Near-empty graves, eavesdropping on RAF fighter pilots and clocks with blue faces keep Echo Memories ticking along nicely.

IN a corner of a North Yorkshire churchyard, with fingers of pyracantha clawing at their backs, are four white gravestones.

They are quite different to the others – the higgledypiggedly stones of lost centuries with their words weathering away and the highly-polished modern marbles with the deeply indented letters that time has yet to catch up with.

The four are simplicity itself. No maudlin rhymes urging “Come hither all my Children dear, And see what death has done”. Just number, rank, name, regiment, date of death and age.

Private DR Hopkins, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, age 23 Private W Thomas, Pioneer Corps, age 18 Private G Stares, Pioneer Corps, age 34 Private N Day, Pioneer Corps, age 17 All died on February 4, 1944, when they were blown apart by the explosion at Catterick Bridge Station.

They lie in the churchyard at Hornby, a delightful old stone village with its own deerpark and castle. It’s a great contrast to the uninspiring modern sprawl of Catterick Garrison a few miles to the north.

Last week, Echo Memories told how ammunition being loaded into train trucks in the station goods yard exploded, killing 12 people and injuring 102. The four soldiers were doing the loading, they were at the explosion’s epicentre, and so very little of them remains beneath Hornby’s immaculately tended grass.

After last week’s article, the memories flooded in.

“I can remember exactly where I was standing at the top end of Station Bank in Richmond with my friend Eileen Kinchin,” remembers Sheila Anthony, in Scotton.

“We saw this enormous cloud of smoke and heard a thump, and I can remember looking at St Mary’s Church clock and it said a few minutes to four.”

To be precise, it was four minutes to four, and the explosion could be heard, and felt, for ten miles around.

“My father was on the telephone at our farm in Bedale and all of a sudden he was asking ‘good God, what was that?’,” recalls Peter Parlour.

“Only later did we learn that my grandfather was on the far platform, waiting for a train home to Darlington.”

Fortunately, he was shielded from the blast and unaffected. Ironically, some of the ammunition that went up may have come from the Parlour farm because in the build-up to D-Day – when vast quantities of bombs were hurled at the German positions on the Normandy beaches – North Yorkshire turned into one big ammo dump.

“All along the roadsides were these semi-circular metal ammunition huts,”

says Peter, who was eight at the time.

“We had 20 to 30 of them around our farm, about 7ft high, 10ft long, with a camouflage net at the front fastened over the hedge with some pegs, but they weren’t locked up.”

Beatrice Cuthbertson, former mayor of Darlington whose grandfather Bartholomew Russell was thrice mayor of Richmond, was working in the Richmond ticket office at the time. Her friend, 19-year-old Nancy Richardson, did a similar job at Catterick Bridge Station and was one of the fatalities. Beatrice, now 92 and in Sadberge, was despatched to sort out the mess.

George Graham was on his way home to Brompton-on- Swale on leave from bomber command in Lincolnshire and came through the station where fires were still burning. He reached home, where his mother told him that his father had been hit and taken to the garrison hospital – a collection of wooden huts.

“I hitched down there in uniform and walked straight past him because I didn’t recognise him,” says George, who was 22 in 1944. “His face was like a football. It was full of clinker.

“He was the nearest to the blast to survive. He remembered saying something about a couple of trucks to the stationmaster Walter Gibson, a joke, and Mr Gibson turned and walked towards the explosion and my father walked away from it, and the next moment he was flying through the air.”

Stationmaster Gibson was another of the fatalities.

“My father remembered seeing blue sky and the next thing he knew was some soldiers were fishing him out from under ammunition boxes and propping him up on a gatepost. He said he had come through the First World War and was now waiting to die.”

Matthew Graham had served in the Darlington Heavy Battery on the Somme. His job had been to take the limbers – horsedrawn vehicles bearing ammunition – under the cover of darkness to the guns on the frontline. In peacetime, he joined the railway only to be blown up by Second World War ammunition.

He was off work for a year and could only return to light porter duties. Both his eardrums had burst and he was left with a perpetual whistle and a chest full of shrapnel.

“He never got over it fully,”

says his son.

DAVID RACE in Darlington was born a month after the explosion, but remembers hearing of it in the wartime tales of his parents.

When his father was not away fighting in Italy, they lived in Leeming Bar, underneath the flightpath of planes from Catterick and Leeming. This meant the locals could tune in to the shortwave radio communications and find out if there had been any casualties or if they were being followed home by German fighters.

“Empty bullet cases would come clattering down on the roofs of the outhouses and years later when playing in the garden I remember digging up empty brass cases,” he says.

“My parents told me of another occasion when fighters were scrambled from RAF Catterick to chase off an intruder and they heard an RAF pilot on the radio shouting: “I’ve got him.

I’ve got the bastard. He’s going down.”

The Luftwaffe plane crashed into the sea off Hartlepool.

Another graphic memory came when his mother was walking by the airfield when a crippled bomber was returning from a mission.

“It crash-landed short of the runway and skidded across a field and through a hedge, killing a group of soldiers who were working on the hedge and a farm worker who was ploughing with a horse in the field.

“She described the bodies of the soldiers as being rolled up like bundles of rags and saw the plough horse’s head hanging in a tree.”