Own recollections supported by Alan Clarke (son)
Gilbert was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He had a sister Gwendolyn and a brother called Gerald, but sadly their father died when Gilbert was 3 years old. His father was of a fairer complexion than his mother as he was of Arawak descent which would be something that would later be an advantage.
Gilbert was a monitor at school as he was considered to be bright and stayed on a year longer than was usual, leaving at the age of 16. His family were poor but to make a bit of money, he would put his interest in mechanical and electrical things to good use. He was able to find old batteries to charge up again to operate old things and light bulbs. However, the short circuiting of equipment he had left on overnight nearly set his home alight and the row that ensued changed the family dynamics as Gilbert asserted his position as the head of the house.
Gilbert felt that his lighter complexion played a part in assisting him to gain employment quickly at Henderson book store relative to his peers who had a more difficult time. However, Henderson did not keep his attention for long as his interest was still in mechanics, so he only stayed a week despite his mother’s wishes. His next job was in a large department store, similar to Debenhams with Syrian Jewish owners who required employees to learn Arabic. He found the job interesting, selling men’s suits, shirts, shoes and other clothing so stayed 2-3 years.
In 1943 news came that volunteers were wanted for the RAF, so everyone duly filled in application forms for the test even though success was not guaranteed if you were not college or university educated. However, days later he was thrilled to find that he had passed with flying colours. Gilbert saw it as one of the happiest days of his life. Within a few days they were sent to Kingston Palisadoes RAF camp, got kitted out and were parading as new recruits. After some initial training and drilling, they were sent back home to say farewell to their families. On the evening before leaving, there was a dance in the main park followed by an emotional farewell the next day.
The troop ship headed for the USA and the men disembarked in South Virginia to a transit camp. Although they were welcomed, it was not what they were used to because, being America, there was segregation with no colour mixing. They were told immediately that they would only be socialising in the company of the Black GIs - which was fine as they were made to feel welcomed and they had a ball. However, on one occasion, curiosity led them to a White area and as they were known to be British, the attitude was civil with offers of beers. Gilbert, having not had beer before, saw the froth on the top and wondered if it was a milkshake - he was not keen on the lager.
Their next journey was on another troop ship in a convoy heading for Britain. Within a few hours a loud bang was heard which they were told was a torpedo, something they soon got used to as ships around them were hit. They sailed through the Atlantic keeping to the American coast past Canada, Ireland and then docking in Liverpool before going on to Filey.
Gilbert recalls that they arrived in Britain on 3rd June 1944. The first camp was Hunmanby Moor (Butlin’s) in Filey, Yorkshire. This was a typical field camp site with corrugated iron Nissen huts and a log or coal burning round stove for heating on. A mess tin could be placed on top of this to boil water or make tea. The floor was concrete with lino covering that was highly polished. Beds and lockers were in a line on either side. Inspection was early every morning and anything out of place would result in the bed being stripped and lockers untidied to be put right before going on parade. The toilets were outside the Nissen huts as were standpipes for cold water. The showers were in another hut so leaving to use the facilities was cold which the sergeant thought was good to toughen them up.
Other camps they moved to later were better equipped with hot water, showers, canteens and NAFFIs. There were camps for exercise, gun training, combat training, and a college or school for whatever they’d signed up for (mechanics, radar etc). They also had to be able to identify planes and ships on both sides.
Gilbert recalls that on one occasion at a camp in Cambridge while studying radar equipment servicing, they heard a heavy droning noise and as there were no sirens, they knew it could not be the enemy. Looking upwards at the skies, they could see it filled with aircrafts of all shapes and sizes going towards Europe in every direction as far as the eye could see with everyone all shouting ‘give it to them, let him have it’.
Gilbert's service number was 713348.