Celebrating a true hero
From being a Black Watch volunteer to receiving an MBE in recognition for his service, 96-year-old, homeowner John Clarke is a local hero.
Ermine Court homeowner, John, began sharing his stories by saying there just wouldn’t be enough pages.
Over his remarkable and brave life, John has travelled the world fighting for his country in North Africa, Italy and Greece. He was just 17 when he volunteered for the Highland Regiment in 1942 training with the Black Watch until he was old enough to go to war.
One of his first campaigns saw John take part in a rescue mission to save 200 injured British troops from an Italian hospital ship imminently that was set to sail from Korba in North Africa. He says:
'I was one of 30 men detailed to board the ship. Hidden about 100 yards away from the main gangway, we awaited the signal from our officer to board. I was halfway down a stairwell when I heard voices shout, "Listen, listen, the Jocks are here." It was a sight I will never forget.'
John was shortly after deployed to Italy, where he fought in the massacre of Monte Cassino, one of the most savage battles of the Second World War. Serving in Italy between the years of September 1943 and April 1945, he was proudly part of the D-Day Dodgers, a famous band of fighting men who inched their way over mountains through mud, snow and rain.
'We had just been relieved from the horror of Cassino town when we travelled to the hot springs spa of Acquafondata, a village at the foothills of the Abruzzi mountains. The Royal Engineers had rigged up a number of shower units and pumped the water from the springs so we could shower for the first time in over a month. It was pure ecstasy.'
After Italy, John went on to fight in Greece, where 75,000 military personnel were deployed.
'The Greek campaign was the most brutal I had taken part in. As a senior stretcher-bearer, I escorted a number of our wounded to the British field hospital in Athens. Once our men were taken in, I received an order to join a party of VIPs who turned out to be Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and the Archbishop of Greece, with numerous MPs. As I accompanied the group, a shot was fired at Winston Churchill, hitting an interpreter instead.'
On the day the Second World War finished, the territorial battalion stood down. John transferred to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, joining the 6th Airborne Division. In May 1947, he left the army returning to his hometown of Manchester where he went back to work for his first employer Metro-Vicks in Trafford, and to start a family with his late-wife Olive.
Along with the Italian Star and the Polish Gold Cross, John was awarded many medals for his services in the Black Watch. It was in recognition of his courage and bravery demonstrated on the Italian battlefield along with his tireless work over the next 40 years arranging trips back to the Italian region, John received an MBE in 2005. As secretary of the Monte Cassino Veterans Association, John was behind a high-profile funding campaign which saw a £10m scheme set up by the National Lottery to fund veterans’ pilgrimages so that ex-servicemen could pay homage to their fallen comrades.
Over the years, when talking to WWII veterans, if I had asked them "Were you a D-Day Dodger?" the answer would be a smile and a loud "Yes!". However, sometimes there would be an angry retort which identified the person as someone who did not know what the title D-Day Dodger meant.'
Along with fellow troops, John helped write what is today one of the Second World War’s most famous songs. The lyrics were fuelled by the disappointment of the lack of publicity which had followed on the departure of General Montgomery from the 8th Army in Italy in December 1943. And the lack of reinforcements from the UK, the stopping of new equipment to replace that first used in the desert and the overwhelming publicity about the Normandy landings.
To vent their frustration, the song sarcastically refers to how easy life in Italy was, whereas it was anything but. Today there’s many variations on verses and the chorus, but all are set to the tune of the classic ‘Lily Marlene’.