Then, as now, young men were called on to go to war. Then, as now, their bodies came home. Then, as now, members of the public lined the streets to pay tribute to their sacrifice. Chris Lloyd reports on a young man who answered the call in 1939.

THE scene is sadly familiar. A long line of servicemen, uniforms so smart that their buttons shine in the gloom, threads slowly and sorrowfully through the streets.

Behind comes the body of a fallen comrade, lying in a coffin wrapped in the red, white and blue of the Union flag, and surrounded by floral tributes.

In Bishop Auckland this week, thousands turned out for a 21st Century version of the parade to recognise the sacrifice of Corporal Lee Brownson in Afghanistan.

Seventy years ago this week, Darlington paid tribute to its first airman to fall in the Second World War. He was Aircraftman William Squires, known as Bill, who was only 19 when his plane crash-landed in Wales exactly 70 years ago today.

“It was a bitterly cold day and it was snowing, and we were in a car behind him going very slowly,” says Margaret Hudson, Bill’s youngest sister, who was nine at the time. “Everybody was upset, there were people standing on the streets, but all I was thinking about was all those airmen just walking in the snow.”

Two RAF men had slept with the coffin in the front room of the family home in Station Road, and then a detachment of 30 or so of them led the funeral procession, wrapped in their greatcoats with their rifles under their arms, butts to the sky and muzzles to the ground. They passed an advertising hoarding on a house-end with a simple message: “Guinness. Keep smiling.”

From Station Road, the funeral procession went along Northgate for a service in the Salvation Army Citdadel, where Bill had learnt to be a Lifesaving Scout. Then it headed across town, the coffin flanked by airmen with wings on their arms as it lay on the back of a ricketylooking truck, Bill’s cap proudly on top.

At West Cemetery, it passed a flier on the wall advertising the week’s films at the Central Cinema: Jackie Cooper in Streets of New York, and Robert Young and James Stewart in Navy Blue and Gold.

“It’s funny what you remember,”

says Margaret.

“I remember the firing of the guns over the grave in West Cemetery frightened me to death.”

“Aircraftman Squires is the first to be buried in the new portion reserved for men who died while on service,” reported The Northern Echo.

“An RAF party fired three volleys over the grave and the Last Post and Reveille were sounded by two buglers, one of whom, W Gamblin, had taught Squires to play drums in the Salvation Army.”

BILL came from a family who had been railwaymen before the war started, but who very quickly became fighting men, instead. His brother, Sam, served in the 8th Army in the Middle East; his other brother, Chris, served in the Royal Navy; his mother, Rose, was an Aycliffe Angel, making munitions; his father, William, was a sapper in the Royal Engineers, who was about to go on foreign service when he was informed of his son’s death.

Once his son was buried, he fulfilled his foreign service, but returned only able to do light duties in the North Road shops. Bill’s brothers both returned safely from the war.

Bill himself had been an apprentice in Summerson’s foundry. On his way to work each morning, he called at an old man’s house to light his fire; on his way home, his family discovered after his death, he would call on sick colleagues.

“He was very clever with wood,” remembers his sister. “I still have a small bookcase he made for me, and he helped my dad to make me a dolls’ house.”

He joined the RAF at the start of 1939, when the service was expanding rapidly in a desperate bid to catch up with the Lutwaffe.

But when war broke out, no one was quite sure how best to employ the men in the sky.

There was the deepest desire to avoid civilian casualties and so their earliest missions were against easily identifiable German ships. However, problems with timing fuses meant that even when they scored a direct hit, the bombs didn’t explode and only dented the deck.

It seems likely, then, that any operational sorties Aircraftman Squires flew were either photographic reconnaissance or dropping propaganda leaflets by the million on Germany.

In those early months, the war was still something of a novelty, a bit of a foreign adventure.

It wasn’t until the Battle of Britain began that summer that people began to realise the enormity of the horror, and sacrifice, that was to come.

His family believes Bill was stationed near Pwllheli, in north Wales, and that he was a rear gunner – a terrible but important role, sitting in a freezing glass capsule at the back of the bomber, armed with four machine guns with which to see off the Luftwaffe, who usually attacked from the rear.

Somehow Bill’s plane was disabled, possibly by a bullet, and he was fatally injured as it crash-landed. His body may have tumbled into the sea off the Llyn Peninsula because it was three days before they could bring him home to his family for burial.

“At the call of king and country, he left all that was dear to a young man – home, father and mother, sisters and brothers – to defend with all the courage and strength he had the land he loved and the flag of freedom under which millions of men, women and children find safety and security,” said Major BS Rogers, of Darlington Corps, at the service in the Citadel.

“Aircraftman Squires at the command of duty went never to return. But when the great roll call comes on the eternal morning, he will again answer the call.”

Still men answer the call of duty and still they make the ultimate sacrifice.