The extraordinary story of Britain's first Black Fighter Pilot: How Jamaican man, 20, paid for his own travel across to England to fight the Germans in WWI - and survived being shot in the spine in a vicious dogfight in his biplane

27/10/2020 | Matthew Tredwen

The extraordinary story of Britain's first Black Fighter Pilot: How Jamaican man, 20, paid for his own travel across to England to fight the Germans in WWI - and survived being shot in the spine in a vicious dogfight in his biplane

Words By NICOLE CONNER FOR MAILONLINE

The extraordinary story of Britain's first black fighter pilot who paid for his own travel from Jamaica to England to fight the Germans during the First World War has emerged after his identification bracelet went up for auction.  

Sergeant William Robinson Clarke was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1895 and trained as a mechanic, before travelling to Britain to serve with the Royal Flying Corps - and later survived being shot in the spine in a vicious dogfight in his biplane in 1917. 

Sgt Clarke's aluminium disc is stamped 'SGT W R CLARKE RFC' on a leather wrist strap with a buckle end, and has emerged for sale at C&T Auctions in Ashford, Kent, with an estimate of £150 for this Wednesday.

The bracelet is believed to have been found on the Western Front after the war and has been consigned for sale by a private collector.

Sgt Clarke enlisted with the RFC in July 1915 and was initially assigned as a mechanic and driver for the Observation Balloon Company. In December 1916, he began pilot training, gaining his 'wings' the following April.

He was posted to No 4 Squadron at Abeele on the Western Front but his flying career was shortlived.

He was shot in the spine but miraculously almost brought the plane back to base before falling unconscious.

His observer took the controls for the final moments for a forced landing on British lines near Godewaersvelde on the Belgian border.

Sgt Clarke, who died in 1981, survived his wounds but was deemed medically unfit to fly again so he joined 254 Squadron as a mechanic. 

Recounting what happened in a letter to his mother, he wrote: 'I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly anymore. My Observer escaped without injury.'  

Sgt Clarke was honourably discharged in 1919 and returned to Jamaica where he spent many years as the life president of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.  

Matthew Tredwen, specialist at C&T Auctions, said: 'This identification bracelet is historically significant as it belonged to Sgt Clarke, the first black pilot to serve with the Royal Flying Corps during World War One.

'He paid his own travel to Britain and joined the RFC as a mechanic and driver before training as a pilot. He was shot down and badly injured during one of his first missions but continued to work as a mechanic.

'His bracelet is a unique item and it is special to be able to offer it during Black History Month.' 

The identification bracelet hammered at £3,400. 

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