Two former pupils were among the guests at a special commemoration for the 80th anniversary of a wartime air crash which saw a Halifax bomber narrowly miss their primary school. Hannah Chapman reports.

The afternoon of Thursday, December 2, 1943 had been just like any other for pupils at the Applegarth Primary School in Northallerton. As the school day drew to a close, about 200 youngsters were getting ready to go into the main hall for their usual assembly, when the sound of an aircraft overhead caught their attention.

The noise of planes was not unusual, given the school's proximity to several North Yorkshire air bases busy with Second World War activity, but this was different – louder and with a different pitch. Then it stopped with an enormous crash, and the flames began, visible to the frightened children through the huge, arched windows of their classrooms.

What they – and the rest of the town – would find out later was that a Halifax bomber had come down shortly after taking off from Croft, near Darlington, on a training mission, crashing just yards from the school and killing all seven crew – four from the Royal Canadian Air Force and three from the RAF. The official Royal Canadian Air Force crash report later blamed it on rudder stall, a problem which afflicted Mark I II and V Halifaxes.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A blue plaque marking the spot where seven Allied air crew lost their lives in Northallerton when a Halifax bomber crashed on December 2, 1943

Eighty years on, and the airmen's loss is far from forgotten, with the school hosting a special assembly last Friday to mark the anniversary. As well as local historians and Armed Forces representatives, the assembly was attended by two former pupils who were in the school on the day of the crash.

Joan Haslam and Jim Sedgwick spoke to the year six class which has been studying the disaster, and then described their memories to pupils seated in the hall – exactly where they had been due to line up on that fateful day in 1943.

Joan, who was aged just five at the time, told them: "It was the middle of the afternoon, Miss Dunn was the teacher. I was sitting near the classroom door away from the windows. We were getting ready for assembly when we heard this noise up above. It got louder and louder. We were used to planes, but we weren’t used to quite this noise. It sounded different.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Staff, pupils and guests at the Applegarth School event, including right, Jim Sedgwick, and left, in blue cargidan, Joan Haslam

"Miss Dunn stopped talking, and the noise sounded really close above. There was this whine, then the sound of the crash. We were only five and we panicked a bit, but we had practised and knew what we should do if there was an air raid. We had to hold hands and go out into the shelter very sedately, but there wasn’t time for this."

Joan said she knew the plane was burning because she could hear its ammunition popping in the fire. "That’s what I remember, the noise of the bullets exploding."

Running towards the school's air raid shelter meant running towards the burning plane, away from the exits onto Upwell Road, but the younger pupils did as they were told, even though, Joan said: "I wanted to go home."

Darlington and Stockton Times: A model of the Halifax gifted to the school by former pupil George Riordan, who was present on the day of the crash

"We got into the shelter and Miss Dunn banged the door behind us," she continued. "There were ledges against the walls and we were meant to sit boys on one side and girls on the other, but we all got mixed up in the rush."

They sang songs to keep calm including "Run, Rabbit, Run" and "There'll Always Be An England". "We were told we mustn’t cry because we were British, and that was important," said Joan. "When we came out of the shelter, I couldn’t understand it because it was all white," she continued, referencing what is now thought to be foam used by fire crews to put out the blazing wreckage. "I thought it had been snowing. I didn’t have my wellies on, so I stood there and didn’t move, I was small for my age so a fireman picked me up because I didn’t want to get my feet wet, and carried me to the gate."

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Applegarth School on a dark December day, 80 years after the Halfix bomber crash next door

At the school gate police were holding back pupils' parents desperate for news of their children – the word that had gone round the town was that the plane had crashed on the school, causing understandable panic.

"We got to the gates and there were a lot of tears, never mind whether we were British or not,” added Joan.

Jim, an older pupil at the school, told the children: "We were used to the droning of the aircraft because there were so many aerodromes roundabout. This particular one was making a very, very loud roar, it was as if it was on full power, the noise was terrific. The noise suddenly ended by a loud explosion which shook the school. All we could see out of the windows was fire. I couldn’t see anything but flames."

His class, at the other end of the school, was taken out towards the street rather than into the shelter.

"There were mothers arriving from all directions and some of them fainted," he said. Many had been at a furniture sale at the Applegarth mart next door when the plane crashed. “The cry went up that the plane had landed on the school," he said. "All I wanted to do was go home but they wouldn’t let us until we had been matched with a parent. My grandmother had been at the furniture sale so she came and got me.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The plaque is on garages off Springwell Lane, Northallerton

Last Friday was the first time Jim and Joan had spoken with each other about the incident. "The main thing I remember was the enormous fire," said Jim. "It was terrifying." But he added: "We didn’t think about it – it was just something that happened."

Flt Sgt Darren Jones, from RAF Leeming, thanked the pupils for their work on the project after hearing their presentation and readings of three poems written about the crash, and spoke of the importance of remembering the young crewmen who died.

The assembly was closed with a prayer by Reverend David Johnson from All Saints Church.

Lynne Cross, the Applegarth's history lead, said it remains a mystery why its logbook covering that period, filled out with all kinds of details about the everyday business of the school, makes no mention of the crash.

She said the current pupils were incredibly engaged in learning about the disaster and last Friday's assembly had been a very fitting service of remembrance.

The lost air crew were, from the Royal Canadian Air Force, Pilot, FO WJ Taylor, Navigator, FS JM Beatty, Bomb Aimer, FO DC Walker, and Air Gunner, FS J Wallace, and from the RAF, Flight Engineer, Sgt WJ Morgan, Wireless Operator, Sgt TJ Skyrme, and Air Gunner, Sgt JO Winters.