AT five to six on the evening of May 21, 1942, a Wellington bomber with an engine ablaze came in low over the mining villages a mile to the north of the town of Crook.

It was a brand new plane, probably with less than 15 hours flying time on its clock. Its five-man crew were based at RAF Kinningley, near Doncaster, and were returning from a cross-country training exercise that had taken them out to the Isle of Man.

It was a training exercise that was going terribly wrong.

The plane came in from the north-west over the tower of St Thomas’ Church in Stanley Crook, with smoke trailing behind it. Then it veered round to the south-west. It was as if the pilot, Flight Sergeant Rambler David Roberts, an Australian, were plotting a course that kept the houses of Roddymoor on one side of him, the built-up area of Crook on the other and only the countryside in front of him.

Farmer John Burn was ploughing in one of the fields as the plane came over his head. He saw its port wing hit the ground first. Then its fuselage wiped out a fence, and the whole lot came to rest at a drunken angle on its starboard side.

Mr Burn rushed over. He could see one airman lying injured on the ground nearby. He could see another trapped inside.

Just as he reached the wreckage, it exploded. Bullets fired out of its guns towards the other people who were rushing to help; the landing wheels and the Perspex gun turret, with the gunner trapped inside, were blown about 200 yards through the air.

Everything caught fire. No one could survive.

An hour later, the remains were still smouldering and the choking smell of burning Perspex filled the countryside.

The bodies of the airmen were laid out in the farmer’s cow byre.

They were Flt Sgt Roberts, 21, of Mitcham, South Australia. His unusual first name, Rambler, was initially written as Ambler, and so his parents didn’t learn of his death until he had been buried.

Sgt Rae Groom, 26, was also Australian, hailing from Sulphur Creek in Tasmania – as his headstone in Darlington unusually records.

Flt Sgt Angus Roberts, 23, was with the Royal Canadian Air Force, although he crashlanded close to his birthplace of South Shields, his family emigrating to Vancouver when he was young.

The other two airmen were fully fledged Canadians: Flt Sgt William Reeves, 27, was the air observer from Winnipeg, and Flt Sgt Robert Boates, 26, was the air gunner from Nova Scotia.

They were buried five days later, in Darlington’s West Cemetery, side by side, but a long way from home.

The remains of the wreckage were tidied away, but ploughing over the years has brought lost items back to the surface – there are, for instance, some Canadian coins in Crook which are said to have come from the site.

At some time, Wear Valley District Council commissioned a plaque which bears the names of the airmen, but no one can remembers where the council intended to hang the plaque or how it came to be in its current resting place, in the North-East Aircraft Museum near the Nissan factory in Washington.

Now there are moves afoot to erect a permanent memorial as near to the crash site as possible. First, though, information is required: can you shed any light on the incident or the plaque; do you have any items that may have come from the site? Please email