26.07.1942 31st Fighter Group Spitfire Lt.Col Clark P.O.W.
Date: 26th July 1942 (sunday)
Unit: No. 31st Fighter Group
Type: Spitfire Vb
Code: VZ-G (Borrowed from 412 Squadron)
Base: R.A.F. Atcham, Shropshire, England
Location: Cap Gris Nez, France
Pilot: Lt. Col Albert Patton "Bub" Clark U.S.A.A.F. P.O.W. No. 594. Camp Stalag Luft III Sagan.
REASON FOR LOSS:
As told by his Grandson to Aircrew Remembered In January 2013:
Lt. Col. Clark (then 28 years old) was Executive Officer (XO, the second-in-command) of the 31st Fighter Group when it arrived in England on 23 June 1942 by naval convoy across the North Atlantic. The 31st FG – one of the first U.S. fighter units to arrive in England after the U.S. entered the War – was stationed at Royal Air Field Atcham and provided with a new aircraft for the American pilots, the Submarine Spitfire Mk Vb, supplied by the British Royal Air Force.
On Sunday, 26 July 1942, six senior pilots from the 31st FG, including Lt. Col. Clark, were given their first combat mission – in fact, it was the first fighter action for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the European Theatre. They were assigned to participate in RAF Fighter Command’s Rodeo operation, a series of offensive operations across the English Channel. Lt. Col. Clark and two other 31st FG pilots departed from Merston Airfield in a sortie with Yellow Flight of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 412 Squadron, of the RAF Tangmere Wing.
Lt. Col. Clark was flying an older Spitfire borrowed from the No. 412 Squadron (since his newer assigned Spitfire was being repaired that day). Their mission was a “fighter sweep” over Abbéville, France, and to attack the Luftwaffe’s Abbeville-Drucat aerodrome, where the II. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 26 Schlageter (Fighter Unit JG 26) was based.
R.A.F. Atcham airfield, Shropshire, England
After strafing the aerodrome and Luftwaffe fighters taking off during their strafing run, Lt. Col. Clark and his flight leader (RCAF Flying Officer Frederick E. Green) were attacked by an already-airborne flight of four Focke-Wulf Fw-190A-1 Würgers of 6 Staffel (Squadron), II.Gruppe, JG 26 (6./JG 26). He was separated from his flight leader and forced to engage the four enemy fighters alone. In the course of the ensuing “dogfight”, Lt. Col. Clark’s aircraft was hit and his engine failed.
When he was unable to open his canopy to bail out over the English Channel, he was forced to crash-land his crippled Spitfire onto a field just south of the lighthouse at Cap Gris Nez, France. Lt. Col. Clark was immediately captured by German soldiers from the nearby Batterie Todt (one of the largest and most significant German coastal artillery batteries). He was immediately turned over to local Luftwaffe officers, and met four pilots later determined to be from JG 26.
Luftwaffe Oberfeldwebel (Flight Sergeant) Walter Meyer of 6./JG26 (flying as “Brown 2”) was given credit for shooting down Lt. Col. Clark. Ofw. Meyer was an “ace” with 18 victories (Lt. Col. Clark was the 14th/15th/), and was eventually promoted to Lieutnant (2nd Lieutenant) and then posthumously to Hauptmann (Captain). Ofw. Meyer was red-headed (like Lt. Col. Clark), and met Lt. Col. Clark that night after he was shot down.
Another 6./JG 26 pilot, Ltn. Heinz-Gerhard Vogt (flying as “Brown 13”), also sought credit for downing a Spitfire at the same time and in the same location as Lt. Col. Clark’s engagement – a claim that was never confirmed. It is almost certain that Ofw. Meyer was in Ltn. Vogt’s flight that day, both inflicted damage on Lt. Col. Clark’s Spitfire, both claimed credit for the same Spitfire, and Meyer was given the “victory” – possibly by “flipping a coin” or by JG 26’s Geschwaderkommodore (commander), Major Gerhard Schöpfel. Ltn. Meyer died on 18 January 1943 from tuberculosis contracted in a French hospital (in Lille) when being treated for injuries suffered in a ground collision with his wingman on 11 October 1942.
Ltn. Vogt was eventually promoted to Oberleutnant, became an “ace” with 48 victories, was himself shot down six times, and was killed-in-action when shot down over Köln (Germany) on 14 January 1945 by 1st Lt. Robert E. Smith or 1st Lt. Willard E. Warren (both flying P-51Ds with the 82nd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force).
Photos of Lt. Col. Clark’s crashed Spitfire, found after the war in Luftwaffe archives (courtesy Bill Homan)
After being transported by train to Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe (“Dulag Luft”, an interrogation center) at Ober Ursel, Germany, where he was interrogated, Lt. Col. Clark was transported to Stammlager der Luftwaffe III (“Stalag Luft III”), a Luftwaffe-commanded prisoner-of-war camp near Sagan, Silesia (now Poland). When he arrived at Stalag Luft III, Lt. Col. Clark was kriegie (prisoner-of-war) No. 594 and the senior American officer (SAO). He served as one of the senior officers on the camp’s Escape Committee (“Big S” – in charge of security) that planned or approved all escape attempts, including “The Great Escape” of literary and film fame.
During the severe Winter of 1945, Lt. Col. Clark and over 11,000 other prisoners-of-war from Stalag Luft III were force-marched (and then transported in rail boxcars) to Stammlager XIII-D near Nürnberg, Germany, as the Germans attempted to keep them from the advancing Russian Army. They later marched to Stammlager VII-A near Moosburg, Germany, where Lt. Col. Clark (along with over 130,000 other prisoners-of-war) was liberated on 29 April 1945 by American forces of the 47th Tank Battalion, 14th Armoured Division.
Lt. Col. Clark’s experiences are described in his memoir "33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III. A World War II Airman Tells His Story", as well as in numerous other books and documentary films. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Class of 1936) and rose the rank of Lieutenant General in the U.S.A.F., retiring in 1974. Gen. Clark died in 2010 at age 96, and is buried at the U.S. Air Force Academy, of which he was Superintendent from 1970-1974.
Acknowledgments: With thanks to his Grandson Bill Homan for submitting this information and the fine photographs.