rules’ – every new pilot irrespective of background was required to ‘climb onto the ladder’ by starting at the bottom and waiting their turn to be promoted to PIC. In due course Reg reclaimed his Pilot in Command status on the Freighters, and the Argosy once they entered service in 1974. He remained with SAFEAIR for 16 years before retiring from flying in July 1979. When Reg retired he decided that he wanted to do something completely different – beekeeping !
In the late 1990s Reg relocated to a Nelson rural property and set up his beekeeping business and producing commercial quantities of honey (very intensive and back breaking work he reckons). Reg eventually downsized this operation to specialize in breeding ‘Queen Bees’ and after a decade or so in the ‘bee business’ decided to retire fully. Now, at 88 years young, Reg and Pat are preparing for their final move to a retirement village in Richmond.
Reg’s medals, logbooks and related flying memorabilia are destined to remain in safe hands as they will eventually be entrusted to one of Reg’s sons who has always maintained a keen interest in his father’s military and civil flying careers.
After our nostalgic trip through logbooks, photographs and my promise to have the medals professionally mounted for him (at no cost of course), I bid farewell to the self-effacing Reg and his wife Pat, secretly wishing all of my medal returns could be as personal and interesting as this one had been. Thank you Reg – the pleasure was all mine.
POSTSCRIPT – you can read a postscript to this story – click here
My grateful thanks to a vigilant Yogi T. of Richmond recycling, Jodi at NZ Police Richmond, and most of all to Reg & Pat for their time and the memories.
The reunited medal tally is now 112.