Bernard “Bunny” Clayton: 617 Squadron pilot with 82 operations from three tours

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Left to right: Plt Off Bernard “Bunny” Clayton, Sqn Ldr David Maltby, Flt Lt Harold “Mick” Martin. Photographed at RAF Scampton, July 1943. [Pic: IWM Collections, CH11048]

The loss of eight crews on the Dams Raid meant that 617 Squadron needed a swift injection of new personnel in order to function properly. One of those who arrived in July 1943 was Plt Off Bernard Clayton, known from his schooldays as “Bunny”. He was only 23, but had completed two tours of operations and been decorated with both the CGM and DFC.

Clayton was born on a farm in North Yorkshire on 7 December 1919, the oldest of seven children. He went to the King James Grammar School in Knaresborough, where he met a boy called Ian Robinson who became a close friend. Both got jobs after leaving school but then at the outbreak of war both volunteered for the RAF. Called up at different times, from then on their paths rarely crossed. Robinson became an observer, serving first in the Far East before returning to the UK. Clayton qualified as a pilot, and went on to fly a full tour in both 9 and 51 Squadrons, with a spell of training in between. 

It was after starting a second spell as a training instructor that Clayton was posted on his own to 617 Squadron. He then travelled over to his previous operational outfit, 51 Squadron, and persuaded all six of the crew who had flown with him on his previous tour to accompany him. They went on to play a pivotal role in rebuilding the squadron after the September 1943 attack on the Dortmund Ems canal when one crew was lost on an aborted attack, and five more the following day when it finally went ahead. Clayton and his crew flew a total of 31 more operations before being taken off operations for a third and final time in July 1944. Clayton received the DSO for this final tour. 

Halfway through this final tour, in February 1944, Flg Off George Chalmers joined Clayton’s crew as the wireless operator. He had been in Bill Townsend’s crew on the Dams Raid, and had won the DFM for his role in attacking the Ennepe Dam. He was also withdrawn from operations in July 1944, having notched up a total of 66 operations. 

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George Chalmers DFC DFM [Pic: Anthony Eaton]

Clayton stayed on in the RAF after the war, transferring to Transport Command. In 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded the divided city of Berlin in East Germany, and so what became called the Berlin airlift was organised – transport aircraft flying in a narrow corridor to provide supplies. Clayton became one of the many pilots undertaking this difficult exercise, undertaking a total of 94 trips. He then transferred to RAF Manby for more training duties. Sadly, on 19 March 1951, he lost his life in the crash of a Handley Page Hastings at RAF Strubby. Another officer was piloting the aircraft that day. 

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You can read much more about the life and career of Bunny Clayton and his school friend Ian Robinson in an interesting book about the pair, Two Friends: Two Different Hells by A.E Eaton. It is available at £10 including p&p on special offer from the writer, who you can contact by email at tony.ae778@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Bernard “Bunny” Clayton: 617 Squadron pilot with 82 operations from three tours

  1. J David Birrell May 11, 2021 / 4:54 pm

    Bill Hume was ‘Bunny’s’ rear gunner and thought highly of his pilot. Bill lived just half an hour from the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. He visited the museum regularly and played roles in many of our special events. His flight jacket and logbook are on display in our museum.

  2. Caroline Howell May 11, 2021 / 7:24 pm

    Thank you Charles, more interesting stories. I just can’t imagine the physical and mental fatigue of flying so many missions. These heroic young men must have been utterly worn down by the end of the war.

  3. Patricia Desmier May 17, 2021 / 1:28 am

    Many thanks for the new email addressconcerning 617 Sqn.appreciated.

  4. Patricia Desmier August 13, 2021 / 3:38 am

    My name has been restored to me on obtaining a divorce It is Spafford.My cousin Frederick Michael.was KIA on the Dortmund Ems sortie he lies with his crew in the Reichswald cemetary. He also served in 617 Sqn as Bomber,and with Guy Gibson.

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