4.2 – Ruth Harcourt, Samuel, Emily, Walter, Clara and Jack Clegg

This post will primarily focus on Jack Clegg, one of the subjects of our 2023 Holocaust Memorial Day tour. This family had links to many other important Todmorden figures via Ruth marrying Johnson A. Harcourt, himself linked to Geoff Love, but that’s for a later update.

At the base of this grave there is mention of Walter and Clara’s son Jack, who was “reported missing” on 27th April 1943 aged 22. We do know where he died, however. Our story really begins with Jack’s father, Walter Clegg, who was born at Lobb Mill Arches, Todmorden on 18th August 1893. His mother Clara Waddington was born in Burnley on 19th September 1893. On 19th November 1919, a year after the end of the Great War, Walter and Clara married, actually here at Christ Church. Walter was a cotton twister living at Bath Street, and Clara a weaver living at Nuttall Street. Honest origins—a proper working class Tod family. The wedding was probably a modest affair, but it would bring us all a hero.

In April 1921 their son Jack was born, and then a few years later in 1926 their daughter Iris Dorethea arrived. By 1939 when Jack would have been 18 or so, the family had moved to Castle Lane, and their father was now the Local Authority Assistant School Attendance Officer, as well as serving with the Air Raid Precautions Service with the Ambulances. Clara continued as a Cotton Weaver. Jack grew up to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a working class lad—a picker maker. At some point in the early 1940s Jack had met a young lady, Margaret Chambers, from Leeds, and in March 1943 when Jack was a mere 22 years old they were married.

In 1942 Jack joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and initially was posted to Canada to train as a pilot. This was highly skilled and tough training, and having failed to meet the standard, he retrained as an air gunner. Sgt Jack Clegg (656810) became operational in April 1943, joining 76 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire, assigned to Bomber Command. On 27th April 1943, a month after he married Margaret, Jack was part of the crew of a Handley Page Halifax Heavy Bomber on a raid to Duisburg. This was likely to have been his first mission. The crew, like many others, was international, with a pilot from New Zealand, an air gunner from Canada, as well as 5 from the UK. On the journey out, over the North Sea, the plane encountered a BF110 night fighter bomber, and took damage. It started to dive, with the pilot struggling for control. As the plane lost altitude, it was caught in searchlights West of Amsterdam, and received further flack damage, putting it past hope. What thoughts went through the heads of these young men? Did Jack think of Margaret with his last moments? Among the smoke and flames, the chaos in the dark skies, do you panic or do you not have time? With 2 engines out, and fire on board, the pilot was unable to keep the plane in the air.

The crew surely knew that the Carlton Hotel below was being used as the local Luftwaffe headquarters, as well as lodgings for German Army officers. Did the pilot use his last efforts to at least bring the plane down where it would cause the most disruption to German forces? We will never know for certain, but they crashed in central Amsterdam just behind the Carlton Hotel. Tragically all 7 crew were killed. The impact also killed 7 civilians, and 3 German Army personnel.

In a brush with history, a young Jewish girl named Anne Frank was in hiding nearby. We all know her from the incredibly detailed and emotive diaries she kept throughout her time in hiding, and she mentions the crash in her diaries.

“The Carlton Hotel has been destroyed. Two British planes loaded with firebombs landed right on top of the German Officers’ Club. The entire corner of Vijzelstraat and Singel has gone up in flames. The number of air strikes on German cities is increasing daily. We haven’t had a good night’s rest in ages, and I have bags under my eyes from lack of sleep.

The 7 aircrew are buried together in Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery, with the graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Jack was survived by his parents, sister, and wife, who all kept his memory alive during their lifetimes. This mantle has now passed to his nieces (who are members of our group), and also the grandchildren of his wife Margaret, who now live in Australia. Although his body never came home, his memory is kept dear by those he left behind.

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