MORE than 50 people, including a Canadian commanding officer, joined an online ceremony on Wednesday night to remember the Second World War pilot who sacrificed his own life to save the people of Darlington.

Pilot Officer William McMullen, from Toronto in Canada, could have jumped from his burning Lancaster bomber on January 13, 1945, but instead chose to stay with it, steering the stricken craft away from the houses until, at 8.49pm, it crashed into farmland on the east side - now McMullen Road.

Among those taking part in the Zoom conference call, which was arranged by Memories and the Darlington Historical Society, was Lieutenant-Colonel Martin “Moose” Roseler-Yue, the commanding officer of McMullen’s 419 Squadron. He was speaking from the squadron’s base in Cold Lake, Alberta, where 25cms of snow had fallen in the previous two hours.

The Royal Canadian Air Force squadron was formed in England in 1941 and was based at RAF Middleton St George from October 1942 until its last operational flight on April 25, 1945. In that time, the squadron lost 131 aircraft. 543 aircrew were killed, 183 were taken prisoner and 29 were injured.

The squadron’s emblem features a moose and it’s first commander gained the nickname “Moose” and so every subsequent commander has also gone by the monicker.

Moose spoke of how the Canadians like to make a yearly pilgrimage to Middleton St George, when viruses allow, to remember their dead, and he said the bravery of men like McMullen had created the squadron’s reputation and so was very much part of its present.

Also on the call was Elizabeth Smith of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which looks after McMullen’s grave at the Stonefall cemetery in Harrogate, where all the northern Bomber Command fatalities were laid to rest.

She said: “I know from our visitor book here, and from the flowers laid on his grave, that McMullen is well visited and not forgotten by the people of Darlington.

“He is one of 14 casualties at Stonefall chosen to have one of our new mobile interpretation panels made for their graves.”

In recent years, a well attended ceremony of remembrance has been held at the McMullen memorial at the moment of his crash-landing. Because of the pandemic this year, that wasn’t possible, although Geoff Hill, chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, was able to show people his collection of artefacts from McMullen’s plane, including its propellor.

Earlier in the day, the mayor of Darlington, Cllr Chris McEwan, had a laid a wreath at the monument.

The ceremony was concluded by a minute’s silence led by the town’s MP Peter Gibson. He said: “I’m glad that an online event was able to go ahead, and credit to Chris Lloyd for organising it to enable us to recognise William McMullen.’

“McMullen’s sacrifice and heroic efforts for Darlington should be recognised with an award and I am currently working with the Honours and Appointments Secretariat at the Cabinet Office to establish which posthumous award would be appropriate to award McMullen.”

Because McMullen died on a training exercise, he was not eligible for a bravery award, such as a Distinguished Flying Cross right up to the Victoria Cross, which was won by his compatriot, Andrew Mynarski, also a member of Squadron 419, while stationed at MSG.

ATTENDING her first McMullen memorial was Mel Plumley, who dialled in from near Bury in Lancashire, although she grew up in the 1950s in Widgeon Road in Darlington, over which McMullen flew at rooftop height seconds before he crashed.

Her career as a musical engineer has taken her around the world, including a spell with the British Forces Broadcasting Service in Cyprus. Her husband, Julian, is an antiques specialist, so their interests have combined in a collection of RAF memorabilia, which features a Second World War wooden football trophy.

“RAF Station George Inter-Flight Soccer League”, it says on the top, and on the bottom are the names of the runners-up: in 1941 it was C Flight, and in 1942 it was A Flight.

“Julian has made extensive enquiries with RAF records people over the reference to “Station George”,” says Mel, “and the considered opinion seems to be that with no other RAF station involving the name George, it is probably a shorthand version of Middleton St George although we don’t have absolute confirmation of that.”

If it is MSG, the Canadian connection could explain why this was a “soccer league” – surely any self-respecting British player would have called it a “football league”.

If you can shed any light on it, we’d love to hear from you…