FIVE young Commonwealth airmen who came from the other side of the world only to die as their bomber crashed into County Durham farmland are to be remembered today on the 80th anniversary of their sacrifice.

The two Australians and three Canadians were killed as their Wellington caught fire on a training exercise over the Durham coalfield.

There is a long standing belief that the pilot, Flight Sergeant Rambler David Roberts deliberately –and even heroically – steered his stricken aircraft between the houses of Crook and Roddymoor so that he avoided crashing into the residential areas.

The airmen were aged between 21 and 27 and were typical of the ghastly rate of attrition in the Second World War. For example, the air observer, 27-year-old Flt Sgt William Reeves, had joined up in Winnipeg in January 1941, had been sent to the European theatre of war in November 1941, and was killed just six months later on May 21, 1942.

The Northern Echo: A Wellington Bomber similar to the one that crashed locally

A Wellington bomber, like the one that crashed 80 years ago

The airmen were based at RAF Kinningley, which is now the site of the Doncaster/Sheffield Airport, and were flying a brand new plane, DV841, which probably had less than 15 hours flying time on its clock.

Their exercise took them out west to the Isle of Man and they were returning to Doncaster via York when, over the Pennines, something went dreadfully wrong. One set of observers saw it flying west on a level at about 8,000ft; then, at 5.55pm, the people of Crook and the villages around saw saw it come from the north-west over the tower of St Thomas’ Church in Stanley Crook, with smoke trailing behind it.

Suddenly it veered south west. It was as if the pilot was trying to steer it between the two sets of toy houses on the patchwork quilt in front of him.

In 1992, on the 50th anniversary, Ernest Smooker, who in 1942 had been living in Hear Terrace, Roddymoor and saw the plane come over, told The Northern Echo: "They swerved out of the way to miss Crook. There should be a memorial to the crew in Crook market place. They did it in Darlington when a Halifax pilot avoided the houses at the east end of town and crashed into a field and died."

The Northern Echo: RESTING PLACE: The five Commonwealth airmen who died when their bomber crashed near Crook in 1942 are buried in Darlington’s West Cemetery

He was referring to Canadian pilot William McMullen, who has McMullen Road named after him adjacent to his crash site.

Mr Smooker believed he saw the Wellington’s trailing aerial snag on a 30,000 volt cable that took electricity to Roddymoor Colliery, causing it to crash crazily into the ground.

Farmer John Burn was ploughing when the plane came over his head. He saw its port wing hit the ground first. Then its fuselage wiped out a fence, and the whole lot came to rest at a drunken angle on its starboard side.

He rushed over. He could see one airman lying injured on the ground nearby, and he could see another trapped inside.

But just as he reached the wreckage, it exploded.

Bullets fired from its guns in the direction of other people who were rushing to help; the landing wheels and the Perspex gun turret, with the gunner trapped inside, were blown about 200 yards through the air.

Everything caught fire. No one could survive.

An hour later, the remains were still smouldering and the choking smell of burning Perspex filled the countryside.

When the bodies could be retrieved, they were laid out in a farmer’s cow byre.

They were Flt Sgt Roberts, 21, of Mitcham, South Australia. His unusual first name, Rambler, was initially written as Ambler, and so his parents didn’t learn of his death until after he had been buried.

Sgt Rae Groom, 26, was also Australian, hailing from Sulphur Creek in Tasmania – as his headstone in Darlington’s West Cemetery unusually records.

The Northern Echo: Flt Sgt Angus Roberts, 23, died in Roddymoor plane crash, 1942

Flt Sgt Angus Roberts, 23, (above) was with the Royal Canadian Air Force as he lived in Vancouver – ironically, he had crashlanded close to his birthplace of South Shields but his family had emigrated from there when he was young.

Flt Sgt Robert Boates, 26, was the air gunner from Nova Scotia and he completed the crew, along with Flt Sgt Reeves (below).

The Northern Echo: Flt Sgt William Reeves, 27, died in Roddymoor plane crash, 1942

They were all buried five days later, in Darlington’s West Cemetery, side by side. Together, but a long way from home.

The remains of the wreckage were tidied away, but ploughing over the years has brought lost items back to the surface – there are, for instance, some Canadian coins in Crook which are said to have come from the site.

The Northern Echo: John North - Plaque commemorating Roddymoor Air Plane Crash - D18/05/05BC.

At some time, Wear Valley District Council commissioned a plaque (above) which bears the names of the airmen, but no one can remember where the council intended to hang it or how it came to be in its current resting place, in the North East Aircraft Museum near the Nissan factory in Washington.

At 2.30pm today, people will gather in the West Cemetery car park along with members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. At 2.40pm, they will parade to the five war graves where they will be joined by the Lord Lieutenant of County Durham and the new mayor of Darlington for a service of remembrance starting at 3pm.

All are welcome.

The Northern Echo: RESTING PLACE: The five Commonwealth airmen who died when their bomber crashed near Crook in 1942 are buried in Darlington’s West Cemetery

The airmen's graves in Darlington's West Cemetery