Squadron Leader Kenneth Clack DFC DFM (d.1944), my grandfather’s pilot on the Tirpitz raids.

During the Second World War, my grandfather was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner flying in Halifaxes with 76 Squadron Royal Air Force. His logbook is a spare and factual. In later years he annotated it. He kept the same military handwriting all his life, and you can only tell the additions because they’re written in biro. At the end of the book he wrote the total number of airmen killed, 55,573. He recorded the name of only one of them, the man whose name appears most often as his pilot, Kenneth ‘Kenny’ Clack who was shot down and killed on March 31st 1944.

I googled Kenneth Clack. I was glad to find a lot about him on the website RAF Commands, including the award of his Distinguished Flying Medal in May 1942.

Air Ministry,
29th May, 1942.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy: —
Distinguished Flying Medal.
1257263 Flight Sergeant Kenneth Arthur CLACK, No. 76 Squadron.
This airman has completed many successful sorties including attacks on targets at Berlin, Mannheim, Stuttgart and Stettin. One night in April, 1942, he was the captain of an aircraft detailed to attack the German naval base at Trondheim. After releasing the bombs his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire which caused one engine to fail and the bomb doors could not be closed. He succeeded in returning to base and landed safely with the bomb doors still open. The following night, as his former aircraft was not serviceable Flight Sergeant Clack volunteered to fly another aircraft to attack the naval base again. He delivered his bombs successfully and machine gunned gun emplacements. His courage and determination have been outstanding.

Clack was Grandfer’s pilot on the only three missions out of 74 that Grandfer ever spoke about. On March 30th, April 27th and April 28th 1942 heavy bombers including Halifaxes from 76 Squadron attempted to sink the Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer and Prinz Eugen, the German ‘pocket’ battleships moored in Norwegian fjords at Trondheim.

Clack was awarded his DFM for his bravery on the raids of April 27th and 28th. On the 27th they were hit by flak over Norway, and Clack managed to nurse the damaged plane back to their base at RAF Tain in Scotland on three engines. Grandfer’s logbook adds some detail to the Air Ministry’s account. The crew had to reduce weight by jettisoning flares and ammunition to keep the aircraft flying on three engines.

An SOS was sent. The damage was so bad that the crew debated bailing out. Grandfer argued that if they bailed out over Norway they’d never be found. Instead, Clack nursed the Halifax back over the North Sea to Scotland, flying so low that Grandfer could see a field of cows stampeding in panic. Clack landed them safely back at RAF Tain. They were the last aircraft to return after nine and a quarter hours in the air but they were all in one piece. Forty aircraft had taken off, each with a seven man crew. Five did not return.

Remarkably, in just 48 hours the mechanics made damaged Halifax R9486 airworthy enough to fly back to Middleton St George 76 Squadron’s base in Yorkshire on April 30th.

As the Medal Gazette says, Clack flew them back to attack the target again in another aircraft the following night. I didn’t know that they volunteered to. Quite incredible. (Grandfer just said, ‘They sent us straight back up again.’) Grandfer had flown 67 night hours before the first Tirpitz raid, a tenth of the total he’d eventually fly. If Clack was beginning his second tour in March 1944 he can’t have had many more hours than that*. That night no ships were sunk. They were heavily armoured and Grandfer said ‘you could see the bombs just bouncing off.’ Two of the thirty-four aircraft did not return.

(*Since writing this I discovered that Kenneth Clack was only 19 years old at the time. Squadron Leader Ron Waite DFC, second pilot and on his first operation, gave an account of the Tirpitz raid to the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/67/a4445967.shtml)

Grandfer was not a man who expressed emotion. It speaks volumes that he later wrote Clack’s name in his logbook, and mentioned him by name to my mother as a brilliant pilot. He would’ve known that in April 1942, and on every flight with him, he owed him his life. They were not flying together on 31st March 1944, when Clack, now promoted to Squadron Leader and awarded a DFC was beginning his second tour, was shot down over Germany by a night-fighter. Clack and all but one of his crew were killed.

The superb site http://www.archieraf.co.uk/archie/27_28april1942.html gives a full account of the Tirpitz raids, including the details of the aircrew. This is the crew of R9486 ML-Q, including my grandfather Alexander Oram DFC (1916 – 2011).

A Halifax II of the type flown by 76 Squadron in Spring 1942. Image worldwarphotos.info

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