At Just Sixteen this Montegonian Lied About His Age to Join the RAF in World War II

98-year-old D-Day veteran Gilbert Clarke, born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, recalls how, at 16, he lied about his age to join Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) to fight in World War II. Clarke was one of the over three million men and women from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia to serve in British military units during the war.

Lied to recruiters

In an interview with the PA news agency, Jamaican Gilbert Clarke described how excited he was to join the RAF as a mechanic. He had just left school and heard reports of German submarines being seen attacking ships in the Caribbean. Clarke shared his memories at an event sponsored by the Spirit of Normandy Trust. He explained how it was “important not to do nothing” in the face of Hitler’s aggression.

There was considerable concern that the German leader would “be colonizing the Caribbean and South America at any time, so we had to do something.” Instead of waiting for the war to come to Jamaica, he made the decision to volunteer, lying to recruiters to join up. He said “a flood of tears” were spent in his family when he told them he was leaving to join the war effort.

Clarke then found himself on a troop ship in a convoy that experienced U-boat attacks during his journey. After making it to Liverpool, he was assigned to a base in the north of England to be trained in servicing radar and other electronic equipment for aircraft, including Hurricanes and Spitfires.

Hearing the planes on D-Day

Clarke shared how, while training on radar systems, he heard engines roaring above him on June 6, 1944. He remembers how everyone shouted, “Give them hell, boys!” and hoped it meant the end of the war.

“You couldn’t have seen the blue sky,” Clarke added, describing the scene as “all planes. Hundreds and thousands of them — all shapes and sizes. All different types of plane.”

Clarke finished his training a few weeks later and was assigned to various air bases to service the radio and radar systems of the British and American plans for the remainder of the war.

RAF a popular choice for citizens of former colonies

The RAF was a popular destination for black citizens of what was the British Empire at the time because the force had eliminated the “color bar” shortly after the war began, with recruiting efforts starting in the Caribbean in 1940. In total, some 6,000 men from the region enlisted in the RAF, with 5,500 involved with ground services, including Clarke.

Eighty women from the Caribbean joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force by the end of the war. Former British colonies made a significant contribution to the victory of the Allied Forces by supplying money, resources, and manpower as the Nazis threatened to invade Britain.

Historian George Hay of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission believes the contributions of these individuals should be remembered along with those who fought and died in Normandy. Ground crew members like Clarke may not have had glamorous jobs, but they provided important support by maintaining the aircraft that secured victory in the Normandy campaign.

Commemorating D-Day

Clarke traveled to Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2024, and shared memories about the day with his fellow veterans. He said he was happy to associate with people like them in remembrance of the invasion.

Regarding the importance of commemorating the war and sharing memories with his fellow veterans, he acknowledged that they are “the last few left” to have personal memories of D-Day. He has hopes that by sharing his story and the stories of other black veterans, he can help to eliminate racism as it still exists. “We are somebody,” he says. “We did something in the presence of all the people here. I feel very proud.”

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