PETER METCALFE remembers the most remarkable day in the history of Croft aerodrome: the day a massive 4,000lb bomb, intended for the German town of Hildesheim, blew up on the runway, creating an enormous mushroom cloud.

It was March 22, 1945. A Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber was blown off the runway by a strong crosswind. It slithered into mud where a tyre blew out, the undercarriage collapsed, and the port engine caught fire. The crew, led by Pilot Horace Payne, scrambled out…

“The Lancasters were going on a daylight raid – I had seen them bombing up the day before,” says Peter, now 88, and living in North Cowton, although he grew up on Pepperfield Farm overlooking the aerodrome which was about six miles south of Darlington. “My mother came out the back and said there was something wrong. We ran round and this Lancaster was turning on its belly, and all the Canadian airmen were running away from it, heading for the ditches and for the railway cutting.”

The East Coast Mainline ran in a deep cutting along the edge of the airfield, providing excellent protection when something went wrong.

“We ran down to the railway and about 25 minutes later it went up. Someone had a camera and got a photograph, but there was no bomber left – just a hole in the ground.”

It was 11.27am when the bomb went up although, as Peter remembers, the 1,500 4lb incendiary bombs that the plane was also carrying exploded in the half-hour immediately after the crew had abandoned their stricken aircraft without injury.

The 4,000lb cookie bomb was also known as a “blockbuster”. It was an unstable cylinder packed full of explosives, designed generally to cause immense damage but specifically to blow roof tiles off so that its smaller accompaniments, the incendiary bombs, could fall into the properties and set them alight.

It was so large that it had to be dropped from 6,000ft (about 1,800 metres) – any lower and the plane would be dangerously caught up in its shockwave.

The Croft explosion was felt for miles around – imagine the damage it would have done to Hildesheim, a town in Saxony which today has a population of 100,000, so it is about the same size as Darlington.

Croft aerodrome was created in 1940 on meadowland called Walmires – Peter remembers South Walmire Farm being demolished to make way for the 2,000ft runway. It was a satellite of RAF Middleton St George, and was operational by October 1941. As at Middleton, in 1942, it became the home to squadrons of Canadian bombers, which remained there until June 1945.

“We used to sit on the granary steps at Vince Moor Farm and watch 28 or 30 bombers take off,” says Peter. “It was a sight. They circled a bit to gain height and then followed the mainline going south.”

Planes from Croft took part in Operation Millennium of May 30/31, 1942, which was the first time that the Allies had thrown 1,000 bombers into the air, in a massive raid on Cologne. In June 1944, they took part in D-Day, having practised with training runs against the three vast cooling towers which once dominated Darlington’s skyline.

But there were accidents. Lots of them.

“One o’clock in the morning, I was in bed, and a Halifax came in on its own,” says Peter. “He came past our house and there was an almighty boom. At the top of the runway, as they came into land, they always opened their bomb doors, for some reason, but he had a loose bomb in there and it dropped on the tarmac and blew off the back half of the Halifax. The rear gunner and mid upper gunner were killed.

“Another night we were in bed there was a big pink flash. Either a Wellington or a Halifax had left the runway, crossed the perimeter, through a Nissen hut and went into a bank at Vince Moor Farm. You could hear the crackling of the bullets, thousands of these .303 bullets going off, and all the bits of silver tickertape that they dropped to defeat the radar were blowing about the aerodrome.

“I remember one overheating on take-off. As it left the ground, one of the engines took fire. He couldn’t do anything. He gained height, and went over towards Darlington and you could see the blazing engine all the time. He came in 60ft off the ground and blazing like mad, and he went straight into the bank near the railway line and then all the fire engines started running.

“Another dramatic one was one Saturday afternoon when my aunt Nellie had come to visit on her bike and it was blowing a horrible gale. I remember she got off her bike and we were looking at a Wellington coming into land. He bounced straight up into the air, dropped onto his back and went in the opposite direction like a bit of paper.

“And he just disintegrated. He was smashed to bits, the men and all – what a sight that was!”

Nearly 75 years later, we perhaps forget the huge sacrifices of lives that took place on our doorsteps. In all, 138 aircraft from Croft failed to return – 10 Whitleys, 20 Wellingtons, 87 Halifaxes, 21 Lancasters. There doesn’t seem to be a figure for the number of men who died, but as a Lancaster had a crew of seven, there must be hundreds of men – largely Canadians – who gave their lives.

After the war, Croft, a small aerodrome, was quickly unused by the military, but Darlington garageowner and mayor John Neasham rented it, and formed the Darlington and District Aero Club there. This explains Mr Neasham’s connection with Algerian airman, Baron “Gabby” Gabriel H Calcagni de Tande, who, as Memories told last week, married a Darlington lass when he was stationed at RAF Middleton St George during the war.

Peter worked for Mr Neasham – “a grand fellow”, he says – at the aerodrome, cutting the grass between the runways and baling it up. He then carted the bales off to a barn using a Queen Mary, which was a military low-loader designed to carry a plane. Peter could get 3,000 bales on a Queen Mary.

And Peter flew with Gabby.

“I was about 17 and I wanted to go up in an aeroplane, with my friend, Albert Walker, who still lives in a farm near the aerodrome,” says Peter. “We gave Gabby £1 between us, and up we went in something like a Tiger Moth. It was my first flight, there were probably only three seats, although I have been on Concorde since.”

In 1947, RAF Middleton St George said that the aero club’s runway could be used as a relief landing ground for pupils learning to fly. The aerodrome became known as RAF Neasham, after the man who was in charge of it, and so it is unique in air history, as every other military airfield was named after its closest village or town.

But Croft was already odd in this respect. Dalton-on-Tees is the airfield’s closest settlement, but it couldn’t take that name as there was an RAF Dalton near Dishforth down the A1.

Flying at the Dalton/Croft/Neasham airfield didn’t last long, and because of Mr Neasham’s interest in cars, it was soon converted from an aerodrome into an autodrome. As Croft Circuit, it is still in the motor racing business.

BY happy coincidence, the Sport Archives in Memories 414 featured a selection of pictures from the sidecar racing packet in The Northern Echo’s photo-archive, and several of the photos showed action from Croft in the early 1970s.

“I was a race marshall there,” says Brian Ayre, of Darlington, “and the “F Boak” shown on your picture was Frankie Boak who came from Jarrow. He later became race mechanic for Ken Blacklock, who was a well known North-East sidecar racer.

“Later in life, Frankie collected 1970s four cylinder Hondas and he bought from me in 1986 my 1976 750 Honda K6. I have only seen him once since then. I wonder if he still owns it?”

LAST week we pictured Gabby, the Algerian/French airman, at what we thought was Escadrille, near Reims, but this only once again showed up our ignorance.

“I enjoyed your article about Gabby,” said Dave Middlemas, very politely, “but the term ‘escadrille’ is used by the French military to refer to a small squadron. The photo caption is therefore more likely to refer to an air force unit based at Reims. The term stems from small groups of early aircraft which were not big enough to warrant the term “escadron”, which usually meant a group of naval vessels and from which the English word “squadron” originates.”

MANY thanks for all your correspondence. We’ve got loads on railway housing and coalfield cinemas which we will catch up on in future weeks. Keep writing and emailing!