Dysart teenager remembered 75 years after wartime air tragedy which killed 12 people

Darrington air disaster memorial.
Darrington air disaster memorial.

The wartime bravery of a Dysart teenager, tragically killed when the Halifax bomber in which he was flying crashed into cottages in a Yorkshire village, has been honoured 75 years later.

Just 19 years old on that fateful night, air gunner sgt. Thomas Clelland was one of a crew of six who perished when their aircraft crashed into houses in the village of Darrington near Pontefract while on a training exercise on September 18, 1943.

Now, in the wake of the 75th anniversary of the disaster which also claimed the lives of six villagers, including four from the same family, they have been honoured with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque, memorial service and wreath laying ceremony.

Fittingly the anniversary was also marked with the spectacular low-level flypast of the crash site by a surviving Lancaster bomber.

In all, 10 descendants of the brave airman’s family, who the Press helped track down following a public appeal to find relatives, made it down to England to personally pay their respects.

“It was a day full of emotion, sadness and poignancy and certainly one we could simply not miss,” said Hugh Clelland, the airman’s nephew.

“Every aspect of the event was handled with the utmost sensitivity and respect and the organisers must be commended. It was a very emotional occasion, but also one which filled us with a deep sense of pride.

“He was just a teenager but a brave one, as they all were.

“It’s even brought our family closer together, and helped create new bonds with family members who we’ve lost touch with over the years.

“It’s been a very special thing to be involved in.”

The Halifax bomber was on a night time training exercise from Riccall airfield near York to Lands End and back, when the aircraft clipped trees before crashing into the village.

The resulting fire engulfed several cottages killing six civilians, including a baby and four members of the Dean family.

A total of 11 fire crews, called in from nearby villages, fought for several hours to bring the blaze under control.

It is believed the aircraft had suffered the loss of one of its propellers causing it to crash. Inexplicably, it was one of three Halifax aircraft based at Riccall that suffered the same fate that very night.

Only months later was it accepted by the RAF that there was a design fault with the propeller system on the Halifax, making the loss of life all the more tragic.

Thomas Clelland, at 19, was the youngest of the crew.

He had been conducting his RAF training for just three weeks when disaster struck.

The memorial day started with a number of speeches from dignitaries including Major Stan Hardy, Deputy Lord Lieutenant. Rev, Adrian Judd, vicar of Darrington and 94-year-old ex-Halifax 158 squadron air gunner, Geoff Towers, who flew 40 missions during the war and was awarded the British Empire Medal.

It was Mr Towers who unveiled the commemorative plaque before wreaths and flowers were laid and the Last Post sounded.

A celebratory lunch was then followed by a spectacular low-level flypast by a Lancaster Bomber which circled the village three times.

The commemorative events were the culmination of over two years of painstaking effort and research carried out by a group of volunteers from the village.

One of those, David Hepworth, told the Press the idea had merely started as an attempt to mark the disaster, because there was nothing within the village.

He said: “It started as a motion to the local council to see if we could get some sort of recognition to those who lost their lives, but in time evolved into something a whole lot bigger than any of us ever imagined and onto what we have witnessed this week.

“It’s been an emotional journey to get to this but hugely rewarding for all of us too.

“It was right that we not only remember those brave airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also those innocent villagers who also perished.

“I think we’ve done that fittingly here.

“Because of this tragic event we now know a lot more about the the lives of those airmen and who they were, and that will now be preserved.”