DISASTER AT DARRINGTON
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
“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
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
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
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
[** During the war,
censorship did not allow the names of RAF stations to be
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 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
Harry takes up the
“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
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
The History of Halifax
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
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
Sgt Edward Cook, son of Thomas and Sarah of Seaham, Co. Durham.
Sgt Thomas Clelland, son of Hugh and Christine of Dysart, Fife.
Buried Hayfield Cemetery, Kirkcaldy.
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.
‘Disaster at Darrington’
is reproduced from a booklet written and published by Mr. Brian