West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


It was shortly before 7pm on 18th September 1943, that with all checks carried out, Sergeant E. J. Wilson started each of the Merlin engines in turn, ready for a night flying cross-country exercise. The Halifax lumbered round the airfield following other aircraft on the same exercise and the ones in front were taking off in turn. The aircraft arrived at the runway and lined up, and then a green flare gave them permission to start their take off. Sergeant Wilson released the brakes and the aircraft rolled slowly forward, gathered speed, and the bomber hurtled down the runway at Riccall. Little did those on board know that this would be their last flight and they would not return to the station which they had been training at for the past three weeks.

They set course for the first leg which took them to the southern tip of the country at Lands End and they had been in the air for nearly four hours by the time they were making their return leg, flying in an easterly direction, before joining the Riccall circuit. Suddenly there was a loud explosion from the port outer engine which was followed by the propeller and reduction gear falling off, causing some difficulty to the pilot in trying to maintain a straight course. The aircraft was losing height and the pilot struggled in vain to regain control but he was fighting a losing battle.

In the small village of Darrington, which straddles the A1 just east of Pontefract, three sisters, Mable, Gwyneth and Nona Dean, made their way upstairs to bed at 10.30pm, leaving their mother and elder sister, Ellen, downstairs. Their father and brother were out at the Darrington Hotel in the village. The sisters heard them come in just after 11pm. They then dropped off to sleep.

Just before midnight they were awakened by a loud explosion. Sergeant Wilson had lost his battle and his aircraft, BB245, had crashed onto the cottage in which they lived at Chapel Hill, which is just on the eastern side of the A1. No one witnessed the crash, but the aircraft was heard coming over the village very low. Passing over the Pontefract-Stapleton road, its height could not have been more than 20 or 30 feet as it sliced off the tops of some trees in a nearby orchard before hitting an electricity pole and crashing. The aircraft exploded on impact and a sheet of flames engulfed the four houses in the row.

A local resident who lived in a cottage overlooking the damaged houses described what happened:

"There seemed to be a big swish and the light went out, but through the black-out curtains I could see the flames. When I got outside I was surprised to find that there had been a crash because I thought that it was a German plane which had dropped bombs. For a time, all these cottages were marooned."

The resident went on to tell how she had helped neighbours to fill buckets of water and throw them over the flames near to the old chapel to prevent adjoining houses catching fire. The water came from outside tubs, baths and tanks, all of which had been used up by the time the National Fire Service arrived.

The three sisters escaped through the flames after battering down a door to reach safety. Sadly, their father Harry (68) and mother (66), together with their brother William (33) and sister Ellen (36), all died in the ensuing inferno. Four other people living in the row were also hurt. Midgley Pease (65) had burns to his hands and face and his wife Hilda (62) suffered from severe shock.

The late George Percy Rhodes, a well-known local artist whose pen and ink sketches appear in some of the books by J.S. Fletcher, lived with his wife in the cottage next door to Midgley Pease. The following account by Mr. Rhodes was taken at the time of the crash:

"We were just preparing for bed. We heard the plane, I remarked that it was terribly low and then there was a tremendous crash and when I looked out of the window I saw a sheet of flames around three sides of my house. When I went to the front door I was unable to get out due to the wreckage outside Mr. Pease's house."

The late Mrs Rhodes described the terrifying experience of Mr. and Mrs Pease who were in bed at the time and had to jump out of a window and scramble over the wing of the aircraft to reach safety. Mr. Rhodes was trying to reach Mrs Pease from his yard, but was unable to do so. Eventually she was pulled across the wreckage and over a wall into a garden owned by the late Mr. Isle. Mrs Rhodes escaped by another door and over a wall.

Another couple living in the row were also hurt. John Wardell, the local joiner and undertaker, and his wife Alice, found their home completely devastated. John had a cut to his head and his wife suffered from shock. All the injured were taken to Pontefract Infirmary where they were detained.

The families Wardle and Pease along with the three Dean girls and another couple who lived in the last house in the row, all lost their possessions. These included clothes and furniture. Mr. Rhodes' house was saved from the fire due probably to an extra thick wall which divided his house from the Pease household. However, as a precaution, all the furniture was removed including a heavy piano, and all were lifted to safety over a wall and taken into a field by soldiers, who were billeted at Darrington Hall, and other helpers with the aid of torches.

The National Fire Service from Pontefract received the call at 12:15am and arrived quickly with two machines. The officer in charge, found that the blaze was more than he could cope with and more help was needed. He sent for additional machines, a foam tender and a hose carrier. These all came from various districts but were all at the scene within twenty minutes.

The wrecked aircraft and houses were such a mass of flames that the Fire Service could only concentrate on preventing the fire spreading. To achieve this, they required a local static water supply which they obtained from the fish pond at Stapleton Park, some 1½ miles away. Seven fire engines pumped the water in relay.

All the fires were out shortly after dawn, but it was 11:00am on Sunday morning before the last body, that of a crewman, was recovered.

The National Fire Service, it is said, “worked like Trojans all night”. They were helped by Police, civilians, air raid wardens, special constables, etc.

The soldiers assisted in removing some of the armourment and ammunition from the aircraft for although it was on a training flight it was still armed in case of enemy action. For some hours, machine gun bullets continued to explode and at least one fire officer was treated for a leg injury from an exploding bullet.

The National Fire Service canteen, together with one from the County Council, were in attendance to provide much-needed refreshment to all the workers and these stayed until noon on Sunday. The National Fire Service's Divisional Officer, Thomas, and District Officer's Wright and Firth of the ARP services, as well as training officer Cooksey and Inspector Downhill, all assisted at the scene.

Some of those who had to leave their homes were grateful to Special Constable Fisher of Darrington, who was one of the first to arrive; as well as to a hospital nurse who gave first aid, and to Mr. and Mrs Singleton who provided refreshments and temporary accommodation.

(In the interest of learning, the old chapel and some of the houses are mentioned in J.S. Fletcher's novels.)

Mr. Dean was a partner of the old established Dean & Furbisher wheelwrights at the Wood Yard in Darrington. William was employed as a saw-man. The company still trades under the same name and is still located on the original site.

The Dean family were greatly respected in the village and were supporters of the Parish Church where they gave valuable service to the choir, of which Harry Dean was a member for 60 years. All three sons and daughters were also loyal members.

The funeral service took place at Darrington the following Thursday and was conducted by the Vicar of Darrington, Cannon Whittington. The crash left the whole village stunned and nearly everyone turned out for the service which was attended by the Countess of Rosse from Womersley Hall. Members of the RAF also attended.

The fourth set of occupants of the row onto which the Halifax had crashed had a lucky escape. Mr and Mrs Harry Pickering had gone to stay the night with Mrs Pickering's mother a short distance away as they had a five-day-old baby.

The crash claimed its eleventh victim in November 1943 when Midgley Pease died in Pontefract Infirmary. Although he had recovered from the severe burns, the shock of the crash resulted in the fatal heart attack.

PILOT: Sergeant Edward George Wilson
FLIGHT ENGINEER: Sergeant Thomas Glyn Roberts - Birkenhead
NAVIGATOR: Sergeant John Arthur Cruddington - Kent
BOMB-AIMER: P/O David Beeley - Rotherham
WIRELESS OPERATOR: Sergeant Edward Cook - Seham, Co. Durham
AIR GUNNER: Sergeant Thomas Clelland - Dysart, Fife.

Halifax II built by London Aircraft Production. Served with 102 Squadron, No 158 Squadron, No 76 Squadron, No 1658 HCU S.O.C. 23/09/43
Total Flying hours: 534

‘Destruction at Darrington’ is reproduced from an account submitted to us by Mr. Peter Ellway.
The original author of the above article is not known.


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