75 years on, '˜forgotten' village air crash will be remembered

It is 75 years since a Halifax Bomber crashed in one West Yorkshire village, killing crew and civilians. Laura Drysdale reports on the '˜forgotten' war tragedy.

Friday, 31st August 2018, 7:00 am

September 18, 1943. Britain was in the grips of the Second World War.

Like thousands of other men, David Beeley had enlisted as a member of the Royal Air Force. He was, it is believed, in the final days of training to become air crew, on board a flight to Cornwall and back from Riccall airfield.

Disaster struck when an explosion came from the Halifax Bomber’s engine, David’s nephew, Ian Fisher explains. His uncle, and the five other men on board, struggled to control the plane, which crashed into homes in the West Yorkshire village of Darrington.

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David Beeley, a member of the air crew who died in the Darrington crash 75 years ago. Picture sen tby relative Ian Fisher.

“The average age of the crew on board was about 20-years-old,” says Ian. “Can you imagine six 20-year-old kids trying to cope with a Bomber that was losing height? “It would be pitch black too because it was close to midnight. I think they were hoping and praying they would come down in a field. Unfortunately, they crashed into a row of cottages in Darrington.”

Newspaper reports from the time of the crash, near Pontefract, describe the carnage that ensued. “Four dwellings and a chapel were destroyed”, an article in The Yorkshire Observer reads, describing how villagers heard “the roar of the plane”, which burst into flames after impact.

All six crew members were killed in the crash and the lives of four members of the same family, living on Chapel Hill, where the aircraft came down, were also claimed. Several other civilians sustained injuries, with two deaths later that year thought also to be as a result of the tragedy.

Despite the losses, today there is little reminder that the accident ever occurred. Property now stands again at the site once flattened by the plane and, bar a shared family grave in Darrington churchyard, there is no sign of any memorial to those who died.

The disaster has been all but ‘forgotten’ in the village, suggests Darrington parish councillor Andy Tagger, who has been leading plans for a 75th anniversary commemoration.

Details of the crash were brought to his attention by Dave Hepworth, now a member of the anniversary project group, at the start of last year.

“I was enthusiastic about Dave’s suggestion that the 75th Anniversary should be appropriately commemorated for several reasons,” says Andy, who has lived in the area since 1983. “Darrington residents, along with air crew died as a result of one tragic event on one awful night in our village - possibly the worst event in the history of Darrington.

“No-one previously had installed either a memorial or even a reference to the crash on Chapel Hill and many residents alive at the time had either died or had - with the almost inevitable effects of the passage of time - simply forgotten so much of the detail and human stories of the event. Many Darrington children had no knowledge of the crash either.”

“If it happened today with modern communication and the internet, it would have gone viral,” adds Dave, who knew “vaguely” of the crash growing up and has researched it in his later life. “There would have been a news flash saying an air plane had crashed into a village. It was a tragic loss of life.”

Dave, who lives in a nearby village, has been working with Andy, Pontefract councillor David Jones, Gail Jenkins - the owner of Darrington Village Store, and project members Jeff Pickering, Judith Fisher and Dennis Burns for nearly two years to plan a commemorative ceremony and permanent memorial for the crash.

It is a project close to the heart of Jeff in particular, as his parents’ house was one of those flattened in the incident. His mother and father were staying at his grandparents’ home further along the street.

“Mum and dad heard a crash, saw flames and witnessed exploding cartridges,” he says. “They were evacuated from Chapel Hill over the fields at the back to a pub.”

His mother had given birth just days earlier to his sister Valerie, who died five months after the crash of pneumonia. Jeff, born five years later, never got to meet her.

“They were evacuated on a cold evening, she caught cold and then later died,” he says. “My parents’ house was totally destroyed, furniture, clothes, everything.”

Valerie will be among those remembered on Saturday, September 22, win a memorial ceremony on Chapel Hill. A road sign plaque will be unveiled, including the name of the street, the details of those who died and a QR code people can scan with their phones to learn more about the crash.

Relatives of those who lost their lives will be present, with guests coming from as far away as Canada and Australia, and representatives of the Royal British Legion, the NHS and police and fire services are invited to attend, in honour of the work of emergency services in the aftermath.

In the afternoon, memorabilia and stories relating to the crash will go on display at Darrington Golf Club.

The tale of the crash will be captured on camera by video production company Deadline Digital, who will create a short documentary using film from the commemorative day and interviews with families of the crash victims.

“We think it is important to document this story because it is a tragic event that has kind of been lost to history,” says head of video Jay Christopherson.

Certainly, the crash was little spoken of in factions of the Dean family, a “well-respected” clan who ran a local woodyard and were staunchly involved in Church life in the village. Four members - Harry, 68, Mabel, 66, and two of their children, William 33, and Ellen, 36 - were killed when the plane crashed into their family home.

Three of the couple’s other (adult) children - Mabel, known as Jo, Gyneth and Nona - were in the house at the time, though managed to escape unscathed. “They actually managed to get down a back staircase and through the door, clambered over the wreckage and were unhurt,” says Harry’s grandson Mike Dawson, 72.

Nona, now 96, and living in Perth, Australia, is the oldest known survivor of the tragedy and her daughter Una plans to visit for the commemoration, armed with her mother’s memories.

“My mother (Mildred) and aunts and uncles never talked about the crash,” says Mike, who also plans to attend with dozens of other relatives.

“We knew that there had been one and that four family members had been killed but they would never speak about it. It was just too difficult for them.”

The loss was also felt hard in the Beeley family. Rotherham-born David was 22, engaged and had ambitions to become a solicitor when he died, his nephew Ian, now 79, says.

“I remember afterwards what devastation there was in the family. My grandmother never got over it. It really floored her. There was pictures of David all over the place.”

“I think it’s important that the story is told and that there is this memorial,” he adds. “It should be remembered.”

Remembering those who died

The project group lists those who died as crew members David Beeley, Thomas Clelland, Edward Cook, John Crudgington, Thomas Roberts and Edward Wilson; and residents Harry, Mabel, William and Ellen Dean, Valerie Pickering and Midgley Pease.

The memorial ceremony will be held on Chapel Hill at 10.30am on September 22.

From 1pm, people will be able to see the exhibition at Darrington Golf Club, and for two weeks from September 24, this will also run at Pontefract Library. A Battle of Britain Lancaster Bomber flypast is planned for around 4pm.

Tickets to the event are free and the deadline to apply for them has been extended. Visit or call the village store or email [email protected]