THE aircrew sat on the grass beside their Lancaster bomber at RAF Middleton St George, idly whiling away the time before they embarked upon their 13th mission.

One of them casually picked a four-leaf clover. He twirled the lucky emblem between his fingers like a tiny aeroplane propellor before handing it to his closest buddy.

"Here, Pat," said Andrew Mynarski to George Patrick Brophy. "You take it."

Hours later, the Canadian crew were shot down over France. Brophy had "a miraculous escape" and survived, and Mynarski went down in a blaze of bravery that won him the Victoria Cross – the British Empire's highest award for valour.

This remarkable story unfolded on the night of June 12 to 13, 1944, when 671 aircraft took off from airfields across the country to attack the German supply lines in France which were threatening to stop the Allied advances made in the week since D-Day.

Two hundred of those bombers came from Group 6 of the Royal Canadian Air Force which was based in seven airfields in North Yorkshire and South Durham: Croft, Dalton, Dishforth, Topcliffe, Skipton-on-Swale and Middleton St. George.

One of Group 6's planes was the Lancaster KB726 VR-A from Middleton St George, now the site of Durham Tees Valley Airport. It was piloted by Canadian-born Flying Officer Art de Breyne, whose mother came from Durham City and whose grandfather was from Winston, near Darlington.

Among de Breyne's six other crew members were the rear gunner, Flying Officer Brophy, and the mid-upper gunner, Pilot Officer Mynarski, who was of Polish extraction and had been a leather worker before he had joined up.

A couple of hours before midnight on June 12 they took off in their Lancaster with orders to hit the important railway junction at Cambrai. As they crossed the French coast they found themselves caught by a searchlight.

Two more lights locked onto them. De Breyne threw the bomber into a dive, desperately trying to escape the deadly glare.

Suddenly the searchlights left the plane, leaving the crew sitting anxiously in the darkness – they knew that the Germans sometimes let a bomber go once their fighters had fixed on to it.

And so it was. De Breyne was continuing towards the target, descending to 2,000ft, when Brophy screamed through the intercom that there was a German fighter at six o'clock.

Again De Breyne threw the Lancaster into a corkscrew, but it was too late. Three shots from the Junkers tore into it: two knocked out the port engines; the third ripped into the fuselage, and set fire to the hydraulic fuel which operated the door to the rear gunner’s glass dome.

De Breyne ordered his crew to bail out by turning on a red light in the fuselage. When Brophy saw it flash for the first time, he looked at his watch: in a magazine article he wrote about ten years later he swore it was 13 minutes after midnight on June 13 on the crew's 13th mission.

De Breyne fought to keep control of the plummeting plane as his crew jumped. At 1,300ft he knew time was running out and he too abandoned ship

Behind him, Mynarski was about to jump when he glanced through the flames and smoke of the burning fuselage and saw Brophy, his best friend, frantically trying to break out of the glass-domed rear turret. The fire had jammed the gunner's escape mechanism; the handle for the manual winch-gear had come off in his hand and he was doomed to die in the turret...

With the fatally wounded plane lurching drunkenly about, Mynarski forsook his own jump to safety and crawled through the flames and burning hydraulic oil to help his friend. He grabbed an axe and tried to smash his way through the shatterproof glass.

The axe just bounced off. In desperation, Mynarski crazily dived at the dome with his bare hands.

"By now he was a mass of flames below the waist," recalled Brophy in his article. "Seeing him like that, I forgot everything else. Above the roar of the whine of our engine, I screamed: "Go back, Andy! Get out!'."

Realising the pathetic uselessness of the situation, Mynarski slunk back on his hands and knees through the flames, never taking his eyes from his condemned friend. When he reached the escape hatch, he pulled himself up to his full height. In his flaming clothes he came to attention, saluted the stricken Brophy (one version of the story even claims he said “goodnight, sir” which was his usual end-of-day farewell to his friend), and jumped.

All hope gone, Brophy prepared to die. He curled up into the crash-landing position knowing it was pointless as just beneath his feet was five tons of high explosives.

"Suddenly time caught up," wrote Brophy. "Everything came at once: the ground's dark blur, the slam of a thousand sledgehammers, the screech of ripping metal."

Remarkably, the Lancaster slid on its belly along the ground. A tree ripped off a wing throwing the plane into a demented spin which, miraculously, released the mechanism in the rear turret and tossed Brophy clear.

As he hit the ground, he blacked out, only to be brought round by an earth-juddering explosion as the broken bomber exploded in a ball of flame.

Brophy tried first his arms, then his legs, and was amazed to find he had escaped without a scratch. The near-death drama had taken its toll, though – when he pulled off his helmet, most of his hair came off with it.

After a night in hiding, Brophy plucked up courage and approached a French farmer who turned out to be a Resistance leader. For 11 weeks he was passed from safe house to safe house until on September 13 he made it back to England.

There he learnt the fate of his colleagues. Two had been taken prisoner and three others had been rescued by the underground. One – Andy Mynarski – was unaccounted.

Brophy soon met up with the Lancaster's wireless operator Jim Kelly who had also been smuggled out by the Resistance. Kelly said that after he'd baled out he had been hidden by a French farmer in a barn. That farmer had seen a burning airman fall out of the sky. With his parachute in flames, the airman had crashed into a field, his clothes still alight on impact. He had lived for an hour so but died of severe burns.

The farmer had then held out a flying helmet. Painted across the front of it was "Andy".

Andrew Mynarski is buried in a war cemetery near Amiens. Two years after his death, the 27-year-old was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming the first Canadian airman to receive the award, and one of very few to win it on the uncorroborated account of a single witness.

His citation concludes: “P/O Mynarski could have left the aircraft in safety and would doubtless have escaped death. Although he must have been aware that he faced almost certain death, P/O Mynarski courageously and willingly accepted the danger. He lost his life by a most conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.”

In his homeland, he was revered as a symbol of courage, and on the tenth anniversary of his death a school was dedicated in his honour in his home town of Winnipeg. His bust was added to the Valiants memorial in Ottawa, where he is one of 14 of Canada’s most valiant military heroes to be honoured.

And, of course, in 2005, after a campaign led by The Northern Echo, a 10ft bronze statue of Mynarski saluting Brophy was erected outside the St George Hotel at Durham Tees Valley Airport.

This Saturday, June 15, the statue is the scene of the annual commemoration of all the airmen from Middleton St George who lost their lives in the conflict. The commemoration will be all the more poignant this year because of the 75th anniversary of Mynarski’s heroism.

The commanders of Mynarski’s 419 “Moose” Squadron are flying in from Canada, where they will join the commanding officers of RAF Leeming and Linton-on-Ouse, plus the mayors of the Tees Valley and Darlington.

Members of the public are invited to gather at the terminal building for 10.15am with the ceremony beginning at the statue at 10.30am.