ABOUT a hundred people braved Storm Brendan to mark the 75th anniversary to the minute that a Second World War airman sacrificed his own life to save a town.

At the time in 1945 that Pilot Officer William McMullen was battling with his burning Lancaster bomber in the dark skies above Darlington, the rain abated and the winds relented as people gathered near the crash site on McMullen Road to pay their respects.

For the first time in decades, the battered and bent propeller from McMullen’s plane was returned to the scene – but it was laid flat in front of the memorial rather than placed upright for fear that it might take-off once more in the wind.

The mayor of Darlington, Cllr Nick Wallis, laid a wreath on behalf of the townspeople and said: “Hero is a word we use very glibly in 2020 in all sorts of areas of life but it is only when you come across a story like this that you realise what it really means. The true heroism of William McMullen directly touched our grandparents’ lives. The people of Darlington were under his plane and we will never know how many lives he saved.”

While his six crewmates baled out, McMullen stayed with the stricken plane, which was heading home to RAF Middleton St George, and steered it away from the houses so he crashed into a field at Lingfield, where a light industrial estate has since been built.

“I was 12 at the time, and I remember standing outside the Wheatsheaf (on Yarm Road) when the plane came across with smoke billowing out of it, and the crew were baling out behind,” said Geoff Craggs, 87. “We lived in The Causeway and the plane seemed to come right over my house and the brickyard where the supermarket is now.”

The townspeople in 1945 christened McMullen “the Gallant Airman”, and the mayor, Cllr James Blumer, wrote to McMullen’s widow, Thelma, in Toronto, Canada, saying how his sacrifice would be remembered for years to come.

“It is wonderful that you are all here tonight so we can say that we are honouring the promise that mayor Blumer made 75 years ago,” said the current mayor.

The Echo’s coverage of the anniversary is being sent to McMullen’s daughter, Donna Mae, who was just five when her father was killed.

The town’s new MP Peter Gibson said: “It is important as the town’s representative to attend significant anniversaries of very notable men and events and I am proud to have been here tonight. Darlington should be eternally grateful for his sacrifice.”

The heavy propeller, still contorted by the impact, was a notable addition to the proceedings. It was tracked down to a house in Northumberland only last week by enthusiast Geoff Hill, chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association.

The event concluded with an impromptu performance by guitarists Martin Pybus and Vince Allan who played their song, William McMullen, which they wrote about four years ago after learning of the pilot’s sacrifice through The Northern Echo. “It is such an amazing story,” said Martin.