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Denis Clarke - Old pals reunion

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posted on 2024-06-05, 19:09 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

Denis Francis Clarke was born in 1915 he went to South Shields Boys High School.

In November 1939 he was First Lieutenant on patrol boat HMS Seebreeze near Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands:

"I was on the bridge of my ship when sighted what appeared to be a flight of ducks heading south towards Sullom Voe but on looking through my binoculars I realised with great concern that these 'ducks' were a squadron of German Heinkel Bombers."

"After repelling them again with our guns one bomber dropped a single bomb which fell harmlessly well off target and actually fell on the land close to the floating R.A.F. Base making a huge crater."

"This being the first bomb dropped on the British Isles since the outbreak of war it was naturally of great interest and the naval officer in charge, Lerwick, made a special journey by staff car to examine the crater made by the bomb. The driver of the car clambered into the crater first and held up a dead rabbit saying 'Sir, this is the only casualty of the raid'."

"This inspired a song writer to compose the song 'Run Rabbit Run' shortly after and whenever I hear it sung it is a constant reminder to me of that thrilling air raid early in the war at Sullom Voe, Shetland Isles." (Editor this episode helped to popularise the Flanagan and Allen's song Run, Rabbit, Run.)

In June 1940 at the evacuation of Dunkirk, Denis bumped into an old school friend of his:

"My ship and another were the very last to sail from Brest. I had just cast off from the shore and was actually under steam when shouts from the wharf attracted my attention. Two Tommies had been left behind, I managed to pick them up and, would you believe it, one of them turned out to be a former High School boy, who went to school with me. He is a 2nd Lieut. in the Royal Engineers, Milton Swales, junior, who lives in Westoe. What a coincidence! Of the very last men to be evacuated out of thousands one of them to be a man whom I knew!"

From 1942 Denis was in command of a ship called Landing Ship Tank 402 which was designed to quickly offload tanks, jeeps and men onto beaches. He was on this ship at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and later Normandy.

"Prior to leaving Tripoli, in North Africa for the Salerno invasion I had been talking to some of the tank crews about the forthcoming invasion at Salerno and I gathered that, as they told me, the worst part of the invasion would be the waiting in their tanks below decks, in the dark, for the ships' touch down on the beach, this seemed endless and fear of the unknown awaiting them."

"I discussed an idea of mine with the ship's radio officer, which was to play a gramophone record on the ship's broadcasting service which would last about 4 minutes in time."

"I found what I thought would be the ideal record to play - this was "The Post Horn Gallop". This record was played by a brass band and works up to crescendo of music ending on a high note of the horn. It lasted in all exactly four minutes. I informed the tank crews of my idea of playing this record 4 minutes before the ship touched down on the beach and they would know that then the bow doors and ramp would be opened and lowered for the tanks to move off - it would help them to stop worrying when exactly the beach landing would take place. This I believe eased any tension one had and helped to make the invasion less worrying."

Denis designed the camouflage on the ship and it was painted by the ship's crew. The landing ship HMLST402 commanded by Denis was on the Normandy landings and rather unusually there is video footage of his ship on Invasion Of France: Landing Of Equipment & Evacuation Of Wounded, 06/11/1944 (full) (youtube.com)
From about 1:34 to 4:28 on the time counter on the video.

He married a South Shields lass in 1945.

In 1988 Denis wrote several letters to Prince Philip, sent him some of his wartime stories and reminded him that they both had served on the same East Coast convoy during World War Two, Prince Philip wrote back thanking him of this. Denis met Prince Philip in 1993 and the photo appeared in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph with the headline"Haven't we met before?"

History

Item list and details

1. Photo of Denis Clarke 2. Run, Rabbit Run story 3. Shields Gazette meeting an old High School friend clipping 4. Post Horn Gallop story 5. HMLST402 photo front 6. HMLST402 photo back 7. Prince Philip letter 8. Prince Philip newspaper photo

Person the story/items relate to

Denis Clarke

Person who shared the story/items

Ian Clarke

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

Father

Type of submission

Shared at Ocean Road Community Centre, Tyne and Wear on 18 November 2023. The event was organised by South Shields Local History Group.

Record ID

117459 | SSH046