On a clear night 80 years ago this week, an RAF fighter plane shot down two German bombers. The air gunner firing the bullets went on to service with MI6. He lived in Darlington, but few knew Frank Lanning's story. PETER BARRON reports

IT was just after midnight on May 7, 1941, when a coal-black Defiant night-fighter took off with orders to patrol along the North-East coast in the hope of intercepting German bombers flying in from Norway.

At the controls that night was pilot “Bingo” Day – so named because of his love of Bing Crosby records – and behind him in the two-seater aircraft was air gunner Frank Lanning.

What happened next is described in Frank’s evocative, beautifully-written transcript, which is being made public for the first time by North-East aviation historian Geoff Hill…

“As we crossed and recrossed the mouth of the Tyne on this cold, clear night, we kept our eyes skinned for signs of the enemy, who was already dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs in good measure,” writes Frank.

“Then, all of a sudden, I found myself momentarily hypnotised by the sight of a small black speck, crawling over a white table-cloth of cloud, some 1,000 feet below and, in a flash, we were diving down to get right underneath the intruder, which we now identified as a Heinkel 111, as it lumbered heavily onwards only 100 feet above us and quite unaware of our presence.”

Bingo thrust back his Perspex hood for a better view of the “bat-like object” above, while Frank trained his machine guns on the bulbous nose of the bomber, where he knew most of the crew would be located.

“I pressed the firing button for a good six seconds, letting my sights drift slowly along the length of the Heinkel so that, as I hoped, the entire bomber would receive a generous allocation of the 250 bullets despatched.

“I realise that all this sounds rather blood-thirsty but you must remember that my wife and small daughter were fast asleep only about thirty minutes flying time away in Edinburgh, and I knew only too well that Auld Reekie usually copped it when these uninvited visitors flew in over the North-East coast – visitors who, I might add, were not in the least bothered as to whether their bombs fell on military targets of not.

"So you see, I had quite a personal interest in any encounter of this nature, over this particular territory. Therefore, as the bullets smote into the Heinkel, I must confess that I was not in the least concerned about the fate of the gentlemen inside.

“In fact, the Nazi pilot must have had one hell of a surprise because, without warning, the bomber dived steeply, nearly tangling with us on the way down.

"Bingo, in fact (and what a pilot he was) only just managed to throw the Defiant over and peel off at right angles as the whole unhappy contraption, flames and all, went slithering past, shedding bits of flaming fuselage in all directions – some of it whizzing dangerously past us as we fell away.

"Anyway, as soon as we righted ourselves, and at a respectful distance (burning debris was still flying past fast and thick), we followed our victim down to his doom.

"So intent were we to make sure the Heinkel went right into the ground, that we narrowly missed running into Newcastle's barrage balloon, which in the moonlight looked exactly like a lot of frogs' spawn suspended in space."

Having watched the German bomber plunge into the grounds of Morpeth Asylum, Bingo and Frank returned to their base at Acklington aerodrome, to refuel, rearm and immediately return to the night sky to patrol between Blyth Harbour and the Farne Islands.

“No sooner had we got going at about 11,000 feet than we spotted a Junkers 88 bomber heading craftily out to sea, having, of course, left all his visiting cards on British soil,” adds Frank.

During the ensuing attempts to bring the Junkers down, the gunsight worked loose and toppled from its mounting, leaving Bingo with no option but to fly in as close as possible so Frank could fire by naked eye at point blank.

To their dismay, and with Frank running out of ammunition, the Junkers gradually drew away, and the RAF crewmates returned to Acklington, dejected that they hadn’t achieved the rare feat of shooting down two enemy bombers in a single night.

However, just as Bingo and Frank were going to bed at 4am, a report came in from the Coastguard that the Junkers had, in fact, crashed on a desolate stretch of beach close to Holy Island, and the German crew had been captured by the Home Guard.

One of Frank’s last few bullets had punctured the starboard petrol feed pipe, making a return to Stavenger, in Norway, impossible.

“So, despondency turned into joy, and I even got my wife out of bed to hear the good news on the phone, though I must confess that she didn’t seem all that impressed – not at four o’clock in the morning anyway!”

The result was that Bingo and Frank were both decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George, though not before Frank had made his way to the crash site to remove the Swastika from the Junkers' tail and hang it on display in the operations room back at Acklington.

Sadly, Bingo was killed later in the war. Frank had a near-miss too, breaking his back in a crash, but surviving to rise to the position of Camp Commander at RAF Klagenfurt, in Austria, before being released from the RAF when the fighting was over.

Post-war, Frank lived quietly in Cockerton, Darlington, and served for MI6 – The Secret Intelligence Service – though he never spoke about the nature of his work.

Geoff Hill, chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, has gathered an impressive collection of wartime aviation memorabilia at Teesside International Airport, which was a wartime RAF base.

He met Frank during a memorabilia exhibition in Stockton in the 1980s, and the pair became friends, with Geoff, a self-employed builder at the time, doing jobs at the war hero’s home.

“I always remember him, leaving the house to catch the train to London, in his pinstripe suit, bowler hat and umbrella, on his way to MI6. I always wondered what he was doing but he always kept it top secret,” recalls Geoff.

Frank died in Darlington in 2002, aged 95. The gunsight that had broken off during that fateful encounter with the Heinkel bomber in 1941 was bequeathed to Geoff, along with his officer’s side hat, photographs, and the original transcripts.

“It’s incredible to think that we had this amazing man, living in relatively anonymity in Darlington, who was not only a war hero but went on to serve his country with MI6,” says Geoff.

As he speaks, he can't resist holding up the Defiant gunsight, peering through it at an empty North-East sky – and smiling at the memory of what Air Gunner Frank Lanning saw through it 80 years ago this very week.