The D-Day vow that saved Norfolk’s Wherry Albion

PUBLISHED: 15:32 03 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:32 03 June 2019

Roy Clark and the Wherry Albion in 1952

Roy Clark and the Wherry Albion in 1952

As the D-Day invasion force battled up the beaches of Normandy, Roy Clark dreamed of what he might do for Norfolk if he survived

The wherry Albion makes her way under sail along the River Yare near Cantley. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe wherry Albion makes her way under sail along the River Yare near Cantley. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Under attack from troops on the beach and aircraft overhead, battling through a maelstrom of choppy water and dead and dying men, Roy Clark focused on doing his D-Day duty.

But as he brought tanks and troops ashore his mind was not only busy with his role in the fight to free Europe, but with what he would do if he made it back to Norfolk.

Gunfire and explosions strafed the men fighting their way up the beach. Enemy planes roared overhead. Stricken boats and men were engulfed in the swirling seawater as waves of troops struggled towards the shore. Roy Clark was in charge of a landing craft. But as he raced between the shore and the troop ships he began planning how to rescue and restore a disintegrating Norfolk wherry, and perhaps even a windmill too.

His son, Rod, said: "He vowed, 'If I get out of this mess alive I will do something meaningful.'"

Roy Clark, second from right, smoking pipe, with fellow servicemen a month before D-DayRoy Clark, second from right, smoking pipe, with fellow servicemen a month before D-Day

Roy had signed up in 1939, starting out as a reconnaissance photographer, flying over Nazi-occupied Europe. But the man who had grown up sailing in Norfolk soon transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

Henry Gowman, of Poringland, near Norwich, a volunteer wherry skipper and himself a Royal Navy veteran, researched Roy's story.

"Every summer, his grandfather had hired a cottage for the family on Hemsby dunes and let the youngsters run wild," said Henry. "That he was in his natural element on the water, rather than in the air, was reflected by his rapid rise through the ranks. So it was that on the 6th June 1944 he was in charge of a tank landing craft crossing a choppy English Channel, part of a vast invasion fleet intent on displacing the Nazis. As Roy closed with the French coast, making for Arromanches beach, he saw plumes of smoke, bomb bursts and machine gun tracer bullets from the Stuka dive bombers screaming overhead.

"Closer to shore, he was now having to navigate his craft around others in his own squadron which had been hit by shell fire and become waterlogged. Ahead he could see barbed wire entanglements, mines bobbing in the water and in the distance, on the heights above the beach, concrete pill boxes, from which machine gunners rained down bullets upon the soldiers wading from their craft to the landing grounds."

Fast forward 75 years and Henry is listening to Rod Clark tell his father's story. Rod was a toddler when his father had to leave him, his sister Linda and their mum Peggy, to serve his country.

When Roy returned, he was determined to honour the vows he had made on Arromanches Beach.

Just four years after the end of the war he was masterminding the rescue of a historic Norfolk trading wherry and the launch of the Norfolk Wherry Trust, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Henry has been a voluntary skipper for the trust for the past 10 years.

He said: "Having been demobbed at the end of the war, Roy set up a book shop in Augustine Steward House, on Tombland, and grounded himself in civilian life. He was a man interested in everything and everyone. By 1949 he had made firm friends with Lady Mayhew (nee Colman) and Ted Ellis, the famous naturalist, amongst others. He convinced a small band of Norfolk worthies that saving a wherry was an important job which needed doing urgently, as by then not a single one was under sail, those remaining having been reduced to dumb barges towed behind steam tugs.

"A wherry named Plane, built in 1898, was selected as the most watertight of the craft moored at Colman's Carrow Works and the most promising to be returned to a sailing wherry. Roy and Ted Ellis spent hours in a dinghy on Surlingham Broad, crawling through the mud in which many wherries were encased, rescuing metal parts for re-use on Albion."

The Norfolk Wherry Trust was launched at a public meeting in Stuart Hall (now Cinema City). Rod was at that first, packed, meeting and said: "I had never seen so many people. Dad got up and spoke, to calls and shouts of 'Hear Hear!'"

Just months later the wherry, now with her original name, Albion, set sail.

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"This was a spectacular achievement, even by today's standards," said Henry. "But back then, not only was there no internet but hardly anyone even had a telephone or a car. The band of people that Roy and Lady Mayhew got together had to bang on doors, walk miles, distribute leaflets, give talks in village halls and generally create a fuss and a will to save Albion.

Roy went on to write a book about trading wherries. Black Sailed Traders was published in 1961. Roy's children, Rod and Linda, are planning to republish it later this year, with the profits going to the continued upkeep of Albion.

Henry Gowman describes himself as "a proud skipper of Albion." After a career in the Royal Navy and the police service he retrained as a garden designer and horticulturist and worked, part-time in the Bishop of Norwich's garden. He has also been a wildlife warden and tourist guide for the Broads Authority and his current voluntary roles include village tree warden and men's shed chairman. Now 75, he is in his final year as a skipper for the Norfolk Wherry Trust - after getting involved following a 60th birthday present from his wife. "Over the course of four years, having never sailed anything ever, I progressed from being a trainee mate to a fully fledged skipper," said Henry.

Alongside launching the Norfolk Wherry Trust and restoring Albion, Roy Clark also fulfilled the second part of his D-Day vow, renovating Red Mill opposite the Berney Arms. His son, Rod, remembers him as a hugely talented man, making television and radio documentaries as well as running the family book shop. Rod, who continues the family maritime tradition with his home on a boat at Oulton Broad, is a musician. He was once a member of the Moody Blues and managed by Brian Epstein.

The Norfolk Wherry Trust celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Wherry Albion is 121 years old and one of just two of the 300 trading barges which once sailed the waterways of the broads. In Edwardian times wherry skippers would scrub out the holds of the boats in the summer and take holiday-makers for trips. She is on the National Historic Ships Register, hosted Timothy West and Prunella Scales for an episode of their Great Canal Journeys and can be visited, for free, at open days from 10am-4pm at:

Oulton Broad by the harbour masters office on Sunday, June 30.

Norwich Riverside by the Yacht Station on Saturday, July 6.

Beccles Quay on Tuesday, July 9.

Ludham on Thursday, September 19.

She will also be at the Norfolk Wherry Trust base in Ludham, as part of the village open gardens, on Sunday June 23.

Albion can also be chartered, and day cruises run from Ludham, Oulton Broad, Cantley or Norwich in June and July, for £35.

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