Ahead of the launch of the Poppy Appeal this Sunday, the moving story of a war hero whose memory has been revived by the discovery of an old axe being used to chop firewood. PETER BARRON reports

AS time rolls on, and years roll by, loving memories never die…

These are the words inscribed at the bottom of a gravestone that stands behind an old yew tree in Darlington’s West Cemetery, on the right of the main path, yards before the crematorium.

Three fading paper poppies, pinned to little wooden crosses, have been pushed into the soil in front of the once-white stone that commemorates Flying Officer G.E. Lumley, Royal Air Force Wireless Operator and Air Gunner, who died, aged 32, on September 16, 1944.

Almost eight decades on – in the week before the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal – the remarkable story of George Edward Lumley is being told for the first time.

The Northern Echo: Edward George LumleyGeorge Edward Lumley

It is a story of heroism to join so many others that have been brought to light through the tireless research of historian, Geoff Hill, chair of the Middleton St George Memorial Association.

The association is primarily dedicated to honouring the memory of those who served at RAF Middleton St George, a former Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force Bomber Command Station, which became the site of Teesside International Airport.

However, George Edward Lumley was part of 608 (North Riding) Squadron, stationed at nearby RAF Thornaby, where he flew in Avro Ansons and Lockheed Hudsons as part of Coastal Command, protecting our shores from the enemy.

The Northern Echo: George Edward Lumley, back to the camera with members of 608 Squadron at RAF Thornaby. None ofGeorge Edward Lumley, back to the camera with members of 608 Squadron at RAF Thornaby. None of those pictured survived the war

Born in 1912, George was the son of Edward Attila Lumley and Mary Jane Lumley, of Brook Terrace, Darlington. He married Nellie Burton, of Billingham, and they had two daughters, Patricia and Cynthia.

George found work as a glassblower of scientific instruments before, after three years as a signalman with the Territorial Army, in Darlington, he signed up for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force at the start of the war in 1939.

On February 2, 1940, George was the air gunner in Avro Anson N5199, on a reconnaissance mission along the North-East coast when both engines failed, and the pilot had no choice but to ditch into the sea, 10 kilometres off Blyth.

The Northern Echo: An Avro Anson at RASF Thornaby during the warAn Avro Anson at RASF Thornaby during the war

Armed with his trusty axe, George fought to not only cut himself free from the gun turret, but to provide the only escape route for the rest of the crew before the aircraft sank 45 minutes after it hit the water.

Archived records name the crewmen, who were picked up by a passing minesweeper, as Flight Officer Johnson, Pilot Officer Lambert, and Corporal Young.

“It was not only an act of personal survival but an act of heroism that saved his comrades, and he was deservedly mentioned in despatches,” explains Geoff.

The dramatic escape also earned George membership of the coveted Goldfish Club, which was formed to honour airmen who survived crashing in the sea.

The Northern Echo: The Goldfish Club certificateThe Goldfish Club certificate

Months after that lucky escape, George had another brush with death on June 19, when an Anson, on convoy escort duties, struck high-tension cables and crashed into the ground near North Skelton. The crew were taken to North Ormesby Hospital, where one of the pilots died, and George was treated for severe burns. For six weeks, his wife, Nellie, thought he was dead, until he turned up one night on the doorstep.

The narrow escapes continued. On October 25, 1941, George was flying in a Hudson that was attacked and damaged by a Messerschmitt, only for the British plane to somehow escape in the clouds.

Sadly, George’s luck ran out three years later. By then, he’d been transferred to RAF Wick, in Scotland, and was in a Wellington taking part in a night-time 'homing exercise' in which aircraft fly low over the sea to illuminate enemy submarines on the surface.

Records unearthed by Geoff Hill show the Wellington was fitted with a faulty altimeter, causing it to fly too low and crash into the Irish Sea, off St Bees Head. Four crew members, including George, were killed.

The tragic saga only emerged because, decades later, Geoff was doing some building work at a house in Chilton. It transpired that the resident was George’s widow, Nellie.

At the time, Geoff had his own building company, as well as a local DIY shop, and he saw Nellie chopping sticks for the fire with a battered old axe. When he noticed it was inscribed with the year 1939, Nellie began to tell him its history.

“I told her straight away that the axe was far too special to be chopping firewood, so I went to my DIY shop to get her a new one,” he laughs.

The Northern Echo: A close-up of the 1939 axeA close-up of the 1939 axe

Geoff was so moved by George’s story that, with the assistance of friend Ian Ferguson, he carried out painstaking research on the family’s behalf before presenting them with framed photographs and other memorabilia.

However, Nellie wanted Geoff to keep the old axe, along with George’s Goldfish Club certificate.

“That axe saved lives and, together with the certificate, it reflects the tenacity and resilience of a true war hero. They’ll be treasured as part of my collection,” says Geoff.

The collection used to be housed at St George Hotel, formerly the officers’ mess in the days of RAF Middleton St George. The hotel was closed in 2018 and the collection has been in storage since then, with the hope that it will be given a permanent home at the airport terminal.

In the meantime, Geoff and his fellow members of the Middleton St George Memorial Association do their best to keep the wartime memories alive, regularly organising remembrance ceremonies on consecrated ground outside the old officers’ mess, where the ashes of more than 100 former members of the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force are buried.

The Northern Echo: Historian Geoff Hill with the axe at the grave of George Edward LumleyHistorian Geoff Hill with the axe at the grave of George Edward Lumley

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The final act of Geoff’s research into the remarkable, tragically short life of George Edward Lumley was to go looking for his grave – and he couldn't resist taking the axe with him.

“Hey, look what we’ve found, George,” he said, softly, as he knelt beside the headstone, straightened the poppies, and read the inscription.

As time rolls on, and years roll by, loving memories never die…