IT was four minutes to four on February 4, 1944. “I saw a flame, shaped like a big bat’s wing, come from the loading area – it must have been 50 or 60 yards across,” recalled the chief goods clerk Len Cockerill. “Then there was a terrific explosion, which burst my ear drum.

Next thing I knew, I was sailing through the air.”

John Weller, the ammunition truck driver, still sounded incredulous about what he had witnessed three weeks later. “There was a vivid red flash and a terrific bang. My lorry disappeared,” he told an inquest, “and the railway truck, in which the four men were, also disappeared.

“When I came round, all I could see was some pathfinder incendiaries coming down like great white lights. As clearly as anything, I remember saying to myself: ‘By hell, Jerry’s copped us a real packet today’.”

Jerry, though, wasn’t to blame, but it was a real packet: 12 were killed and 102 were injured that day at Catterick Bridge Station.

Devastation was widespread: seven houses, a hotel, a cafe and the goods yard offices were destroyed.

And the four men, all soldiers, did quite literally disappear: their bodies were never recovered.

The terrible events began at about 3.50pm when Mr Weller pulled his laden lorry into the station goods yard.

It was a busy day. A passenger train had just left, and another was due any minute to collect the 25 people – largely schoolchildren making their way home or servicemen heading off on leave – on the platform. A packed doubledecker bus was picking up its last passengers – Royal Air Force and Army men – from the Railway Hotel to take them on a big night out in Darlington.

And nine soldiers were loading explosives onto railway trucks. They’d been at it for days – they didn’t know it then, but they were assembling the weaponry that would be used in the DDay landings in Normandy four months later.

In fact, there was some concern locally about the amount of explosives that was building up in the goods yard. The night before, at the bar of the Railway Hotel, the landlady, Mabel Cockerill, had said: “I’m worried about having all this ammunition so near.”

Stationmaster Walter Gibson replied: “If that lot goes up, none of us will have any worries.” Within 24 hours, he wouldn’t, poor fellow.

Lorry driver Weller arrived at the goods yard with ammunition from the Hornby Park dump, near Bedale. As he parked up and walked away, Mr Cockerill noticed from a window in the Railway Hotel that four soldiers began unloading it.

“I remember thinking that a month ago, they were handling those things so gently, two men to a box,” he told The Northern Echo in 1967. “Now they’re throwing them.”


And the big bat’s wing flame fanned out followed by a noise so loud it was heard ten miles away.

Six six-ton trucks of antitank grenades had exploded, followed by tons of incendiary bombs which shot off like fireworks, sparking lots of smaller, satellite fires.

Amazingly, the petroleum depot over the road wasn’t hit. Even more amazingly, the 20,000lb blockbuster bomb in the goods yard did not go bang.

Instead, the 14-ton railway truck in which it sat was blown into the air and landed – no worries – on top of stationmaster Walter Gibson. Despite an Army doctor’s six hour battle, there was no saving him.

Extraordinary episodes of bravery broke out.

“Though her husband was dying and her home was wrecked, Mrs W Gibson, the stationmaster’s wife, warned people in the vicinity to leave their homes,” said The Northern Echo’s sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times.

“Mrs Mabel Cockerill defied her own injuries to drag an elderly guest from the ruins of her home.

“The signalman, 47-year-old Fred Robinson, was one of the heroes. Although severely injured, he stood by his post in the wrecked box by the level crossing. He saw his cottage across the road collapse and knew that his wife and daughter were inside, but duty demanded his remaining by the signal levers. He got a colleague to open the gates to let through a train…and when it was clear he allowed himself to be taken to hospital.”

Said the Echo: “One of the local heroes is a taxi driver who ran along the line waving a flag to stop an approaching train. The roof of his car was torn off and all the glass shattered.”

But 12 people died. Six were civilians: William Tindall, 40, contractor’s labourer; Lancelot Rymer, 41, motor driver; Richard Stokes, motor driver; Mrs Mary Wallace Richmond, 43, railway clerk; Miss Nancy Georgina Richardson, 19, railway clerk; Walter Gibson, 46, stationmaster.

Six were servicemen: Leading Aircraftman Euan Jenkins, 31, of Barry, South Wales; Lieutenant Lawrence George King, 29, radio/telephone operator of St Albans; Private David Reed Hopkins, 23; Private Norman Day, 18; Private William Thomas, 18; Private George Stares, 34, of the Pioneer Corps.

The last four were those who just disappeared before Mr Weller’s eyes.

“The coroner... called Police Inspector Atkinson,” said the Echo, “who testified to finding a piece of spine on the grass verge opposite the Railway Hotel and to finding pieces of skin, bone and clothing stretching for a distance of 500 yards from the scene of the explosion.

He took the remains to a County pathologist. He later submitted a piece of Army shirt, which he found on the south side of the explosion, to ultra-violet rays which revealed the name “Day” on the collar.

“Dr William Goldie, county pathologist, expressed the opinion that the remains came from at least three persons. One portion of skull had black wavy hair, and the other two had brown hair.”

The four soldiers are buried in a tiny grave in Hornby churchyard, about five miles away.

SO what caused the explosion? An official court of inquiry was held immediately, but its classified conclusions were not released to the inquest.

The coroner was told that the inquiry was satisfied that there was no negligence and that all precautions had been taken. The jury returned verdicts of “accidental death” on all 12, and the cause was officially regarded as an unsolved mystery.

Sabotage, though, was ruled out – a group of Italian prisoners of war were said to be working nearby.

Reports from the Echo in the Sixties suggest that a grenade with its detonator primed had somehow got in the load. The rough handling would have set it off.

Another theory was that contractors working on Catterick airfield had a bitumen furnace near the ammunition trucks and it was regularly seen tossing red hot coals out of its chimney.

CATTERICK Bridge Station was one of those confusing stations that was in a settlement of another name – a bewilderment that the Richmond branch line specialised in.

The branch line was nine miles and 62 chains long and opened on September 10, 1846. It ran off the East Coast Main Line about five miles south of Darlington at Dalton Junction, near the village of Dalton-on-Tees. In 1901, the junction was renamed Eryholme even though that small village is further away from it than Dalton.

Heading west, the first station was Moulton, which was close to the village of North Cowton.

The second station was Scorton, which was closer to Moulton than Moulton station.

And the third station was Catterick Bridge which was where the branch line crossed the Great North Road. It was originally in a settlement called Citadilla, which is now part of Brompton-on-Swale.

The end of the line was Richmond, in a splendid station, which is now a superb arts and dining centre.

There were plans to bridge the Swale at Richmond and carry the line on up the dale to Reeth, but they never came to fruition.

The branch line closed to passengers on March 3, 1969.

BESIDE Catterick Bridge Station was the junction where the Catterick Military Railway started its journey off the Richmond branch line. As Echo Memories told recently, the military railway was so hurriedly constructed in 1915 to serve the new Army camp that it shared the bridge over the Swale with road traffic.

There were four stations on the military railway: Brompton Road, Camp Centre, California and Scotton.

In the last three years of the First World War, 750,000 troops passed through the camp, nearly all of them using the railway.

In 1922, a metal bridge over the Swale was built for the military railway. It is now a brontosaurus-like skeleton on the edge of Catterick racecourse car park.

ABOUT 250 yards south of Catterick Bridge Station was the Railway Hotel (between the station and the hotel was the goods yard where the explosion happened). The hotel was on the crossroads where the B6271 Scorton to Richmond road met the Great North Road.

The explosion ruined the Railway Hotel, and that night soldiers are supposed to have salvaged what beer they could from its open cellars.

The ruins were demolished a couple of years later, and its site beside the Great North Road has had light industrial uses since.

Because the hotel was so badly blown to bits, no one bothered to annul its liquor licence which remained valid until February 1984.

Old hands in the district still know the hotel’s crossroads as Haggie’s Corner after Robert Haggie, who was landlord there from 1916 to 1932.

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Citadilla is still recalled in streetnames in the area – but where does Citadilla originate?