A V painted on a wall in a North Yorkshire village in 1945 leads into a remarkable collection of photographs of auxiliary airmen. Chris Lloyd reports

ALTHOUGH the North-East and North Yorkshire were hundreds of miles from frontlines and battlefields, the war was inescapable if only because of the aeroplanes flying overhead.

East coast industrial towns like Sunderland and Middlesbrough suffered during the early months of the Blitz. Fighter airfields were established to defend the region, but then as the nature of the fighting changed, more airfields were built for bombers to take the war to the German homelands.

From Acklington in the north to Elvington in the south, there were nearly 30 airfields. Some, like Catterick which was one of the oldest in the world (having been started in 1914) were long established; others, like Middleton St George and Croft were newcomers, opening in 1941 for the second phase of the war.

The first “thousand bomber raid” was on May 30-31, 1942, with hundreds of planes from the region taking part.

The casualties among the aircrew – who came from Britain and its commonwealth countries like Canada – were shocking: RAF Middleton St George alone lost 279 planes with 1,255 aircrew and 325 groundcrew being killed, taking total fatalities to 1,580.

Alongside the RAF or RCAF, there was the Auxiliary Air Force. A unique set of pictures in our archives gives a great insight into the work of these men who began as volunteers. Indeed, when the Auxiliary Air Force was formed in 1931, its members were dismissed as “Saturday afternoon airmen”, just as the Home Guard was derisively called “Dad’s Army”.

But the volunteer fliers of the 608 (North Riding) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, stationed at Thornaby airfield, came to play a key role in defending the North-East in the difficult early months of the war.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The “Saturday afternoon airmen” were incorporated into the RAF and became full time fliers. In September 1941, The Northern Echo’s chief photographer, Douglas Jefferson, was granted access to them under strict censorship.

He could only say that he had visited “a north country aerodrome” and that one of the pilots was “well-known in the North in peace time as an amateur jockey".

This was Wing Commander Peter Vaux, pictured below right, a farmer, racehorse trainer and member of the famous brewing family who lived at Brettanby, near Barton, on the northern edge of Yorkshire between Scotch Corner and Darlington.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Brettanby had been bought by his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Vaux, in 1917. The colonel had fought heroically during the First World War and was mentioned in despatches on six occasions, but his claim to fame was that when he had returned home safely from the Boer War with his Maxim Gun Detachment, the brewery had named its most famous beer in the honour of the soldiers: Maxim.

In the Second World War, the job of Wing Commander Vaux's 608 Squadron was coastal defence – it had to protect the ships bringing precious supplies into Britain and thwart the enemy’s war effort.

Mr Jefferson’s pictures were pooled, and the North Daily Mail used them and explained the role of the squadron: "They are the C.I.D. of the North Sea. Routine work they call it; working almost to a timetable in their trips across the sea and along the Norwegian coast, searching for the German convoys...estimating the tonnage of their vessels and then bringing up the heavier bombers to work their destruction."

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Indeed, when the photographer visited two years into the war, the squadron was proud it had never lost a ship in its care. During that time, 608 had flown 11,000 hours and covered 1,650,000 million miles – the equivalent of seven times from Earth to moon.

It had also developed “the Thornaby bag”, as it became known across the RAF. This was a receptacle containing first aid supplies, food, drink and, importantly, cigarettes that was dropped by 608 to stricken airmen and sailors who were in the sea waiting for rescue.

Seventy per cent of the squadron's aircrew and ground staff were local people. The rest were youngsters on Empire training schemes or Canadian boys whose parents had Yorkshire connections.

Although the auxiliaries did not seek out one-on-one confrontations with enemy planes, they often found themselves in life-threatening skirmishes, and it is believed that 42 of the volunteers were killed – several lie in Thornaby cemetery.

In the darkest days at the start of the war, Wing Commander Peter Vaux painted a defiant V, for the victory he was certain would one day come, on the wall of one of the Brettanby outbuildings which overlooked the main road running through Barton.

To celebrate the victory day he knew would always come, he re-painted the V.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

He died in 1980 at Brettanby, aged 66 – but you can still see his V for Victory. It overlooks Barton village shop and is so bright it even shows up on Google StreetView.