THE 1,266 airmen who died flying from Middleton St George were remembered yesterday in a ceremony attended by a 100-year-old engine mechanic who had waved many of them off.

All across the region, town centres and places of work fell silent at 11am to remember those who have lost their lives in conflicts, but none of the ceremonies was more poignant than that at Teesside Airport where Norman Bell, walking without a stick despite his age, laid at wreath near the Mynarski statue.

The ceremony also included the unveiling of a plaque to one of the airmen who was lost over Berlin in 1944, and the interment of the ashes of the last member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who served at the airfield during the war.

Leading Aircraftsman Bell is a direct connection to those days. A grammar school lad from Liverpool – “one month I was reading classics at school and the next I was sprawling on top of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine thinking ‘how did this happen’,” he said – he arrived at RAF Middleton St George in early 1941, just as the airfield was getting up and running.

“The first night we stopped off at the airfield at Croft, and it was hellish,” recalled Mr Bell who re-visited the airfield from his Liverpool home for the first time this summer. “There was nothing there, just snow on the ground which we melted to make a cup of tea. Next day we came here, and there were brick buildings and comfortable beds and I thought it was heaven.

“This is where the war started for me. When I got here, young men were flying out and getting killed.”

As an engine fitter working in the hangars for nearly two years, he didn’t get to know the airmen, although he was intimately acquainted with their planes – the Whitley bombers in his first weeks and then the arrival of the first of the new Halifaxes. He helped Middleton St George (MSG) contribute to the thousand bomber raids on German cities in the summer of 1942, before moving to work on marine engines which took him out to India and Hong Kong.

“We weren’t told how many aircraft had been shot down or how many men had been killed,” said Mr Bell, who resumed his study of classics at university after the war and then became a secondary teacher. “It was a shock to me to read after the war that hundreds of young men had been killed when I was here.”

A plaque dedicated to one of those who died, Flt-Sgt Frank Reilly, was unveiled at the ceremony. He was from a large Irish family and was sent to join the Canadian squadron which was based at Middleton St George for the war’s latter years.

His family visited during the summer and met Geoff Hill, chairman of the Memorial Association which arranged yesterday’s ceremony.

Geoff helped them discover how Frank was in Halifax JP119 which left MSG at 11.35pm on January 28, 1944. It was one of 677 bombers sent to attack industrial Berlin. They flew in two streams, at 23,500ft and 18,000ft.

At 3.20am, as JP119 was approaching its target, it was hit by a German Junkers fighter. It was damaged so badly that it began to fall, but it dropped into the lower stream of British bombers where it catastrophically hit a Lancaster. Because of the second impact, none of the eight Halifax crew members could bale out and so all died, including Frank, but two of the Lancaster’s crew survived and were taken prisoner.

“His family asked if we could make a plaque, and so it was nice and very appropriate that we could remember him and all the other airmen today,” said Mr Hill.

The Memorial Association, which preserves the airfield’s history, has been running for 40 years and yesterday it remembered two of its stalwarts, Ena and Andy Bullement.

Ena was born in Barmpton Lane, Darlington, and joined the WAAF when she was 17. One of her jobs was to send details to Bletchley Park of the planes that MSG was contributing to the raids – the numbers changed by the minute depending on how successful groundcrew like Norman Bell were in getting planes airworthy. Her original cypher messages are in the Memorial Association’s collection.

Ena was the last surviving WAAF who served in the war at MSG when she died in June, aged 94, in Northallerton, and her ashes were interred in the memorial garden along with those of her second husband, who had been in the RAF.

“It was such a big part of their lives,” said her son, Anthony Stephenson of Ingleby Barwick. “They’d been organising reunions since the 1980s, and travelled over to Canada.”

Ena used to say how she saw the planes leave MSG on a raid and how sad she felt knowing some wouldn’t be coming back.

Her ashes were placed in the garden at the feet of the statue which The Northern Echo helped create in 2005 in memory of the heroism of the Canadian airman Andrew Mynarski and all of the other airman who didn’t come back. It is outside the former officers’ mess.

Yesterday, the sparkling autumn sunshine caught the golden leaves of a sycamore tree as they gently fell, like silent tears, so that by the end of the service they had carpeted the neatly cut grass of the memorial garden.

Elsewhere in the region, hundreds of Barnard Castle School children and staff paraded in memory of more than 200 Old Barnardians who didn’t come home from war.

The name of each former student was read out in front of the whole school in a moving ceremony officiated by the Vicar of St Mary’s Parish Church Canon Alec Harding.

In Darlington, Mayor Cyndi Hughes led the ceremony on High Row, in the town centre, attended by councillors, war veterans and passersby.

Schools around the town also paid their respects with silences and special poppy displays handmade by pupils.

And more than 40 veterans from a host of different regiments took part in Bishop Auckland College’s Armistice Day service.

Mike Donne, President of the County Durham branch of Armed Forces charity the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), presented the Act of Remembrance at the college’s main Woodhouse Lane campus.