West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

DISASTER AT DARRINGTON
18th SEPTEMBER 1943


by BRIAN LUNN

On the 18th September 1943 the village of Darrington near Pontefract was the scene of a fatal air crash when a Halifax Bomber crashed onto a group of cottages at the eastern end of the village killing four of the occupants as well as the six man crew of the aircraft.

During the afternoon of that fateful Saturday, Sergeant Edward Wilson had attended a briefing at RAF Riccall near Selby, the home of No 1658 Heavy Conversion Unit, which trained crews to fly the four-engined Halifax Bomber. The briefing was for a Night Cross Country flying exercise in Halifax BB245 the take off time was 1900. The route was Riccall – Lands End – Riccall. Little did the crews know that they would not be returning to the station at which they had been training for the past three weeks. This would be their last flight.

The Navigator, Sergeant John Cruddington, plotted their course during the flight which was quite normal until they were on their final leg. Having covered four hours flying they were just about to join the Riccall circuit, the pilot was keeping his eyes peeled for other aircraft in the area as they were flying through the circuit which covered nearby RAF Snaith (Pollington). When they were just south of Darrington there was an explosion in the port outer Merlin engine followed by the propeller and reduction gear falling off in flight. With only three engines the Halifax became difficult to control, bearing in mind that an experienced pilot may have been able to keep the aircraft flying, but to Sergeant Wilson, with only three weeks flying experience on this type of aircraft, it was a different matter. The aircraft was losing height and he battled to regain control.

Meanwhile in the village of Darrington, three sisters, Mable, Gwyneth and Nona Dean, made their way to bed. It was 10.30pm. They left their mother and elder sister, Ellen, downstairs. Their father, Harry, and brother, William, were out at the Darrington Hotel just up the village from their cottage. They heard them come in just after 11pm and they dropped to sleep.

Just before midnight they were woken by a large explosion… Sergeant Wilson had lost his battle and the Halifax had crashed onto their cottage in Chapel Hill which was just on the eastern side of the A1.

No-one saw the crash but the aircraft was heard coming low over the village. As it approached the Pontefract-Stapleton road its height could not have been more than 20-30 feet as it sliced off the top 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 cottages.

A local resident who lived opposite the crash site, Mrs H. Jackson, described what happened;

“There was a ‘big-swish’ and the lights went out, but through the blackout curtains I could see the flames. When I got outside I was surprised to find that there had been a crash, because I thought it was a German ‘plane which had dropped bombs.”

Mrs Jackson went on to tell how she had helped other residents fill buckets of water and throw them over the flames near to the old chapel to prevent other houses catching fire. The water came from outside tubs, baths and tanks, all of which had been emptied by the time the NFS (National Fire Service) arrived.

The three Dean sisters were sleeping at the other end of the house to the rest of the family, they managed to get down another staircase and had to batter down the front door to make their escape. They could see nothing but a mass of flames. Sadly, their sixty-eight year old father, Harry, mother Mable sixty-six, together with their thirty-three year old brother William and thirty-six year old sister Ellen, were unable to get out and all died at the scene. Four other people living in the row were also hurt.

Midgley Pease, 65 years, had burns to his hands and face, his wife Hilda, 62, suffered severe shock. In the cottage next to the Pease lived George Percy Rhodes, a well-known local artist, who’s pen and ink sketches appear in some of the books by J.S. Fletcher who based a number of his works on Darrington. Percy Rhodes told the following account after the crash.

“We were preparing for bed, we heard the ‘plane’. I remarked that it was terribly low and there was a tremendous crash and when I looked out of the window I saw flames around three sides of my house. When I went to the door I was unable to get out of the front because of the wreckage outside Mr Pease house.”

Mr. Rhodes went on to describe the terrifying experience of Mr. and Mrs Pease who were in bed at the time. They had to jump onto the wing of the aircraft to reach safety.

“I was trying to reach Mrs Pease from my yard, but was unable to do so. Eventually she was pulled across the wreckage and over a wall into a garden owned by Mr. Isle.”

Mr. and Mrs Rhodes escaped through another door and over a wall.

Mr. and Mrs Harry Pickering, who lived in the house next to Mr. Wardell, owed their escape from injury or possible death, to the fact that Mrs Pickering had recently given birth to a baby, and since they had been sleeping at the home of Mrs Pickering’s mother, Mrs Hardcastle, in one of the cottages at the top of Chapel Hill. Harry Pickering, who was serving in the Royal Navy, was at home on leave, he carried his wife into a field for safety, from where they watched their own home destroyed by fire. Sadly the baby suffered smoke inhalation and died later.

Another victim to have a lucky escape was Mrs May McCone, who’s house was next to the chapel. She had given birth to a baby earlier that day. The flames were prevented from spreading to her home but she was very distressed. The Wardell’s, Pease’s Pickering’s as well as the three Dean girls, lost all their clothes, furniture as well as their homes. Percy Rhodes home was saved from the fire he believes due to the extra thick wall that divided his house from Mr. Pease. It escaped with blistered paintwork, but as a precaution all their furniture was moved out of the house, including a heavy grand piano. It was all lifted over a wall into a field at the rear with the help of soldiers who were summoned to assist from Darrington Hall where they were stationed.

The National Fire Service arrived from Pontefract, the officer in charge on his arrival found that more help was needed and four more appliances were called for as well as a foam tender and a hose carriers came from various districts and were on the scene some twenty minutes later. The wrecked aeroplane, four houses and the chapel were such a mass of flames that the fire service could only concentrate on stopping the fire spreading to the remaining houses and this was achieved.

There was water supply at the scene was not enough to keep the fire engines supplied therefore a relay was set up between the Fish Pond at Stapleton Park (which was situated halfway between Stapleton cross roads and Castle Hill). During the operation Soldiers tried to remove some of the ammunition from the wreck which continued to explode and one fireman was injured from flying bullet. Although the aircraft was only on a Training Flight it carried full ammunition but no bombs.

The fires were out by daybreak but it was 11am on Sunday morning before the Fire Service were able to leave the scene.

During the 11-hour operation they had been assisted by the Rescue Service from Pontefract and Castleford, Police, Soldiers, civilians, Special Constables and Air Raid Wardens. Other Civil Defence personnel who were on duty were messenger dispatch riders, Ambulance and Mortuary services. The NFS members worked during the daylight hours removing the remainder of guns and ammunition from the wreckage. The last body, that of an airman, was removed from the wreckage ten hours after the crash. The County Council canteen arrived at the scene at 5.30am and provided much needed refreshments to all those involved and remained there until noon on the following day.

Special Constable Fisher of Darrington, was the first to arrive at the scene. His daughter, a hospital nurse, gave first aid to the injured. Mr and Mrs Singleton, who provided refreshment and temporary accommodation, were all thanked for their assistance.

It is interesting to know that the old chapel is mentioned in J.S. Fletcher’s novels and an etching of it and some of the houses destroyed are contained in a book by him on Darrington.

Mr Dean was a partner in the long-established Dean & Furbisher, Wheelwrights at the Wood Yard, Darrington. (The Dean & Furbisher DIY store closed and the site is now a housing estate). William Dean also worked there as a sawman. The Dean family were well respected in the village where they had taken an active part in the social and parochial life. They had been staunch supporters of the Parish Church and had given valuable service in the choir of which Harry had been a member for nearly 60 years. His wife, their three sons and six daughters, had all been loyal members. Miss Ellen Dean was a member of the G.F.S. and undertook other church work in various ways. Mrs Dean was a member of the Mothers Union and also looked after the female members of the choir. Mr Dean and William were both keen cricketers and both played for Darrington Cricket Club. William was also a member of the Home Guard. Gwyneth was an Insurance Clerk. Mable was a school teacher while Norma was still at college. Two other sons were away from home, one being in Canada.

Of those injured, John Wardell was the local joiner and undertaker, his partner Wilfred Laverack had their workshop where the Post Office now stands. Midgley Pease mended pots and pans and dealt on many other trades He died in November 1943 from a heart attack. His wife Hilda, never fully recovered from the crash. For many years Hilda lived at East Hardwick, living with Mr and Mrs Gregory.

The funerals took place on Thursday 23rd September 1943 at Darrington Parish Church. The four coffins were laid to rest in one grave which is just to the right of the main gate. Most of the village attended or were represented. The church was filled to capacity. The service was conducted by Cannon R. P Whittington, the Vicar of Darrington, and Reverend E. Sturdy, a former curate of Darrington. The vicar read a letter from the Bishop of Wakefield expressing his regret that he could not cancel a previous engagement in order to attend and conveyed his deepest sympathy to member of the family.  The choir sang at the service and Miss Enid Pearson played the organ.

The four coffins had been in the church since the previous evening and were taken to the grave one by one. Messrs Edward Featherstone, George Cox, G. Lodge and ‘Billy’ Huby, were bearers to Mr and Mrs Dean and Miss Ellen Dean, while members of the Home Guard, Rubin Wilson, Edward West, Harold Thompson and D. McCone, carried that of William Dean. The committal service was conducted by Cannon Whittington.

Amongst those who sent wreaths in addition to members of the family were; ‘The Villages’, the members of the church choir, Clerks from a Yorkshire Air Force Station (Riccall)**, ‘A’ Company of the R.A.S.C., the Home Guard, the Countess of Rosse from Womersley Hall, Patrons of the Darrington Hotel which was Harry and William’s local.

[** During the war, censorship did not allow the names of RAF stations to be published.]

THE INQUEST

The inquest was opened on Tuesday 21st September at the Court House in Pontefract by the Pontefract & District Coroner, Mr. Will Bentley, when evidence was given by Special Constable, Herbert Fisher who saw the bodies removed from the ruins and by Gwynth Dean. Dr. T. Hessel pronounced death was due to severe burning. Before adjourning the inquest until the following Tuesday, the Coroner, on behalf of himself and the public, expressed his deepest sympathy with members of the family for their terrible loss. “One half of the family has been wiped out” he said. “It appears to be one of those causes which none can foretell or provide against owing to the unfortunate state in the world today. The only thing we can do is to say how much we feel for those bereaved in this terrible way.”

At the resumption of the inquest the following Tuesday, witnesses emphasised the impossibility of trying to rescue any of the four victims.

Walter Singleton, who lived at East Valley Farm, Darrington, said he was just leaving his house when he heard a terrific noise followed by a crash and a mass of flames. The Dean’s house was burning and it appeared impossible to get within yards of it.

PC S. Botham spoke of arriving at the scene shortly after midnight. “Three quarters of the Dean’s house had been demolished and was in flames, the aeroplane was completely surrounded by flames with the exception of the rear turret. The machine was one of the heavy type”. He went on to tell that he sent for assistance and began rescue work with the help of soldiers. The house next to the Dean’s was the Wardell’s was demolished but the flames had not reached the centre and the two occupants were rescued after the debris had been removed. It was humanly impossible to rescue any of the occupants of the Dean house. The plane had apparently struck the part of the house where the four victims were sleeping.

The Coroner recorded a verdict of ‘Misadventure’.

The bodies of the crew were taken by RAF ambulance to the Mortuary at RAF Riccall.

THOSE WHO REMEMBER

In the late 1980s I was asked to assist in a radio programme for the BBC on Air Crashes and their victims both service and civilian. Harry and Vera Pickering took part. Although their interview was edited to cover a small part of the programme I have a transcript of the whole interview which follows:-

Vera Pickering takes up the story.

“The 18th September 1943 when a Halifax Bomber crashed and destroyed our home. It was about midnight when we heard a droning noise and the next minute we heard bricks crashing and I said to my husband “That’s strange – whatever is it?” He replied he did not know but it sounded like on of our fighters which had come down. Later we learned it was a Halifax Bomber which had crashed. I was there with a five days old baby, fortunately we were staying at my mothers house which was further away high up the hill. We were safe but we had no home left. Harry went to see of he could help."

Harry takes up the story:

“First of all bullets started to fly and I did say its only a fighter don’t worry, but having said that there was a terrible bang, which I thought was a bomb but it was one of the fuel tanks and the flames were enormous and I said "We’ll have to get out now", and in fact the police arrived just as I has said it and told us to move to safety. Because at the time they did not know if the aircraft was loaded with bombs or not. We later found out that the aircraft had trouble with one engine and they were unable to land due to enemy aircraft in the area. They had been told to circle. To me this was the reason for the aircraft crashing where it did, another 10 or 15 yards it would have been in open fields. It was only the fact that he hit an electricity pole that brought the aircraft down where it finished. I could see our house was a mass of flames and I took my wife to Mrs Goats house (This was where the southbound carriageway of the A1 now runs) to stay the night. I then went with my wife’s father, Mr. Hardcastle, to see if we could give any assistance. By the time we got to the scene there were crowds of people there. Where they came from I’ll never know. The first thing we could see was the rear turret high up in the air, but the police would not let us near as they still did not know if it was bombed or not. The rescuers did manage to open the turret but it was empty. The crew were all found in the front of the aircraft. They had all got together as if they knew what was going to happen to them. It would have been impossible for any one to have rescued them out of those flames."

The couple did receive some compensation from the Air Ministry. Vera explained; “We had to note down a list of all we owned, how much it cost new, how much it was worth at the time of the crash and how much it was worth after the crash. Anyway there was nothing left. Eventually they gave us £200 less £25 they loaned us to buy some clothes as we only had what we were wearing at the time of the crash. Afterwards I stayed with my mother and father until two years after the crash, they built some council houses (Sotheron Croft) in the village. We were not allowed one as the Council said it was my mother and father who were overcrowded and we were not. We were the reason they were overcrowded! We were left in the cottage until it was required fro someone else. We did get a council house in 1958 some 15 years after the crash."

Sadly Harry has since died.

The accident was the third to occur that day involving aircraft from RAF Riccall. During the afternoon, Halifax BB304 piloted by Sergeant Ted Vicary RAAF crashed at RAF Lissett when an engine caught fire and fell out. All of the crew suffered injury. Within minutes of the Darrington crash another aircraft on the same cross country as BB245 crashed at Mount Pleasant Hotel, Finningley. Three of the crew bailed out but three were unable to get clear of the aircraft before it crashed. They did not survive.

Between the 7th September and the 19th September, RAF Riccall had lost 19 crew members and 9 injured. Four Halifax bombers were also written off.

The History of Halifax BB245

Built by London Aircraft Production from a batch built between 21/09/42 and 15/03/43
Delivered tp No.102 Squadron at Pocklington 13/10/42
Transferred to No.158 Squadron at Rufforth 29/10/42
Transferred to No.76 Squadron, Holme on Spalding Moor 31/10/42
Involved in Cat AC accident 3/12/42
Repaired on site 6/12/42
Returned to No 76 Squadron 23/12/42
Transferred to No 1658 HCU Riccall 03/02/43
Returned to No 76 Squadron at Holme 10/03/43
Returned to No 1658 HCU (date not known)
Involved in Cat ‘E’ Flying accident 18/09/43
Struck off charge 29/09/43
Total flying hours – 534
Whilst it was with No 76 Squadron carried the letters MP-V and performed 10 operations.

Crew of BB245
Pilot: Sergeant Edward George Wilson
Flt Eng: Sgt Thomas Glyn Roberts 30 years
Navigator: Sgt John Arthur Cruddington 20 years
Bomb-aimer Sgt David Beeley 23 years
Wireless Op Sgt Edward Cook 20 years
Air-Gunner: Sgt Thomas Clelland 19 years.

Sgt Edward George Wilson was a native of Tower Hamlets, London. Buried Tower Hamlets.
Sgt Thomas Glyn Roberts son of Thomas and Margaret Roberts of Haswell, Birkenhead.
Sgt John Arthur Cruddington son of Arthur and Christine of Kent. Buried Crystal Palace.
Sgt David Beeley son of Alfred and Kathleen of Rotherham. Buried Masborough Cemetery.
Sgt Edward Cook, son of Thomas and Sarah of Seaham, Co. Durham. Buried Seaham.
Sgt Thomas Clelland, son of Hugh and Christine of Dysart, Fife. Buried Hayfield Cemetery, Kirkcaldy.

NOTE:

During the research of this flying accident it is funny how some of the details you have collected do not ring true.

There were some stories going about that a 7th body had been recovered from the crash and this had been an important person. I have traced only six people were recorded in the aircraft, the crew is normally seven but on training Flight they would fly with only one air-gunner as is the case here.

I have been unable to trace any details of the aircraft having been told to fly round the circuit due to enemy activity in the area. This could be true but none of the stations Operational Record Books contain any details. This does not mean it was not the case.. it could be that whoever was compiling the ORB did not think it was important enough to make an entry. This I have found to be the case in many other circumstances.

Another story was that some of the crew were buried in an old well near the scene on Chapel Hill. I soon discounted this story.

Brian Lunn


‘Disaster at Darrington’ is reproduced from a booklet written and published by Mr. Brian Lunn.


 

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