One man’s mission to honour the Second World War Lancaster bomber pilot who made the ultimate sacrifice to save the people of Darlington.

Howard Wilson, a retired teacher, found himself practically alone in paying tribute to one of the North-East’s forgotten wartime heroes. Next year he hopes it will be different.

IN the dark and the cold at precisely 8.49pm on January 13, I stood with a friend at a road junction on a Darlington industrial estate at the moment, 66 years earlier, an act of supreme sacrifice had taken place.

It was an act that undoubtedly saved the lives of countless Darlingtonians.

With the Second World War nearing its end, a Lancaster bomber, with a crew of seven Canadians piloted by William S McMullen, was returning to RAF Goosepool at Middleton St George from a training flight.

As they flew towards a blacked-out Darlington, an oil feed pipe ruptured and one of the engines caught fire. After several unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire, Mc- Mullen ordered the crew to bale out while he remained at the controls, trying desperately to clear the town below and make it back to base, which was only a few minutes flying time away.

In those days, Darlington ended at Salters Lane, a track that ran from Yarm Road to the Skerne bridge in Haughton Road. Everything to the east of the lane was farmland – Paton and Baldwins at Lingfield Point, Cummins factory, the Morton Park retail site and Morrison’s supermarket are all post-war developments.

After six years of war, the townsfolk below were well used to the sound of heavy bombers flying overhead.

But this was different. With the three remaining engines straining, and flying at only 600ft, many people realised the plane was in trouble.

Bill Gillham, who was a boy living nearby, remembered running out with the rest of his family and looking skywards in time to see the blazing bomber crash into a field belonging to Lingfield farm – the site is now on the corner of Allington Way and Lingfield Way.

McMullen was killed on impact.

He could so easily have baled out with the others, leaving the unmanned plane to crash into the houses below, causing massive destruction and civilian loss of life.

As it was, the only injury sustained was to crewman FS Dykes, who sprained his ankle on landing.

BOMBER Command lost more than 55,000 men during the course of the war – about a third of those who served. Only two were awarded Victoria Crosses, and, amazingly, one of those was another Canadian flyer from the same Goosepool aerodrome: Andrew Mynarski.

He died trying to save the life of a crewmate in another stricken Lancaster. As a result of a campaign launched by The Northern Echo in 2004, the 60th anniversary of Mynarski’s sacrifice, an 8ft bronze statue of Mynarski, “The Forgotten Hero”, was unveiled at Durham Tees Valley Airport, which now occupies the site of RAF Goosepool.

McMullen received no official reward for his sacrifice from the Air Ministry. The rules dictated that medals were awarded only to those engaged in enemy action – Mc- Mullen was on a training exercise and so didn’t qualify.

I think the rules need to be reviewed. It’s high time Mc- Mullen received the official recognition he deserves.

The citizens of Darlington have recognised him. A road was named after him, on which there is an official plaque, and two cots in Greenbank Maternity Hospital were dedicated to him – their plaques are now displayed in the Memorial Hall of Darlington Memorial Hospital.

When his widow, Thelma, and young daughter Donna Mae visited the town after the war, they were given a civic reception and presented with a rosebowl, reputedly full of cash donated by grateful townsfolk.

I’ve got to know Donna Mae fairly well over the years. In November 1987, I was selling Remembrance Poppies with my oldest son, Richard, who was six at the time. As we stood on our pitch in Skinnergate, he asked me what it was all about.

I tried to explain, in terms a child of his age would understand, the symbolic significance of the poppy, how its flowering on the churned up battlefields of Flanders in the First World War had inspired a Canadian soldier, Lt Col John McCrae, to write In Flanders Fields and that a Frenchwoman called Anna E Guerin first had the idea of giving artificial poppies as a token of remembrance.

How much he understood is hard to gauge, but on the bus home, he said to me without prompting: “Dad, I want to put my poppy on McMullen’s memorial.”

We lived in The Broadway, which backs onto McMullen Road, so he knew of the plaque but I was not aware of anyone leaving poppies there in those days.

The Northern Echo heard, and printed a picture of him on the day after Remembrance Sunday. Without me knowing, a cutting was sent to a former Goosepool rear gunner who lived in Devon. He forwarded it on to Donna Mae in Canada.

She, in turn, wrote to us, saying that she was the same age as Richard when her father died.

When I looked at her address, I discovered that – amazingly – she was only a ten-minute drive from where my uncle lived in Toronto.

I’VE since visited her twice.

She has what she calls “a shrine” of various mementoes, including the rosebowl, her father’s flight log and a painting of a Lancaster bomber presented to her by McMullen Road Rugby Club (now beneath the retail park), but she doesn’t dwell on what happened all those years ago.

I suppose I do – that’s why, on January 13, in the dark and the cold, I was standing there at precisely 8.49pm 66 years later.

I feel passionately that if we don’t appreciate the sacrifice of what went on all those years ago, and pass that appreciation on to the next generation, we will continue to make the same mistakes.

I am always struck by the thought that for Donna Mae, although the war ended 66 years ago, she has never had a father. And, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, today’s children will carry the same loss into the next century.

So with all of these thoughts in my mind, I stood there with my friend, John Dodds, in the dark and the cold. Just the two of us, although my son Richard, now 30, was with us in spirit. He is currently in Australia but when he is home, he still lays a poppy on the memorial.

I kept asking myself what more I could do to help Mc- Mullen get the recognition he deserves for his supreme sacrifice that saved countless Darlingtonians.

And so I wrote this article.

And while writing it, I kept asking myself what form that recognition should take. What do you think? A medal? A statue?

Perhaps the most profound form would be that next year, at precisely 8.49pm in the dark and the cold, it will not be just the two of us standing there, but a small crowd including a few of the younger generation, learning from our past to inform the future.

* For a full version of the Mc- Mullen story, visit the Echo Memories blog.

Can-warmer’s plane memory

ALBERT STOREY was 14, straight out of school and working as a can-warmer at the Aycliffe munitions factory.

“I’m 84 now and can remember well the aeroplane on display in Spennymoor during the war,” he says.

In Memories 18, Jack Higginbottom, of Newton Aycliffe, was trying to find details of the German Messerschmitt plane he distantly remembered seeing.

“It was in a schoolyard near the Waterloo pub on a corner,” Albert, of Horden, remembers.

“RAF personnel were at the school gate and you paid 3d or 6d to get in to help the war effort.”

Albert’s job at the munitions factory was to keep the home fires burning – almost literally.

Thermos flasks were unobtainable and so workers took their tea in bottles or tins.

Albert got a large oil drum, bashed holes in it to make a brazier, lit a fire in it and kept the tins of tea warm until lunch.

He also had to run errands. “It was thought that the nitroglycerin was too dangerous to transport in wagons so men used to carry it up the road in a box,” he says.

“One had a red flag and the other a green flag and you were allowed to get out of the way as sharp as possible if you saw them coming.”

On a Saturday, he finished at noon but because the next bus back to his home in Byers Green wasn’t until 4pm, he would get a lift from roadbuilders.

The roadmen were taking ballast from a cokeworks slagheap at Low Spennymoor to use as foundations for the roadways as the munitions factory grew rapidly in size.

Albert got a lift back to Spennymoor with them.

“It wasn’t really legal so we had to hide underneath tarpaulins in the back of the wagon,” he says.

The roadmen dropped him in Spennymoor so he could walk home to Byers Green, past the Messerschmitt in the schoolyard.