In a week dominated by extremist thugs, PETER BARRON pays tribute to a war hero who has died, aged 95 – and a schoolboy whose ingenuity to helping others during the pandemic

IN his 96th year, Stan Instone was meant to have been the guest of honour at an annual ceremony to remember those who served at an air base during World War Two.

Instead, his photograph was set inside a poppy wreath, bearing his name, and laid to rest on a memorial commemorating his fellow wartime heroes.

This year’s annual memorial service to those who were stationed at RAF Middleton St George, near Darlington, was not how it had been planned.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a much grander gathering, including VIPs from the Royal Canadian Air Force and our own RAF.

Instead, just a dozen people met under heavy skies, the colour of the air force uniform, to pay their respects to those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice at the base, which became Teesside Airport in later years.

The event has been held every year since the 1970s but the 2020 ceremony, led on Saturday morning by Rev Colin Lingard, could not be staged with its usual numbers because of coronavirus.

Nevertheless, prayers were still said by the few who attended under social distancing rules. The Last Post was still played. National anthems were still sung. And the occasion was given extra poignancy because of the sad news that another member of the RAF Middleton St George family – the remarkable Stan Instone – had passed away after a short illness just a week or so earlier.

It had been my privilege to talk to Stan on a number of occasions over the years – the last time on the phone just a month ago. His story never dulled, always making the hairs stand up on my neck, and it is well worth retelling following his death…

Stan was a flight engineer with 419 Squadron, based at Middleton St George, when his Lancaster bomber was shot down in February, 1945. He was halfway through his 19th mission, approaching Dortmund, when the aircraft was hit on the starboard wing by a Messerschmitt fighter.

As the pilot ordered the crew to bale out, Stan did his best to free the rear-gunner who was trapped by ice that had formed around the gun turret. Mercifully, the flames melted the ice and the rear-gunner was able to escape.

“He went out backwards, but his boot got caught, so he was dragged behind the aircraft,” recalled Stan. “Luckily, he was able to wriggle free, leaving his boot stuck in the aircraft, and managed to parachute to safety.”

Stan was about to bale out when the plane exploded. The next thing he remembered was regaining consciousness in free-fall, having plummeted an estimated 10,000 feet.

Instinctively, he pulled his ripcord, crashed through pine trees, and was captured almost immediately. After being taken to an interrogation centre at Frankfurt, he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Nuremberg.

It is an incredible story of survival, and Stan never forgot those he served with at Middleton St George, regularly travelling north from his home in Berkshire to attend the annual memorial service.

Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and Teesside Airport manager, Shaun Woods, had been arranging a surprise flight for Stan to attend this year’s ceremony, but the plan had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

After the ceremony, Geoff Hill, chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, said: “Stan was the perfect gentleman – a bundle of energy, with a remarkable memory.”

As an aviation historian, Geoff has researched many cases of heroism but described Stan’s wartime experience as “one of the most amazing stories of survival I’ve ever come across”.

“Stan was the personification of the courage that was typical of those who served here, setting off on missions, not knowing if they would return,” added Geoff. “He showed incredible commitment to keep coming back year after year to honour his colleagues. Right to the end, he never forgot them.”

Stan Instone – war hero, survivor – has taken the final salute. There will be no more summer returns to RAF Middleton St George. But for as long as they go on gathering on a Saturday in June, he will be part of the proceedings.

FROM one generation to another…and Harry Cooper is rising to a very different challenge at the age of 15.

Harry, who lives in Linthorpe, Middlesbrough, loves making things, and got a 3D printer for Christmas last year.

When the coronavirus crisis struck, and he heard about the shortage of personal protection equipment, he decided to do something about it. He made a prototype for a protective visor, using PETG, a durable, chemically-resistant substance.

His mum, Donna, wrote on Facebook about what Harry had done, and staff from North Tees General Hospital got in touch. They checked out the design, confirmed the prototype’s specification was good enough, and Harry went into production.

Since then, he’s been inundated with requests and will this week break the 1,000 mark, with visors being donated to care homes, community workers, dentists, schools, retail outlets, and food deliverers.

The distribution has been managed by primary school teacher Donna and her husband, Nigel, a self-employed joiner, who have two other children, Emily, 19, and Alifie, 12. Deliveries have been made as far afield as Newcastle and Sunderland.

“It’s gone mad and has certainly kept us busy. We’ve had a couple of all-nighters keeping up with demand, especially when it first started,” said Donna. “We’re really proud of Harry because it was just something he wanted to do.”

Harry, who goes to MacMillan Academy, added: “I saw that people needed help and I just thought it was something I could do.”

The surge of community spirit during the pandemic has been a joy to see, with countless examples of young people playing their part.

Harry Cooper, supported by his family, is doing his generation proud.

The Northern Echo:

I CAME across what Harry was doing when the Riding for the Disabled Association’s Unicorn Centre, in Middlesbrough, appealed on Twitter for visors.

Within seconds, Harry’s dad had Tweeted in reply. It simply said: “We can help.”

Imagine if everyone made those three words their motto…