Monday evening marks the 75th anniversary of the moment a Canadian airman sacrificed his own life to save a town

WITH the hindsight of exactly 75 years, The Northern Echo rather underplayed a story of a crash-landing on the edge of Darlington in which a pilot lost his life.

The Northern Echo: How The Northern Echo reported McMullen's heroism 75 years agoHow The Northern Echo reported McMullen's heroism 75 years ago

“Guided his crashing plane away from town”, was the headline from the paper of Monday, January 15, 1945, telling of the dramatic and heroic events of the weekend.

“The pilot of a plane is thought to have lost his life in successfully preventing the plane from crashing on Darlington on Saturday night,” began the story, “All other members of the crew baled out before the plane crashed.”

Stories of bravery, and even heroism, abounded in those last months of the Second World War – the same day’s paper included the news that five North-East airmen had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their gallantry.

The Northern Echo: Second World War pilot Stuart McMullen who piloted his stricken Lancaster bomber away from houses in Darlington.Second World War pilot Stuart McMullen who piloted his stricken Lancaster bomber away from houses in Darlington.

Nevertheless, the pilot who sacrificed his own life to save a town would trump them all – had Pilot Officer William Stuart McMullen been on an operational flight rather than a training exercise, he would probably have won the Victoria Cross.

On Monday evening, which is the 75th anniversary to the minute of his supreme sacrifice, people will gather beside the little monument to him on the road that now bears his name – McMullen Road – and remember him.

The Echo’s evening sister paper, the Northern Despatch, had adopted a more sensationalist approach to the story. As can be seen on our Page in History over, its headline was: “Darlington plane crash drama. Pilot gave life to save people.”

And then, in big letters, it gave the pilot’s supposed last words: “There’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

The Northern Echo: Daughter of heroic Second World War pilot William Stuart McMullen, Donna Mae Barber, visits the road in Darlington named after her father in 1985. He piloted his stricken Lancaster bomber away from the houses.Daughter of heroic Second World War pilot William Stuart McMullen, Donna Mae Barber, visits the road in Darlington named after her father in 1985. He piloted his stricken Lancaster bomber away from the houses.

McMullen was probably born in Toronto in 1912 – “probably” because when he died in distant Darlington, his age was variously reported as being 29 or 33.

He won his wings in November 1942 and in 1944 left his wife, Thelma, and young daughter Donna and came to England to learn to fly Lancaster bombers.

Meanwhile, on August 16, 1944, six Canadian fliers became available when their pilot broke his leg after they all baled out of their burning Lancaster over France. They teamed up with McMullen and on Christmas Eve, they were posted to RAF Middleton St. George.

The Northern Echo: The McMullen memorial in DarlingtonThe McMullen memorial in Darlington

On Saturday, January 13, at 5.47pm, they took off from Goosepool, aboard Lancaster KB793, on a routine three-hour navigation exercise, carried out at 10,000ft over the North York Moors.

At 8.35pm, exercise over, McMullen called Goosepool for “joining instructions”, and was told he’d be touching down within ten minutes.

Engineer Sgt “Lew” Lewellin wrote in his log: “All temperatures and pressures normal. All four engines running evenly.”

But almost immediately a fault developed in the outer port Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which emitted a shower of sparks into the dark night. The shower quickly became a sheet of flame, and a red glow began spreading up the wing.

The Northern Echo: The Gallant Airman plaque at Darlington Memorial HospitalThe Gallant Airman plaque at Darlington Memorial Hospital

At 2,500ft over Acklam, with three engines still working and McMullen still in control of the plane, he gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Jump, jump, jump...

All six parachuted safely to earth, drifting downwards along what became the A66 between Elton and Sadberge. At 600ft, engineer Lewellin was last to leave. As he stood by the main door, he looked over to McMullen at the controls, and gestured for him to leave.

But McMullen’s mind was already made up. According to the Air Ministry, over the roar of the developing catastrophe, he replied: “It’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

He could have jumped to safety – Lewellin landed unscathed 500 yards from the crash site – but in that split second, McMullen chose to remain.

He would have seen Darlington – population 80,000 – laid out before him. He might even have seen hundreds of Darlingtonians, drawn by the unusual sound of an engine in trouble, rushing from their homes.

“It seemed to circle round,” one eyewitness told the Echo “and looked as though it was going to drop somewhere in the town. Then it turned east and a few seconds later we heard a crash, followed by a few muffled explosions and the glare of a fire.”

In his last moments, McMullen fought to keep the plane away from the homes of the Yarm Road area and, at 8.49pm, its undercarriage skimmed the rooftops of the last of the houses and plunged to earth in a field belonging to Lingfield Farm. It cartwheeled 150 yards across the soil, losing various bits of flaming fuselage as it went, its fuel tanks exploding vividly and its bullets dancing like firecrackers. The hay and oats in the farm’s Dutch barn caught hold immediately and blazed brightly, illuminating the parachutes of McMullen’s colleagues as they drifted slowly down to safety.

McMullen was dead, killed on impact. He’d been catapulted, still strapped to his seat, 120 yards out of the windscreen, but his flying boots were found later in the aircraft, still attached to the rubber pedals in the cockpit where he had remained in those dying seconds.

The official accident report said that a mechanical fault in a piston had caused the initial fire, and it “noted that the pilot retained control of the aircraft sufficiently long enough to avoid crashing into the built-up area of Darlington”.

All Darlington was convinced McMullen, who was buried in Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate, hadn’t jumped because he wanted to save them. Immediately the Echo’s letters page filled up with correspondents calling for the “Gallant Airman” to be memorialised.

For instance, on January 17, mayor Jimmy Blumer told Hear All Sides how he was trying to get through officialdom and make contact with McMullen’s family in Canada, and James O Walker, honorary secretary of the Twenty Club, wrote: “Our members feel that the townspeople’s appreciation of the courageous act of the bomber pilot, who on Saturday night by giving his life undoubtedly averted serious loss of life in Darlington should be shown in some tangible form, either as a memorial or assistance to his dependants.”

This led to the Gallant Airman Appeal, and the townspeople quickly donated £1,000 to be sent to McMullen's widow and five-year-old daughter.

However, Thelma refused to accept the money, saying it would be best put to use in war-ravaged Britain.

The Northern Echo: The letter telling his widow, Thelma, of the death of Pilot Officer William McMullen.The letter telling his widow, Thelma, of the death of Pilot Officer William McMullen.

The appeal, run by the Twenty Club, used it to endow two children’s cots at the Memorial Hospital. In the days before the NHS, which started in 1948, hospitals relied on voluntary contributions, and in the 1930s and 1940s, groups, firms and individuals in the Darlington area collected money to sponsor a bed or a cot. Plaques with the sponsors' names on were screwed to the wall above the bed their contributions paid for.

As time has moved on, those plaques have been taken down and only one appears to survive. Appropriately, it is the Gallant Airman plaque, and it is now on the wall inside the entrance to the memorial hall at the hospital.

Eventually, officialdom gave Mayor Cllr Blumer Thelma McMullen’s home address and he wrote to her saying: “By his actions, the pilot realised that he was steering himself to certain death. Not only Darlington, but the whole of the district was stirred to profound admiration and gratitude which could not be expressed in words at this act of supreme sacrifice.”

He concluded: "For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband's action will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come."

On the 75th anniversary, they will once again be remembered and honoured. At 8.30pm on Monday, people will gather on the corner of McMullen Road beside the memorial, concluding with two minutes silence at 8.49pm – the moment McMullen crashed into the field behind.

This year, we hope to have a little video display running and, for the first time, have the propellor from McMullen's plane on display. Everyone is very welcome to attend.