William Robinson Clarke was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 4th October 1895. With the outbreak of war, ‘Robbie’ Clarke, aged 19, paid his own passage to Britain and, on 26th July 1915, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). At first he served as an air mechanic but, on 18th October, he was posted to France as a driver. Clarke wanted to fly, however, and in December 1916 he was accepted for pilot training in England. On 26th April 1917, ‘Robbie’ Clarke won his ‘wings’, receiving Royal Aero Club certificate number 4837, and was promoted to Sergeant.
On 29th May 1917, Clarke joined 4 Squadron RFC at Abeele in Belgium and began flying R.E.8 biplanes over the Western Front. While on a reconnaissance mission on the morning of 28th July, he and his observer, Second Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, were attacked by enemy fighters. He described the action in a letter to his mother:
“I was doing some photographs a few miles the other side when about five Hun scouts came down upon me, and before I could get away, I got a bullet through the spine. I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly any more … My observer escaped without any injury.”
‘Robbie’ recovered from his wounds, and after the war he returned to Jamaica to work in the building trade. He was an active veteran and became Life President of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.
William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, died in April 1981. He is buried at the Military Cemetery at Up Park Camp, Jamaica.