Remembering the heroics and bravery of the late John Clements

John Clements

John Clements was awarded the George Cross for his actions in Sappada. - Credit: John Clements Sports and Community Centre

In April 1976, teacher John Clements sacrificed his own life to save others after a raging fire at a hotel in Italy. This is his story. 

John was born and brought up in Codicote, attending Hitchin Boys’ School until the summer of 1971 before leaving to study Physical Education and English at Loughborough College of Education. 

After a year teaching at Prior Park School, he joined Sherrardswood School in Welwyn Garden City as a PE teacher in September 1975.

Easter 1976 would see John and five other adults accompany 37 children on an eight-day trip to the Sappada Ski Resort in northeast Italy.

Tragically, John and two children would never come home.

At around 4am on April 12, smoke was noticed in the hotel, with John among those to quickly raise the alarm and hurry children downstairs, through dense smoke, to safety.

Having got out of the hotel, further members of staff helped further children to escape from a first-floor balcony, but John meanwhile was climbing down from a third-floor balcony on the west side of the building to a second-floor balcony.

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As the fire raged and intensified, he reached the first floor where he organised children into small groups and helped them escape using a rope made of knotted sheets. When the room was evacuated, he refused to leave the hotel.

Later that year, the London Gazette reported on John’s heroics and the final moments of his life.

“When the room was evacuated, Mr Clements refused to leave the hotel and went back into the building which in a matter of minutes was burning fiercely,” read the newspaper’s report.

“He was seen on at least two occasions to go back into the hotel after carrying or dragging people out, and he ignored repeated attempts to restrain him.”

After his repeated attempts to save those inside the burning resort at Sappada, he was ‘finally overcome by fumes’, according to the London Gazette.

John Clements died in the fire at the Sappada Ski Resort. He was aged just 22.

John Clements

John Clements. - Credit: Codicote FC

Sadly, two pupils, both boys, also died.

Anita Chaytor, one of the pupils John saved that day, remembered her teacher’s brave actions in the book George Cross Heroes by Michael Ashcroft.

“Mr Clements was in complete command of the situation and was very composed,” she recalled.

“All the time he kept lowering children one after another, taking care to see that the youngest and those who were the most frightened went first.”

For his action in the early hours of April 12, 1976, John Clements was awarded the George Cross, the highest award bestowed by the British government and equal in stature to the military Victoria Cross.

John’s widow, Wendy, received his George Cross from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace on February 10, 1977.

To this day, John and his heroic actions are remembered in Welwyn Garden City at Sherrardswood School, where a plaque recognising his bravery was put up and still remains today.

In Codicote, the John Clements Sports & Community Centre was built and named in his honour, with their website explaining the decision to honour him.

“John has left many memories in the village to cherish and many qualities to emulate,” it reads.

“His honesty, integrity, courage, good humour and enthusiasm for life were there in all his actions and words for everyone to see and hear.

“He was often described as a really genuine person. Many people have particular memories of John and, however varied they may be, they all illustrate his wholehearted and selfless approach to life.

“The high standards he held for himself were an example to all who were associated with him and he upheld them to the very last.

“His integrity was epitomised in his final actions when he put the safety of the pupils in his care above that of himself.

“All that he achieved in his short life and the tragic way it was prematurely ended will never be forgotten.

“It is for this reason that this enormously admired man – who still has many of his family and friends who live in Codicote – was such a natural choice as someone to whom the new Centre should be dedicated.”

John Clements may have only been 22, but his life, and heroic actions that April morning in Sappada, will forever be remembered.