Plan to commemorate hero pilot who died in WWII crash in Yorkshire

Hopes are high for a major commemoration of a heroic war-time pilot who crashed and died in Cutsyke, with suggestions that it could include a fly-past from a rare 1930s aircraft.

Bruce Smeaton, inset, and a Bristol Blenheim plane.
Bruce Smeaton, inset, and a Bristol Blenheim plane.

This year saw the 79th anniversary of the death of Sgt Bruce Smeaton, a 22-year-old trainee whose Bristol Blenheim plane suffered engine failure while on exercise.

The young pilot was hailed as a hero after directing the stricken aircraft away from housing in Cutsyke, thus saving dozens of lives.

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Originally from Surrey, he had been part of an operational training unit based at Church Fenton when he was flying on a training exercise on the night of May 9 and the early hours of May 10, 1941.

Hazel Fullilove

After reporting that engine failure meant he could not fully control his Blenheim, it is believed he was about to bail out before realising how close he was to houses.

Attempting to direct the aircraft away from buildings, it smashed into a field at 3.30am, killing the young pilot.

With the lights being turned off at RAF Church Fenton because of an air-raid warning in force, it may have disorientated Sgt Smeaton further about his position.

He is buried at Kirkby Wharfe Cemetery in North Yorkshire.

In recent years a new street was named in his honour - Bruce Smeaton Way - but Hazel Fullilove has greater expectations for the 80th anniversary next year.

For years Mrs Fullilove’s father, John Booth, had kept the memory of Sgt Smeaton alive after learning about the fate of the pilot as a young boy. When Mr Booth became caretaker of the nearby Cutsyke First School, he discovered the Bruce Smeaton commemorative shield hidden away in the boiler house.

It is now proudly on display inside the school, which is now known as Ackton Pastures Primary, along with a photo of Sgt Smeaton.

Mr Booth continued to place lilacs next to the display each year on the anniversary of the crash, even after retiring.

Mr Booth sadly died earlier this year, aged 85, and with schools still closed due to the lockdown, this year’s anniversary passed without acknowledgement.

This prompted Mrs Fullilove, who grew up in Cutsyke, to post a Facebook message to gauge interest, and she admits to being overwhelmed with the response and offers of help.

“The interest locally has been incredible,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m just so surprised, I just can’t thank everybody enough for wanting to get involved. It just blew me away.

“All my dad wanted was to make sure he (Sgt Smeaton) was remembered, that was his main aim. It all started last year, my dad was not well but I took him to place the lilacs at the school and we sat in the car afterwards to let him catch his breath and he told me that he thought it would be his last year.

“He said ‘nobody will bother after me’ and I just thought I did not want to let it go by. We felt that nobody was bothered, but there’s a lot of new-build homes around this area and so many people are just wanting to know the story.”

Mrs Fullilove says a row of trees planted along Bruce Smeaton would be a great starting point, a memorial or information board detailing Sgt Smeaton’s heroics, and a possible fly-past which she says would be the "icing on the cake".

A former RAF member has contacted her and there are hopes a Bristol Blenheim, thought to be the only one left in operation, could be used.

The plans have the backing of ward councillor Tony Wallis, who was part of the committee that helped approve the street naming in 2016.

He said: “As soon as Mrs Fullilove mentioned the 80th anniversary I just thought we have to do it. It just comes down to the logistics about what’s achievable but it is an excellent idea.

“I’m a great believer in looking to the future but we have to recognise what happened in the past. We need to keep these people, who gave their lives for others, in the

public eye.”

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