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  • Claire Jordan

It's Only Me For It

If this lovely face had been on an operational flight on the night of 13th January 1945 rather than a training exercise, what he did would probably have been recognised with a Victoria Cross.

Canadian William McMullen had been piloting a Lancaster with 428 Squadron RCAF on a routine, three-hour navigational exercise at 10 000 feet over the North York Moors.

They were almost home to Goosepool when a mechanical fault developed in the outer port engine.

A shower of sparks erupted into the winter night and swiftly coalesced into a sheet of flame.

The fire spread rapidly up the wing towards the seven men watching with mounting horror from the body of the plane.

But William McMullen was still in control of three engines and he knew what to do.

At 2500 ft, somewhere over Acklam, he gave the order to abandon the Lanc.

Five men scrambled out; their parachutes safely opened.

The last of the six to jump was flight engineer Lew Lewellyn. He stood at the door and gestured to William, still at the controls, to follow him.

But William shook his head. Over the roar of the dying Lancaster and the approaching inferno, he yelled: “It’s only me for it - there are thousands down below.”

William had seen that the town of Darlington and its 80 000 inhabitants were directly beneath them and he knew that if he left the controls to save his own life, the aircraft would have come down on their heads.

He chose instead to stay with the doomed plane and wrestle it away from the town.

He used his last moments to fight with all his strength to keep the plane up long enough to clear the outlying houses.

The undercarriage skimmed the rooftops of the last houses in Yarm Road and finally came down in the neighbouring field where it cartwheeled for 150 yards, disintegrating into the flames as it went.

The fuel tanks caught light and exploded and the Lancaster’s bullets popped and fizzed like firecrackers, setting light to the stored hay in a nearby barn.

The glow of the crash illuminated the parachutes of William’s fellow crewmen as they drifted safely down. Lew landed unhurt 500 yards from the wreckage.

William died on impact; he was catapulted from the aircraft as it hit, still strapped into his seat.

His flying boots were later discovered still in the burned-out cockpit, welded to the rubber of the pedal.

I don’t even think there is a word for this sort of courage.

The good people of Darlington were under no illusions about what had happened that night and what William McMullen had done for them.

The ‘Gallant Airman’s Appeal’ was immediately launched and raised £1000 in no time for his widow Thelma and his five year old daughter.

But back home in British Columbia, Thelma refused the money. She said the funds would be better spent on the beleaguered people of Britain themselves.

So instead, the money was used to endow two children’s cots at the local Memorial Hospital.

Thelma had the last word when she chose the epitaph for William's #CWGC headstone in Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery:

“Heroically He Died So Some Might Live.”

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