AT 95-years-old, Stan Instone was to have been guest of honour this year at an annual memorial service for those who served at a North-East air base during World War Two.

In common with most other events across the world, the ceremony, scheduled for June 12, at Teesside Airport – once RAF Middleton St George – has had to be cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, the cancellation has provided an opportunity to put these troubled times into perspective, without for a moment underestimating the distress and hardship covid-19 is spreading around the globe.

As a parent of four grown-up children living in different parts of the country, these are scary times. Being separated from my 88-year-old mother is hard too. But there is comfort  to be found in the technology that we have at our fingertips in 2020.

Thanks to something called Zoom, my wife and I were able to chat to our children, and see their faces on a computer screen, over the Easter holidays. With the aid of Skype, I can see my Mum and she can see me. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s undoubtedly a blessing.

But when Stan Instone was shot down in February, 1945, halfway through his 19th mission in a Lancaster bomber while approaching Dortmund, his parents back home spent months not knowing if he’d lived or died. All they received was a telegram, telling them he was missing in action.

“They were completely in the dark in those days – I think it was  harder for those back home than it was for us,” he says. “Communication is so much better now.”

Stan was a flight engineer with 419 squadron, based at RAF Middleton St George, when the Lancaster was hit on the starboard wing by a Messerschmitt fighter plane. After trying to free the rear gunner and failing to persuade the pilot to come with him, Stan was about to bale out when the plane exploded.

The next thing he remembers is gaining consciousness in free-fall, having plummeted an estimated 10,000 feet. Instinctively, he pulled his ripcord, and crashed through some pine trees.

Stan was captured almost immediately by civilian police officers and taken to the local village lock-up, where he was delighted to find his bomb-aimer and two gunners. The pilot and navigator had been killed.

According to updated figures, 75,446 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner while serving as aircrew with the RAF.

Stan and his crewmates were taken to an interrogation centre at Frankfurt, and then to a prisoner of war camp at Nuremberg, where they were allowed to send a card to their families.

It was three months later – the day after VE Day – when the card arrived at his family’s home in Blackburn.

“That was the first my mother, father and younger sister, Betty, knew that I was still alive,” he recalls. “It was another two weeks before I made it back to England. I suppose I just got lucky.”

Seventy-five years later, Stan also acknowledges his good fortune in having his three grandchildren – Sam, Ella and Jacob – living close to his home in Berkshire, where he lives with his wife Jen.

“My daughter, Sarah, brings the shopping and I get to see them from a distance, or sometimes talk to them on Skype, but I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to computers,” he says.

“It’s a difficult time but we’ll come out of it and, in many ways, people don’t know how lucky they are to be able to stay in touch.”

Asked whether he hopes to make it to next year’s memorial service, there’s a pause before Stan answers: “I doubt I’ll be around by then – I’m quite tired these days,” he says.

Mind you, Stan Instone has a habit of defying the odds...

THIS will be the first year since 1977 that the RAF Middleton St George memorial service has not gone ahead, and there have been some momentous occasions during that time.

The base opened in 1941 under Bomber Command and was allocated to the Royal Canadian Airforce two years later. In 1985, a memorial stone was laid for 419, 420 and 428 Canadian squadrons. The plan was to unveil the crests of 76 and 78 RAF squadrons on the cairn this year..

In 2004, following a fundraising campaign by The Northern Echo, a bronze statue was unveiled of heroic Canadian airman, Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, who sacrificed his life to save others when his Lancaster was shot down.

VIPs due to attend this year included Lt. Col. Martin Roesler-Yue, Commanding Officer of 419 Squadron in Canada, and six of his senior officers. Colonel Paul Doyle, from the Canadian High Commission, was also scheduled to be a guest, along with Group Captain Blythe Crawford OBE, station commander at RAF Leeming, in North Yorkshire.

Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and Teesside Airport manager, Shaun Woods, were arranging a surprise flight for Stan Instone to attend, along with 95-year-old Ena Bullement, from Northallerton, who served as a teleprinter operative.

“A great deal of hard work had gone into organising the service, so it’s a real disappointment that it can’t go ahead,” says Geoff Hill, chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association.

“But the plan is for the memorial service to be back bigger and better next year – we are more determined than ever to commemorate the acts of heroism that took place in our back yard.”

With a fair wind, the remarkable Stan Instone may yet make it back to base too.