3 Squadron LIFETIMES

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Alan Clark 

23 Aug. 1924 - 25 Nov. 2010.

(A Eulogy delivered by his son David at Vaucluse Yacht Club, NSW;  Sunday 5 Dec. 2010.)

First, on behalf of the family, I would like to thank everyone who has turned up this evening to remember and celebrate the life of my Dad, Alan Clark.

Dad was born in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, but had an early setback when his parents divorced while he was very young.  He had the good fortune, however, to be brought up by a strong and capable woman, Frances (our Nanna Clark), ably assisted at times by her sister Thistle.  Dad used to comment that he had been brought up by women only and it was clear that he felt the absence of a father figure in his life acutely.  When it was his turn to be a father, he made sure that we would have his love, guidance and protection at all times, as he understood the alternative all too well.

The great stock market crash of 1929, when Dad was five, precipitated the Great Depression.  Times were tough through the 1930s, particularly for a single mother with a small boy. However Nanna managed to find work throughout this period, firstly as a cinema usherette, where Dad would sleep in the back row until it was time to be taken home for the night. A more comfortable alternative was to sleep cuddled up in the ample bosom of Nan’s friend and workmate Peg.  He used to talk of how lovely Nan's friend Peg was, how nice she smelt and how comforting her bosom was.

Next came a stroke of good fortune, when Nan found a job at David Jones in the city, where she established and managed the central telephone exchange for their department stores – a role she continued to fill for four decades until her retirement.  At this time they moved from St Leonards to boarding houses in Darling Point.  Dad attended Double Bay primary school.  Because Nan was working full time, Dad was supervised loosely by other boarders.  Dad apparently took advantage of this laxity by inappropriately operating the gas-fuelled water heater, which subsequently exploded, fortunately without loss of life or limb, but highly embarrassing and no doubt expensive for his mother.

I’m not sure if this incident precipitated relocation to Vaucluse, but the move was certainly a life-altering development.  Dad lived with his mother and Auntie Thistle in Hopetoun Avenue, next door to Don Ritchie.  Don's father practised magic tricks, which intrigued Dad and resulted in his joining the Society of Little Imps where he learned more about magic, a lifelong interest.

Even allowing for the filter of nostalgia, it is clear that Vaucluse at that time was a form of Paradise for young boys - billy carts, bikes, boy scouts and, of course, sailing.  Dad was surrounded by kids of similar age, and it was at this time that he forged many friendships, many of which lasted a lifetime.  Life-long mates from that time include Don Ritchie and Peter Kurts.  Dad hung out with the "Parsley Bay Boys", for whom the unquestioned gang leader was Phillip Kurts, who much later transformed from larrikin into the very dignified Father Kurts.

In the absence of a father, his grandfather Charles Harris was very influential.  He loved his grandfather and enjoyed the indulgence granted by Charles of taking him to the Australia Hotel for meals of bangers and mash - the epitome of gastronomic delight to a young boy.  I must say his preference for bland food was retained until the end of his days – he certainly never developed a taste for spicy tucker!

One particularly memorable incident from his early years occurred when the famous aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, whom Nan knew well, took Dad up for a joyride in his record-setting plane, the “Southern Cross”.

Auntie Thistle was an academic and a noted botanist.  Because Nan was working full time, in the school holidays Thistle would take Dad off with her on her botanical expeditions to far-flung places.  Dad was forced to sit in the back seat of her Model T Ford, atop a pile of flower presses.  One of Dad’s jobs was to act as a human depth meter, getting out to wade across swollen streams to check whether Thistle’s car would make it across.

One such trip that Dad recalled vividly was an expedition to Mount Kosciusko, where he had to sleep up there in a sleeping bag in the cold, while Thistle and her friend slept in the car.  On the way down the car’s tyres suffered a series of punctures which necessitated them being stuffed with leaves, so the car could make it to the next town.

Dad made it into Sydney Boys High School, where he was very happy and made many friendships.  He had a relatively undistinguished academic career, but flourished on the sporting field.  He was a true all-rounder, excelling in cricket, rugby, swimming and athletics.  During a trial cricket match for the state selectors, he had the good fortune to catch the opposition batsmen on a sticky pitch, took a swag of wickets and made the NSW State schoolboys cricket team as a leg spinner. 

During his final year he concentrated on athletics and was rewarded with great success in his favourite event, the 110 yards hurdles.  Because Sydney High was a member of both the GPS and CHS associations, he was able to achieve the rare feat of being simultaneously the GPS and CHS Open Hurdles Champion.

In the meantime Dad started his sailing career in VJs, which were invented right here in Vaucluse and had the unique sliding plank system that enabled crew to sit well outboard and drive the boat harder in strong winds.  His career started crewing for Edgar Bradley in “Aloha”.  Around this period Dad had probably his last brush with religion, when he joined the St Peters Fellowship (in order to meet girls, of course).

With the war well underway, Dad finished school and applied to join the Air Force.  While waiting to hear, he worked in the menswear department at DJs, continued with the scouts and joined the Air League. When he finally received his call-up to the Air Force, he was inducted at Bradfield Park in Sydney and, much to his joy, he was selected for pilot training.  He trained initially at Narranderra on Tiger Moths, moving on to Wacketts, Wirraways and Harvards. 

No.5 Service Flight Training School.  RAAF Station, Uranquinty, NSW.  Wirraway aircraft.
Graduation, August 1943.  Alan Clark third row, third from left. 

Learning to fly in wartime was a dangerous affair and Dad had to participate in several funeral parades for trainees killed in crashes.  It was at this time that Dad acquired a lifelong aversion to funerals and was adamant that he should not have one.

It was a complicated business getting pilots across two submarine-infested oceans to the European theatre of war, but eventually Dad made his way via England and then Egypt to Italy, where he trained on Kittyhawks and graduated to P51 Mustangs.  He then flew Mustangs into combat with RAAF 3 Squadron, from bases in Italy.  On a mission over Yugoslavia, he was intent on shooting down a German staff aircraft, which at that stage of the war must have been carrying important brass or possibly senior Nazis attempting to avoid capture and prosecution.  Although the Fieseler Storch was destroyed, Dad’s kite was hit by flak and mortally damaged.  He had to bail out in a hurry.  This was only accomplished with great difficulty and with a partially-torn parachute.  After landing with a thump, deep in enemy territory, he made his way into the hills, managed to make contact with the partisans, successfully evaded capture and eventually found his way back to his squadron in Italy.  The narrowness of his escape is emphasised by the official 3 Squadron history that was on our bookshelves, which mentioned the incident but stated that Dad was "killed" in that action!  It gave us a peculiar sensation to think that our Dad was officially a ghost.

In recent years we persuaded Dad to write down a full account of his war exploits.  His memoir, which we originally produced for family members, is now hosted on the 3 Squadron Association website and has proved very popular.

Dad made several lifelong friends in the Air Force, including Greg Jones, David Hall, Peter Martin, Fred Clark, John Gorman and Lew Ranger.

Alan outside the tent that he shared with Lew Ranger at Cervia airfield in Italy.
Note the canvas bag for water and canvas washstand outside. Spring had arrived!

After the war, his relatively modest Leaving Certificate results, combined with his war service, entitled him to a University education.  Apparently he chose dentistry almost on a whim, when he met someone else who was applying for it at Sydney Uni.  During this period he enjoyed sailing VS’s at Vaucluse with mates like Peter Kurts, Doug Hann, Tom Nolan and Peter Grose.

After graduating he married my mother Valerie.  Affordable practices in Sydney were nonexistent and accommodation was scarce, so he bought a dental practice in Moree with Auntie Thistle’s help.  It’s hard to understand now, but the sectarianism that had afflicted Australian society since its beginning, and which mostly faded away in the cities by the sixties, was still rampant in rural Australia in the fifties.  Dad was informed by the dentist who sold him the practice that this was the Protestant practice in the town and that, accordingly, he would need to attend the appropriate church.  Once the good folk of Moree realised that dad couldn’t care less what faith patients had, or none, they flocked to him and, through working very long hours, he built a substantial practice.

I was born in Moree, followed in turn by Debbie and Fiona.  Although Dad greatly missed the harbour and ocean, he occupied his spare time, apart from family duties, with country cricket and playing poker for an hour after work at the gentleman's club.  He had thought he could play poker but it wasn't until he played up there he realised he was a novice!

Although rain was so scarce in Moree that we used to sit on the verandah to watch this strange phenomenon on the rare occasions that it did rain, somehow we managed to be flooded out twice in five years.  After seven years the call of the sea was too strong and we moved back to Vaucluse, ending up at 56 The Crescent.

After his return to Sydney, Dad practised dentistry in Broadway for many years in partnership with Ralph Bailey and subsequently at Alf Adey’s practice in Glebe, where he worked alongside much younger dentists, including Steve Iredale.  As he eased gradually into semi-retirement, he worked at Concord Repatriation Hospital, sorting out the dental problems of old Diggers.

Immediately before his illness Dad enjoyed a reunion with the surviving members of his graduating class from the Sydney Uni School of Dentistry.

After resettling in Sydney, Dad embarked on his highly successful sailing “career”.  He particularly enjoyed the mano a mano combat of one man dinghy racing, as evidenced by naming his boats “Solitaire”, and he preferred the level playing field of one-design classes, where the outcome depended mainly on the sailor’s skill and you did not have to constantly keep up with the latest expensive technology and design innovations.  He took up OK Dinghy racing here at Vaucluse Yacht Club and was very successful, as you can see by looking around you at the Honour Boards.  He also competed in State and Commonwealth championships, with considerable success. 

He served some years as President of the NSW OK Dinghy Association.  In 1966 he won the inaugural Inter-Dominion OK Dinghy Championship, hosted here at Vaucluse Yacht Club.

Although his first love was dinghy racing, he liked to try different sailing experiences.  In 1972 he borrowed a Star Class yacht and competed in the Australian Olympic trials, coming a creditable second to David Forbes (who went on to win the gold medal in this event at the Munich Olympics). As another example, one year on a whim he borrowed Norman Blacker’s Heron, which it must be said was an old overweight tub with an undersized, ancient sail, made of some stretchable material, and competed in the national championships held in Rose Bay.  I suspect he did this partly to keep me involved in sailing and as a bonding exercise, because I was enlisted as his for’ard hand.  Anyway, thanks to his formidable sailing skills, tactical experience and local knowledge, we managed to come second behind the sailmaker Mike Fletcher.  I would like to claim that I was not just a deadweight, but helped him with tactics and picking windshifts, but that would be a wild exaggeration.

He also greatly enjoyed the camaraderie of yacht racing on the harbour, on Frank Collins’ bluebird “Bolero”, followed by lengthy, well-lubricated debriefing sessions, euphemistically known as “choir practice”, with his sailing mates in the Collins’ boatshed.

I used to participate, if that’s the word, in some of these races as a cabin boy, whose job was to wool the spinnaker on the upwind legs, so it would be easier to hoist and crack open at the beginning of the runs.  This meant keeping well out of the way most of the time, but it was an interesting education in yachting techniques and salty language! 

One particularly dramatic race stands out.  Starting out in very strong winds, they soon reached hurricane force – a 70 knot gale.  As we were leading, we pushed on with a reefed mainsail, but we were heeling over alarmingly, mast parallel to the water and green water pouring in.  As I was up front in the cabin, at risk of being trapped, I expressed some concern and was brought out into the open.  Every other competitor (sensibly) retired, so all we had to do was to complete the course, which we eventually did under jib only.  Expecting to be greeted by a finishing gun, we found that the committee boat had long since skedaddled back to the safety of the clubhouse, so our triumph went unrecognised!  To give an idea of the intensity of the blow, on the way back to the clubhouse, we saw several sunken yachts, and on the drive home we saw an enormous Moreton Bay Fig tree completely uprooted and a large tanker that had broken its moorings and washed up on the Bottle ’n Glass Rocks.

From memory, the gatherings in Frank Collins boatshed included Bob Givens, John Phippard, Don Ritchie, Dick Yuden, Clem Boughton, Jim Bickmore-Hutt and many others, along with my Dad, who continued to enjoy meeting with the surviving rump of the group on Saturday evenings until the week before his final illness.

When Dad moved on from the OKs he started sailing a Laser at Woollahra Sailing Club.  Lasers are a globally popular and highly competitive class, so the international competitions are a real test of skill.  In the 1980s he was World Grand Masters Champion four times, winning in the South of France, Sardinia, Gulfport (Mississippi) and Melbourne.  In between the latter two, he had a loss of form in Thailand, where he only came third.  In recognition of this tremendous run he was a finalist in the NSW Sportsman of the Year Awards in 1984. He continued to be highly competitive into the nineties, winning several State Grand Masters titles, culminating in a Great Grand Masters championship in 1994.

Although Dad was a very competitive racer, he was always willing to help anyone who wanted advice and he mentored many younger sailors at both Vaucluse Yacht Club and Woollahra.

In 1976 Dad married Avril and our little sister Sally-Anne came along in due course.  Initially they lived at Randwick, but the call of Watsons Bay was too strong and they moved to Derby Street, where Dad spent many years enjoying his panoramic view of Sydney Harbour.  He evolved into a devoted patriarch, presiding over his extended family, following the lives of his children and grandchildren closely and taking great pleasure in their achievements, and providing generous assistance.  In his last years, after getting over the initial shock that he had become a great grandfather, he took a keen interest in my grandsons. 

Speaking personally, I can say that he taught me many things: sailing, how to swim, how to bowl a leg break and wrong’un, how to play rugby, magic tricks.  He also gave me his love of reading, an appreciation of the music of his era (jazz and swing), the benefits of his biomedical knowledge and sparked my interest in science.  We could always talk about anything. He was truly my best mate.

As his competitive sailing career wound down, Dad greatly enjoyed playing tennis with his Thursday night and Saturday morning groups and the post-play carousing.  He continued playing tennis until early this year, when his deteriorating eyesight made made finding the ball too difficult.

In conclusion, Dad enjoyed a very full and fortunate life, for which we are grateful.  I think the best summary of the man that I can come up with is placed at the beginning of his memoir...

Alan Clark is a man of many parts: war veteran, Mustang pilot, dentist extraordinaire to the gentry and old Diggers alike, prolific (and occasionally painless) driller and tooth puller, bon vivant, polymath noted for the breadth and depth of his reading (some of which he understands), crafty sailor and cunning tennis player, Patriarch. This memoir relates his contribution to the collapse of Fascism in Italy and Yugoslavia, for the relatively trivial investment by the Allied Powers of thousands of hours of training and the nett loss of half an aircraft.

This is a true life story of triumph over adversity, where Clark battled bad weather, mechanical mishaps, navigational inexactitude, German flak, the officer system, Ustacha search parties/death squads, dirt, lice, incompetent military strategists, unreliable Allies, voluntary teetotalism and enforced celibacy.  It is also a story of mateship and life-altering and life-affirming experiences that have shaped the author’s subsequent development and made him the hero he is today to his family and friends.

By David CLARK

North American P51 Mustang aircraft KH631 "CV-V".  This was the aircraft being flown by Al when he was shot down by German flak.

 Click here to Read Alan Clark's complete illustrated memoir of his war service in Italy and with the Yugoslav Partisans.

3 Squadron LIFETIMES

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