Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust

How Britain's first black WWI pilot survived a mid-air attack by five enemy planes

Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust

Britain's first and only black pilot of the First World War is being remembered for the moment he survived an attack in the air by five enemy fighter planes despite being shot in the spine and knocked unconscious.

Pilot Sergeant William 'Robbie' Clarke was flying his Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8, a World War One British two-seat reconnaissance and bomber biplane, over the Western Front with a fellow airman acting as an 'observer' to capture images of enemy territory, when the enemy attacked.

Robbie passed out as the bullet entered his body but his observer managed to take over the controls mid-air before crash-landing the aircraft.

Against all odds, both airmen survived the impact.

The pilot is today being remembered by the RAF Museum, among others, on the anniversary of that day in 1917, an incredible moment in the history of the Great War, as we delve more into the astonishing life of the pioneering Sgt William 'Robbie' Clarke.

The determination of William Clarke

After the outbreak of the First World War, a brave young man called William joined thousands of others from the Caribbean to fight for a country that had once enslaved generations of black men and women. 

William Robinson “Robbie” Clarke paid £150 in 1915 to travel from Kingston, Jamaica, to England so that he could learn how to fly and support the war effort. This life-changing decision eventually saw William becoming Britain’s first black pilot. 

Historically, however, there were barriers in place against people from certain  ethnic groups joining Britain’s Armed Forces.

Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust
Credit: Royal Aero Club Trust

The Colour Bar And Its Impact 

When the casualty numbers started rising rapidly during the First World War, it was decided that the ‘colour bar’ would be lifted. The colour bar prevented people who were not white from having the equal rights as white people. Only men of “pure European descent” could qualify for a commission into the armed forces. 

The Manual Of Military Law (1914) made it startlingly clear that people who were considered ‘alien’ – a man or woman who was not a British citizen – were allowed to enlist but there were restrictions that inevitably reminded them they were considered second class citizens: 

“The number of aliens serving together at any one time in any corps of the regular forces shall not exceed the proportion of one alien to every fifty British subjects, and that an alien so enlisted shall not be capable of holding any higher rank in His Majesty’s regular forces than that of a Warrant Officer or non-commissioned officer.” 

However, it was stated that any ‘alien’, while serving in His Majesty’s regular forces, be entitled to all the “privileges of a natural-born British subject”. 

This was a big deal. The brave pioneers who travelled across the world to fight alongside men who looked down upon them did so because they saw the role they could play in the First World War as being of crucial importance. 

Peter Devitt, Curator at the Royal Air Force Museum, wrote about William’s remarkable life and delved into why a smart, capable man would leave a successful career behind to fight for a country who considered his race to be of less importance. 

In fact, in the late 19th century, Colonel Sir Garnet Wolseley made it clear he thought Africans were an “objectionable animal” who should become “the white man’s servant”.

Peter revealed that black people still saw Britain as the ‘mother country’ and, he said: 

“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.” 

Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust
Credit: Royal Aero Club Trust

World War I Flying Aces 

The First World War saw the birth of aeroplanes being used in warfare and an opportunity for men from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds to become pilots. 

Author Stephen Bourne spent time looking at William’s journey to becoming a pilot for his book ‘Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community And The Great War’. During his research, Stephen came across “The Autobiography Of Norman Washington Manley” in which Jamaican-born Norman wrote about what it would take to become a pilot. He said:  

“Training schools were to a large extent privately operated under special contracts with the British Government, so we were told that if we could find £150 each, we could get into such a school and if we qualified in six months and earned flying certificates, we would be considered for admission. I did not have that money.” 

With the help of Andrew Dawrant and The Royal Aero Club, Stephen discovered an article, written in June 1915, in Jamaican newspaper ‘The Gleaner’ in which the journalist wrote of William travelling to England to play his part in defending the country. 

The aspiring pilot and skilled car engineer was described as “... full of energy and is hard as nails.” The journalist wrote of William's accomplishments, courage and pluck – just the sort of man who: 

“... will be very useful in Lord Kitchener’s organization.” 

Black Poppies - Britain's Black Community and the Great War Author Stephen Bourne Published By The History Press Book Cover
Black Poppies - Britain's Black Community and the Great War by author Stephen Bourne

William sailed to England with many letters from influential Jamaicans recommending him as a perfect candidate to become a pilot. 

On April 26, 1917 William qualified as a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilot. The RFC became the Royal Air Force in 1918 when it merged with the air arm of the Royal Navy on April 1, 1918.  

His Royal Aero Club (RAeC) photograph is held in the RAF Museum’s archive alongside an index card that describes his nationality as British. 

The RAF Museum discovered a letter he wrote to his mother describing the moment he was very seriously injured mid-flight in Belgium. He was flying his R.E.8 biplane over the Western Front to capture images of enemy territory on 28 July 1917 when he was attacked. He said: 

“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.” 

Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust
Credit: Royal Aero Club Trust

In 1919, after recovering from his wounds, William received the Silver War Badge after being honourably discharged and returned to Jamaica. There he worked in the building trade and later became Life President of the Royal Air Force Association's Jamaica branch. 

At William’s funeral in 1981, A.S.Phillips, Professor at the University of the West Indies, spoke of the pilot’s remarkable bravery. He said: 

“The episode in 1917 in which Pilot Clarke while on an operational flight was attacked by German fighters in the air, and though severely wounded, nevertheless managed to fly his R.E.8 aeroplane back to a relatively safe crashing-landing behind the allied lines, places him in that special category of the genuine war hero.” 

Troops of the British West Indian Regiment clean their Lee Enfield rifles Credit: Topham/PA Archive/PA Images
Credit: Topham/PA Archive/PA Images

Pilots Of The Caribbean 

This hero’s life, and the lives of many other pilots from the Caribbean, were celebrated in October 2014 thanks to a Royal Aero Club volunteer who was rummaging through archived photos at the RAF Museum. They discovered a photograph of William which made them pause to think because they “didn’t know that there had been a black pilot and it made us aware that there is so much research to be done on the subject of black personnel in the RAF over time.” 

The discovery of William’s photograph inspired the RAF Museum in London to put on an exhibition called ‘Pilots of the Caribbean: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force', recognising those volunteers and what they did for Britain and the Commonwealth. 

Curated in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives, the exhibition told the inspirational story of these volunteers using video footage and artefacts to bring them to life. 

Sgt William Robinson Clarke Credit Royal Aero Club Trust
Credit: Royal Aero Club Trust

Diversity And What The Statistics Tell Us 

Exhibitions like Pilots Of The Caribbean highlight the sacrifices so many young men and women endured to fight for Christianity and the pride with which they did it. 

That pride saw future generations of those who served in the First World War want to pursue a military career themselves. 

The UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics published on June 25, 2020 show that since monitoring began in 2016 “... the proportion of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) personnel joining the UK Regular Forces and Future Reserves 2020 has increased by 6 percentage points from 5.7 per cent to 11.7 per cent.”

Today, there is a concerted effort to ensure diversity is one of the Ministry Of Defence’s (MOD) top priorities. Gone are the days of lifting draconian colour bars because the country needed more men to fight. In a blog entitled The British Army, the First World War, enlistment, conscription and ‘race’, author Phil Vasili went so far as to say: 

“The sad truth, however, is that these achievements had very little effect on changing the thinking of the military and political elites and consequently the rules and regulations which governed the armed forces. 

“After the war, as if to counter the suspicions raised in that 1919 CO memo, the colour bar came crashing down once more.” 

Credit African and Caribbean War Memorial in Windrush Square, Brixton, London (image: Courtesy of Stephen Bourne)
African and Caribbean War Memorial in Windrush Square, Brixton, London (image: Courtesy of Stephen Bourne)

In October 2018 the MOD published the Defence diversity and inclusion strategy 2018 to 2030’s. In the foreword written by Gavin Williamson, during his time as Defence Secretary, he said: 

“The richness of our nation comes from the different cultures, backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives reflected in our society. 

“And it is absolutely right that our Armed Forces and Civil Service should reflect the society that it exists to defend. 

“As well as the clear moral case for action, diversity and inclusion is critical to Defence’s ability to safeguard our nation’s security, stability and prosperity. 

The hope is that the new Defence diversity and inclusion strategy 2018 to 2030, will “drive significant change by ensuring that diversity and inclusion is at the heart of everything Defence does”. 

William Clarke, and others like him, paved the way for thousands upon thousands of men and women, whose skin colour had previously prevented them from pursuing a military career, to choose their destiny and fight for their country.

More details on this topic can be found in Stephen Bourne’s book ‘Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community And The Great War’ from History Press which can be found here

Click here for our report on the RAF Museum’s exhibit ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’, which looked at the involvement of black service personnel in the Royal Air Force during both world wars. (Unfortunately, the exhibit is now closed, but an online version can be found here).

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