“It was just one of those things as far as I was concerned as a six-year-old in wartime,” recalls Dave Bastow of the fatal air crash he witnessed as a child in Yorkshire during the Second World War. “But it is something that has never left my mind in the years since.” His voice cracks as he adds: “I get a bit emotional thinking about it.”
Now 82, Bastow has never spoken publicly before about what he witnessed on the fateful night of September 18, 1943, but has now taken part in a new documentary about the tragic events which befell the crew of a Halifax bomber and villagers living in Darrington in West Yorkshire.
The engine of a Halifax bomber travelling back to Riccall airfield north of Selby from Cornwall exploded and the aircraft crashed into a row of cottages in Darrington. All six crew members – whose average age was just 20 – on board the plane were killed along with four members of the same family living in one of the cottages. Several other civilians sustained injuries, with two deaths later that year thought also to be as a result of the tragedy.
Bastow was with his family when they saw the plane alight passing narrowly over them just moments before the crash.
“I’m sure it was Sunday when the crash happened,” he recalls. “My mother, my dad and my brother who was six months old had gone to visit my grandmother about three miles away in Brotherton. We used to walk it back because you didn’t know what would be happening with the buses with the air raids happening.
“We were walking back and just going across the railway crossing, it was pitch black. We looked up and this bomber came across on fire. We watched it and my dad said: ‘It is going to crash’. I always remember him saying those words. It crashed in Darrington about two to three miles away.”
While he didn’t see the actual moment of impact which occurred a few miles from where he and the rest of the family were standing, Bastow says it was clear that disaster was imminent.
“When it passed us, it wasn’t 1,000ft in the air, it was about as high as a normal chimney,” he says. “It was very low and it was only a few minutes later that it crashed.”
Bastow says at the time he did not find out precisely what had happened to the blazing plane or the consequences of the crash. He says an older friend who lived in Pontefract cycled to the crash site but couldn’t get any information.
“They knew the plane had crashed but it was all cordoned off. Nobody could go into the village. Not long after that the aircraft was moved.”
In addition to crew members David Beeley, Thomas Clelland, Edward Cook, John Crudgington, Thomas Roberts and Edward Wilson, four members of the Dean family – Harry, 68, Mabel, 66, and two of their children, William 33, and Ellen, 36 – were killed when the plane crashed into their home. However, three of the couple’s other adult children managed to escape.
Two other villagers – Valerie Pickering and Midgley Pease – died later that year from injuries sustained in the disaster.
Bastow, who is now a great-grandfather living in North Featherstone and worked as a maintenance fitter at Kellingley Colliery before retirement, says he has retained vivid memories of that night throughout his life. “Over the years, when me and my wife and kids have gone through Knottingley, I always used to say this is the spot I saw the Halifax bomber.”
But he is far from the only person to have had limited information about the crash until relatively recently. For decades, there was little reminder that the accident had ever happened. Property stood again at the site once flattened by the plane and, bar a shared family grave in Darrington churchyard, there was no sign of any memorial to those who died.
But memories of what happened have been revived thanks to efforts by Darrington parish councillors, initially designed to mark the 75th anniversary of the crash last year. A new plaque was created in the village for a memorial ceremony, while an exhibition of memorabilia and stories relating to the tragedy went on display at Darrington Golf Club and Pontefract Library.
It was hearing about the exhibition at the library that prompted Dave to come forward and share his story – and as a result, he was invited to participate in a documentary commissioned by the parish council which has now been completed and will be shown in public for the first time this weekend.
Called Disaster at Darrington, the 45-minute film made by Barnsley-based video production company Deadline Digital also includes interviews with families of the crash victims.
“They didn’t know there was anybody alive who had seen it,” says Bastow. The crash was his most dramatic memory of growing up in wartime but he also strongly recollects frequently having to use his family’s air raid shelter as well as playing soldiers with his friends.
“I was six. The war was both exciting and scary. We used to play soldiers and some used to be German and we used to play in the lime quarries. Being six years old, it didn’t mean anything, it was like watching a film.
“We used to watch the bombers coming over from Darrington and practise. As far as I know, they used to follow the River Aire from the east coast and were looking for Ferrybridge power station as a landmark.”
Bastow says it has been an honour to participate in a film remembering the tragic events of 76 years ago and paying tribute to those who lost their lives.
“I think it is a fantastic thing what they have done because it is so long ago. I didn’t even know before they made this film that the crash had killed so many people in Darrington. It was new to me after all these years.”
Deadline Digital managing director Geoff Fox says it was an honour for his company to be involved in making the documentary, which will be shown for the first time on Saturday to an invited audience at Darrington Golf Club.
“There is a very human element to what happened in Darrington. We have put a lot of time and resource into it, it is such an interesting story. We spent around nine months working on it,” says Fox.
“The reaction from those that have seen it has been fantastic and really pleasing. We have tried to keep it as under wraps as possible. We are excited and nervous about everybody seeing the film, but we think we have put together something really good that is interesting and emotional. It is quite moving in parts.”
But Fox says those involved in making the documentary are particularly happy at the involvement of Dave Bastow. “The fact that we have an eyewitness from 75 years ago is incredible I think.”
Praise for efforts to remember disaster
Geoff Fox says the existence of the film and the newly-revitalised interest in the events of September 1943 is credit to the parish council and locals who have gone to great efforts to commemorate what happened.
“I hope people recognise the importance of community organisations that do have this kind of belief in the importance of community,” he says.
“From a journalistic point of view, we want to tell interesting stories that touch people and resonate with people and this is certainly one of them.”
Fox says it is intended that the documentary will be made available online for all to view “to ensure the tragedy is not forgotten in the future”.
The full film has now been posted on YouTube. To view it, click here.