I love History. And I love Aviation. And, I'm a serious
student of both. David Clarabut died recently. A man I never knew, or
knew about, until reading his obituary in the London papers. His story
is like many others, and then again, maybe not. From the Indian Army
outpost on the Afghan border, to the fjords of Norway, to life as a
businessman, and finally a sailor. A time, geography, and technology journey unlikely to be retraced today.
They are leaving us, these great figures of history. As I look around
at those on the world's stage today, and the events in today's
newspaper, history seems to take on a bigger and bigger role in my
life. I sometimes joke that I like studying the past, because I prefer
it, increasingly, to the present. Maybe that's too heavy a dose of
rose-colored glasses. And, maybe, it's more than a little true. One
thing is certain, we ignore it at our peril. For what was, will be
again, and there is nothing new under the sun....
Clarabut, a Royal Navy dive bomber pilot, trained at Grosse Ile,
Michigan (where the first President Bush also trained), and then at
Kingston, Ontario (where British Columbia's Hampton Gray, VC, trained).
". . . while taxiing at
ran down and killed a classmate. Wartime training allowed no time to
mourn or mope, but the accident still gave him nightmares 60 years on.
He also flew under the Thousand Islands bridge, and almost at the end
of his training he was practising close formation flying when his
wingman ran into him. Clarabut's aircraft entered an uncontrollable
spin and he struggled to open the canopy, bailing out so late that
hardly had his parachute deployed than he struck the hard ice of the
frozen Lake Ontario. His wingman saw the hole where Clarabut's aircraft
had broken through into the lake and reported him missing. Thus no
rescue party was sent out. Clarabut, who had lost his gloves and boots
in the descent, hobbled ashore in the sub-zero temperatures until he
met a woodsman and his son on a sleigh who took him in ."
David Clarabut, who has died aged 85, dive-bombed the
Tirpitz and later rose to prominence in the City.
Conditions in the Norwegian Sea, between snow storms, were
for flying when, at dawn on April 3 1944, Clarabut took off from the
deck of the fleet carrier Furious on Operation Tungsten. Carrying a
1,600lb bomb, he was flying one of 21 Barracuda dive-bomber aircraft of
the first strike of 827 and 830 Naval Air Squadrons, launched against
the German battleship Tirpitz, which lurked some 120 miles eastwards in
The giant Tirpitz had just completed repairs after
Source, the attack several months earlier by midget submarines, and was
weighing anchor before going to sea for trials.
Surprise was complete when, at 0529, the first Wildcats
Hellcats screamed in over the mountains to spray German flak positions
with machine-gun fire. While circling Corsairs gave air cover, the
Barracudas took station in line ahead and dived through the clear skies
from 10,000 ft. Aged 21, Temporary Acting Sub-Lieutenant Clarabut RNVR
(A) was third in line.
The mountains had hidden Tirpitz from view until a few
before the dive, and the battleship put up two dense box barrages, one
at 8,000 ft and the other at 3,000 ft, where bombs were meant to be
released. The aircraft of 830 Squadron were led lower, and Clarabut
dived lowest of all until, at 1,200 ft and at a 45 degree angle, he
dropped his deadly cargo. A dense column of smoke rose higher than his
aircraft, and Clarabut could only fly through this and hope to pull out
of his dive before hitting the mountainside. As he emerged, there was
the bright flash of an explosion between Tirpitz's bridge and B turret.
In all, the Barracudas claimed six direct hits and three
hits, which caused floods and fires, and left the battleship's upper
deck a shambles. Those killed included Tirpitz's captain and she
drifted out of control until she ran aground. One Barracuda was shot
down and its crew of three lost during the attack, which had lasted
barely a minute.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill signalled: "Pray
the pilots and aircrews concerned on this most brilliant feat of arms
so serviceable to the Royal Navy and to the whole world cause."
Clarabut, with several other aircrew, was awarded the DSC for his
bravery, leadership, skill and devotion to duty.
David Stewart Clarabut was born on September 12 1923 at
hill station close to the Afghanistan border, the son of Major-General
RB Clarabut CB, Indian Army.
He was brought up from the age of six as a child of empire
English prep schools and educated at Cheltenham College, where his
interests were sport and "mischief". He failed Dartmouth because of his
poor eyesight, but was accepted for the Fleet Air Arm.
After initial training at HMS St Vincent, Clarabut was
sent in a
converted cattle ship and by train to Grosse Isle, Michigan, where he
flew solo after just eight hours. He then went to Kingston, Ontario, to
complete his training, flying in Harvards.
There, while taxiing at night, he ran down and killed a
Wartime training allowed no time to mourn or mope, but the accident
still gave him nightmares 60 years on. He also flew under the Thousand
Islands bridge, and almost at the end of his training he was practising
close formation flying when his wingman ran into him.
Clarabut's aircraft entered an uncontrollable spin and he
struggled to open the canopy, bailing out so late that hardly had his
parachute deployed than he struck the hard ice of the frozen Lake
His wingman saw the hole where Clarabut's aircraft had
through into the lake and reported him missing. Thus no rescue party
was sent out. Clarabut, who had lost his gloves and boots in the
descent, hobbled ashore in the sub-zero temperatures until he met a
woodsman and his son on a sleigh who took him in.
After Operation Tungsten, Clarabut became a flying
714, 736 and 708 squadrons: he wanted to stay in the Navy after the war
but was released in 1946 because of the problems with his eyesight,
something which he felt was unfair considering that only a few months
beforehand his sight was good enough to find Tirpitz.
In 1946 Clarabut joined the family firm of the London and
Rochester Trading Company, where his training included a period as
deckhand in one of the firm's tugs. By 1949 he had become manager of
the tug and lighterage department and in 1955 he took over all the
firm's commercial activities.
In 1969, three years after the London and Rochester was
by Hay's Wharf, Clarabut became the group commercial director and
chairman, and in 1980 he became chief executive of the reconstituted
Hay's Group before retiring in 1983.
Whatever Clarabut did he rose to positions of leadership.
assumed many directorships, but his great passion was sailing: he
joined the Medway Yacht Club in 1948 and was Commodore in 1959. In 1957
he came 2nd in the Dragon Class Edinburgh Cup and represented Britain
against Denmark, when the Dragons were ferried to Copenhagen in the
Royal Yacht Britannia during the Queen's state visit. In one year,
1967, he won the Queen's Cup at Cowes, the Ramsgate Gold Cup, and was
first overall in the East Coast Offshore Racing Association.
Clarabut had always been a sportsman, starting at
school when he won his first race, a 70-yard sprint. He received, and
proudly kept, what he thought must be the smallest silver plated cup
ever produced, about ¾ inch high.
He had a firm hand shake, stood tall and looked you in the
David Clarabut, who died on January 6, 2009, married, in 1950,
Deirdre ("Marzie") Coleman, who survives him with their five children.
Copyright 2009 Robert Bogash. All Rights Reserved.London Telegraph article Copyright London Telegraph
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