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Pilot Officer William McMullen: Posthumous Recognition

Volume 723: debated on Friday 25 November 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.(Nigel Huddleston.)

It is a genuine privilege and a huge pleasure to have been granted an Adjournment debate—my first—on the posthumous recognition of Pilot Officer William Stuart McMullen of 428 Squadron Royal Canadian Airforce—Darlington’s “Gallant Airman”. I have sought it for many months to pay tribute to a man who is worthy of this House’s recognition and a local hero for the people of Darlington.

In preparing for this debate, I was determined to let William’s family know that it was taking place. Luckily, a constituent is in correspondence with William’s daughter Donna, and with the kind help of Chris Lloyd at The Northern Echo, I was able to speak to her by telephone at her home in Ontario, Canada, and I believe that she will watch proceedings via I also thank my former researcher Jake Freeman and my current researcher Theo Wrigley, who are in the Gallery, for their help.

I was surprised to discover that Hansard contains no record of William McMullen’s story, so I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate to right that wrong. I have three aims: first, to tell William’s story of sacrifice; secondly, to ensure that his actions and memory are on the record in this House; and thirdly, on behalf of my constituents, to ask that William and his family receive the recognition that I and many others in Darlington believe is owed to them.

Pilot Officer William McMullen was probably born in Toronto in 1912. I say “probably” because at the time of his death in 1945 in Darlington there appeared to be some confusion about his age in the press, with its being variously reported as 29 or 33. He won his wings in November 1942, and in 1944 he left behind his wife Thelma and daughter Donna, who was six at the time, and came to England to learn to fly Lancaster bombers. At around this time, on 16 August 1944, six Canadian fliers became available when their pilot broke his leg after they had bailed out of their burning Lancaster over France. They teamed up with McMullen, and on Christmas eve they were posted to RAF Middleton St George—or, as it is better known now, Teesside International Airport.

So, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me take you back 77 years, to Saturday 13 January 1945, and tell you the story of Pilot Officer McMullen’s brave and heroic actions in the air that evening. I want to record my thanks again to Chris Lloyd, the chief feature writer on The Northern Echo, whose research has allowed me to retell this story today.

At 5.47 that evening, William and the rest of his crew took off from Goosepool, aboard the Lancaster bomber KB793. The flight was meant to be a routine three-hour navigation exercise, carried out at 10,000 feet over the North York Moors. The exercise went off without a hitch, and at 8.35 pm, with the exercise over, McMullen called Goosepool for “joining instructions” and was told he would be touching down within 10 minutes. The engineer, Sergeant “Lew” Lewellin, wrote in his log:

“All temperatures and pressures normal. All four engines running evenly.”

Almost immediately after this, however, a fault developed in the outer port Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which emitted a shower of sparks into the dark night. The shower quickly became a sheet of flame, and a red glow began spreading up the wing.

At 2,500 feet over Acklam, with three engines still working and McMullen still in control of the plane, he gave the order to abandon the aircraft. All six of William’s crew parachuted safely to earth, drifting downwards along what is now the A66 between Elton and Sadberge. At 600 feet, engineer Lewellin was the last to leave. It was reported that as he stood by the main door, he looked over to McMullen at the controls and gestured for him to leave. But McMullen’s mind was already made up. According to the Air Ministry, over the roar of the developing catastrophe he replied with the last known words he uttered: “It’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

William could have jumped to safety—Lewellin landed unscathed a mere 500 yards from the crash site—but in that split second, he took a selfless decision and chose to remain at his post until the end. As the plane continued its descent, he would have seen Darlington, with its population of 80,000 at the time, laid out before him. He might even have seen hundreds of Darlingtonians, drawn by the unusual sound of an engine in trouble, rushing from their homes to view what was unfolding in the skies above them. One eyewitness told The Northern Echo:

“It seemed to circle round, and looked as though it was going to drop somewhere in the town. Then it turned east and a few seconds later we heard a crash, followed by a few muffled explosions and the glare of a fire.”

In his last moments, William had fought to keep the plane away from the homes of the Yarm Road area and, at 8.49 pm, its undercarriage skimmed the rooftops of the last of the houses and plunged to earth in a field belonging to Lingfield Farm. It cartwheeled 150 yards across the soil, losing various bits of flaming fuselage as it went, its fuel tanks exploding vividly and its bullets dancing like firecrackers. The hay and oats in the farm’s Dutch barn caught fire, illuminating the parachutes of McMullen’s crew as they drifted down to safety.

Pilot Officer William McMullen, sadly, was dead, having been killed on impact. He had been catapulted, still strapped to his seat, 120 yards out of the windscreen, although his flying boots were found later in the aircraft still attached to the rubber pedals in the cockpit where he had remained in those dying seconds. William was a hero to the end. He could have joined his crewmates and bailed out to save himself, but he chose to save the lives of hundreds of Darlington residents. The official accident report said that a mechanical fault in a piston had caused the initial fire and noted that

“the pilot retained control of the aircraft sufficiently long enough to avoid crashing into the built-up area of Darlington.”

McMullen is now buried with his comrades from the Royal Canadian Air Force in Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate. In the immediate aftermath of the events, all Darlington was convinced that William had remained in the plane to save their lives. Immediately, the Northern Echo’s letters page began to fill up with correspondence calling for the “gallant airman”, as Pilot Officer McMullen had become to be known, to be memorialised.

The desire to see William recognised began almost immediately after his death. On 17 January 1945, Darlington mayor Jimmy Blumer wrote to the Northern Echo “hear all sides” section to say that he was trying to get through officialdom and make contact with McMullen’s family in Canada. James O Walker, honorary secretary of the Twenty Club wrote:

“Our members feel the townspeople’s appreciation of the courageous act of the bomber pilot, who on Saturday night by giving his life undoubtedly averted serious loss of life in Darlington should be shown in some tangible form, either as a memorial or as an assistant to his dependants.”

This all led to the gallant airman appeal. The people of Darlington quickly donated £1,000— a huge sum at that time—to be sent to McMullen’s widow and his daughter. However, Thelma McMullen refused to accept the money, saying that it would be better spent in war-ravaged Britain.

The appeal, run by the Twenty Club, decided to endow two children’s cots at Darlington Memorial Hospital. In the days before the NHS, hospitals such as that relied on voluntary contributions. In the 1930s and 1940s, groups, firms and individuals in the Darlington area collected money to sponsor a bed or a cot. Plaques with sponsors’ names on were screwed to the wall above the bed that their contributions paid for. As time has moved on, those plaques have been taken down and only one appears to survive.

Appropriately, it is the gallant airman plaque that survives. It can now be seen on the wall inside the entrance to the memorial hall at Darlington Memorial Hospital, as an enduring legacy for such a great man. In addition, a memorial stone and plaque stand near the crash site, and the adjacent road is now named McMullen Road in his honour. In 1985, Donna Barber, William’s daughter, even visited the road named after her father and saw the site of his brave actions.

Eventually, officialdom gave Darlington’s mayor Blumer Thelma McMullen’s home address. He wrote to her about her late husband, saying:

“By his actions, the pilot realised that he was steering himself to certain death. Not only Darlington, but the whole of the district was stirred to profound admiration and gratitude which could not be expressed in words at this act of supreme sacrifice.”

He concluded:

“For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband’s actions will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come.”

Through their mayor’s words to Thelma, the people of Darlington had made a promise that William’s actions would never be forgotten.

The feelings of gratitude and respect to him remain among the people of Darlington even to this day. Every year, we mark William’s heroic actions. Indeed, two years ago, on the 75th anniversary of his death, over 100 people, including myself, even braved Storm Brendan to mark the anniversary to the minute when, for the first time in decades, the battered and bent propeller from McMullen’s plane was returned to the scene. It took 50 years for local aviation historian Geoff Hill, the chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, to track that propeller down. He discovered it in an aviation collection in Northumberland. It is hoped that the propeller will eventually go on display with Geoff’s collection of memorabilia relating to RAF Middleton St George when it is rehoused in the revamped Teesside airport. Even last January, when, due to covid, we could not gather, we met online and were joined by Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Kean—or Moose, as he is called—who leads the squadron that succeeded William’s.

We remember his actions in Darlington, but William has never received official recognition for his actions, and yet had William been on an operational flight rather than a training exercise, he would probably have won the Victoria Cross. While William’s sacrifice was extraordinary, we must remember that he was not alone. We know that thousands of Canadian pilots were based in England during the war, with a number based at RAF Middleton St George, just outside my constituency. It is fitting that we celebrate our ties with our Commonwealth partners and the struggle that we shared together to fight tyranny in Europe. I am acutely aware of our shared struggle, having only recently secured my own grandfather’s posthumous Arctic Star. My grandfather died serving on the convoys that were ably supported by our Commonwealth partners and, for years, went without medallic recognition.

I have made numerous attempts to secure recognition for William since I was elected in 2019, having written to the Honours and Appointments Secretariat on a number of occasions and submitted written questions on this issue. Each time, I have received the same response: no matter what the circumstances, it is considered that those who had full access to the facts of the case contemporaneously were best placed to make judgments regarding medallic recognition. I accept that this is how the honours system works. However, it does not change the fact that William has not received the recognition he deserves for his historic actions.

Stories of bravery and even heroism were plentiful in those last months of the second world war. Indeed, on the same day that The Northern Echo told William’s story, the paper included the news that five north-east airmen had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their gallantry.

Pilot Officer William McMullen is a true hero. We will never know how many lives he saved through his sacrifice that night, but his actions have touched the lives of so many people in Darlington. I am proud that I have had the opportunity to put William’s story on the record in this House, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here to listen to it. William deserves official recognition, and I leave the Minister with this question: will he work with me to ensure that Pilot Officer McMullen receives the official recognition, be it medallic or otherwise, that he so truly deserves?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on securing the debate and providing such a powerful tribute to Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot Officer William McMullen. In every sense of the word, he was a hero. The insight that my hon. Friend has provided of a man prepared to stay at the controls of his burning Lancaster bomber to the very last, saving both the lives of his crew and the lives of Darlington residents, is poignant and inspiring. How many finding themselves in such an unimaginable situation would be likely to act in the same selfless manner? All who have been privileged to hear this debate will now have the details of the events of 13 January 1945 etched firmly in their minds.

I know that my hon. Friend has long been a passionate advocate for the posthumous medallic recognition by the United Kingdom of Pilot Officer McMullen. Indeed, he has written with equal passion stating his case on behalf of his constituency. I have no doubt about the great importance of Pilot Officer McMullen to the people of Darlington, especially to those families who would have been living in the homes of Yarm Road, whose roofs were scraped by the undercarriage of the plane on its final descent. No praise can be high enough for his actions that day.

My hon. Friend outlined three aims for today’s important debate: to tell Pilot Officer McMullen’s story of sacrifice; to ensure his actions and memory are on the record of this House; and to ask that Pilot Officer McMullen received posthumous medallic recognition. I hope he considers his immediate objectives met, but I must turn now to his specific question about posthumous medallic recognition. There are a number of points I need to make. In doing so, I would like to say that in my hon. Friend’s place I, too, have in the past been part of a campaign to secure medallic recognition for individuals whom I felt had not been recognised sufficiently well during their lifetime, so I am sympathetic.

I am loth to be the stony, unyielding face of the bureaucracy, but the fact is that British awards—that is to say, gallantry awards—are not granted retrospectively. There is good reason for that, and I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. Action is not taken more than five years after the event in question. Neither this Government nor any previous Government have departed from that general rule. Next, all significant battles and operations which took place during the second world war were discussed in great detail after the war had ended. In June 1946, it was recommended that that no further recommendations for gallantry awards arising from service during the war would be considered after 1950. Decisions were made by those concerned at the time to the best of their ability, on the basis of all the evidence before them, and, in the great majority of cases, their very considerable experience of conflict and the application of the honours system. The decision was approved by His Majesty King George VI, whose ruling remains in force today. Finally, and in any event, since Pilot Officer McMullen was Canadian, any further recognition due to him in the form of a posthumous medal would, this far out, be a matter for the Canadian Government.

Mr Deputy Speaker, 55,573 Bomber Command air crew lost their lives during world war two. As time passes and the rawness recedes, we risk forgetting the enormous deeds of sacrifice and service that lay behind those numbers, and what those lives meant to the loved ones they left behind. Sadly, far too many individuals who served did not receive formal recognition, but, as this debate reminds us, that does not mean that their heroism should be forgotten—very far from it. Today, the RAF Bomber Command memorial in Green Park in London, which was unveiled a decade ago, stands as a stirring tribute to both the pilots and ground crews who made the ultimate sacrifice. However, it feels right that the people of Darlington have also erected a specific memorial dedicated to Pilot Officer McMullen, and that McMullen Road in the town is named in his honour. I know his daughter has visited since then, and I hope she was assured that her father’s sacrifice has not been forgotten by those who have every reason to be grateful to him.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity he has provided today to raise awareness of Pilot Officer McMullen’s inspiring deeds some 77 years ago. Thanks to his efforts, they are now firmly and indelibly written into the parliamentary record. He has also afforded us the opportunity once more to recognise and pay tribute to the herculean efforts of our finest generation in defence of our freedoms. Pilot Officer McMullen joined 428 Squadron, and its motto was “Usque ad finem”, or “To the very end.” William McMullen unquestionably kept that promise.

It is perhaps also worth noting that the plaque my hon. Friend mentioned as being situated in the entrance to the memorial hall at Darlington Hospital reads:

“His life beside the many he regarded as nought. Selfless, he lived this token quite unsought.”

Seventy-seven years on, William S. McMullen of British Columbia remains an inspiration to the RAF, to the people of Darlington and to the whole United Kingdom and Canada. As my hon. Friend so eloquently expressed, his name will now remain on the record in the annals of this House as a permanent tribute to his heroism.

Peter, I have chaired many Adjournment debates, but none better than today’s. The word “hero” is bandied around and abused, but not in William McMullen’s case. I thank you for bringing it to our attention. As the Minister said, he has now been properly recognised in Parliament and his name will live on in Hansard. I am sure you will send a copy to the family with the love of every Member of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.