North East Aircraft Museum

V.C. awarded to crash pilot

On 31. March 1944, a Halifax bomber crashed on Ryhope Colliery. The pilot, Pilot Officer Cyril Barton, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration - the only one to be awarded to a member of a Halifax aircrew.

The aircraft had been part of a 779-strong bombing raid on Nürnberg (Nuremberg). It had been badly damaged before reaching the city, and due to a misunderstanding in communications, three crew had mistakenly baled out, including the navigator.

Nevertheless, Cyril Barton decided to carry out his mission, but unfortunately deviated off-course on his way home. Instead of East Anglia, his first sight of Britain was the barrage balloons over Sunderland. With fuel low, he decided to force-land at Ryhope, and the latter stages of the descent became a pure glide. At the last moment, he saw a row of miners' cottages, took evasive action and landed on the colliery. Although Cyril Barton died, his three remaining crew members survived. Tragically a miner was killed as well.

The Victoria Cross was awarded for "gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds".

Contribution from Kevin Hutchinson

At the time of the crash of Halifax LK 797. I was only about 100 yards away, but lying in bed in the front room of 10 South View, Ryhope, a terrace of colliery houses. A young boy of six, I was recovering from scarlet fever. The occasion is seared on my brain.

First of all the air-raid siren sounded, an event which was not unknown in the area, but then was the unmistakeable sound of a large aeroplane. There was no doubt that it was enemy because the heavy anti-aircraft battery at Leechmere opened up. However, the racket from the guns soon ceased, but the aeroplane was still there, wandering hither and to, no doubt looking for the colliery. Even I as a child was puzzled when the "all clear" sounded with the aircraft still in the neighbourhood. Then there came an almighty crash, then silence.

The following morning, a friend of the family, who was in training for RAF aircrew, came to visit my guardians, Ralph and Kathleen Irwin. They decided that I was strong enough to go out along with the friend, and see the wreck. And here my memory of the event differs from several other accounts.

First of all I should describe the area as it was, because it has changed much since those days. The area was known variously as Vinegar Hill or Hollicarrside. The south and west sides of the hill were steep, but to the north and east there were gentle slopes towards Grangetown and The Toll Bar respectively. Slicing through the western part of the hill was a steep-sided, curved cutting carrying a mineral railway line which led from the coastal line to Silksworth Colliery. On the top of the hill were about seven streets of miners’ cottages, with newer streets of council houses to the east. The southernmost street was called South View (an inspired choice) and parallel to it, separated by two sets of gardens was Hollicarrside Terrace. At the western end of Hollicarrside Terrace was another street extending northwards at right angles to it whose name I have forgotten. The other (four?) streets were inside the "L" thus formed. About thirty yards or so from the western end of Hollicarrside Terrace was a footbridge over the railway cutting to enable the miners to go to the colliery, which was about three hundred yards further to the south-west. The footbridge, and part of the path leading to it, was bounded by tall fences of railway sleepers.

It was evident when I visited the site that the aircraft had come in from the east almost in line with and above Hollicarrside Terrace. It had knocked the chimney off the end house, and also demolished totally the end house of the street at right angles to it (I remember seeing a fireplace half-way up a sheer wall). The aircraft had then continued along both the back garden to that house and the pathway serving the footbridge. It then destroyed the footbridge. It seems probable to me that the nose end of the fuselage then went into the cutting – there was a considerable amount of debris there and the RAF "crash and smash" men were already at work there. The remainder of the fuselage continued over to the other side then descended the escarpment into the area of the colliery. Photographs of the fuselage which I have seen also show a bridge-like structure which I believe to be the "gangway" leading from the bridge and remainder of the "hill" down to the level of the colliery yard. Mr Heads, a miner on his way to work, was killed on or near the bridge, and I believe another man was hurt. Mr Heads lived next door to me, probably No 11 but possibly No 9 as I’ve forgotten from which end the houses are numbered.

It is a quite a few years since I last visited the site. The only evidence I could see then was the concrete abutment on the western side of the footbridge, visible from the end of the street which I believe to be called Linskell. The location, as near as I can get it is at Ordnance Survey Ref. NZ 4004 5363. The location of the anti-aircraft battery was about NZ399 544, but I could be a hundred yards out.

I don’t think there was any chance of Cyril Barton consciously avoiding a populated area. It was dark and the "black-out" was strictly enforced. He knew, obviously, that he was over land, but the decision to put the aircraft down where he did was, I believe, forced upon him by his fuel-state. I saw no evidence of fire at the site.

So far as the crash of Vulcan XM610 is concerned, I have little to add to the comprehensive accounts already given. I think, though the site of the crash is more properly called Station Town, and I have the Ordnance Survey Reference as NZ 406 367. I was part of a bomb disposal team that was sent – very late in the proceedings - to try to find the engines. They were too deep for the instruments we were using, Förster 4013 Bomb Locators. The engines were later found by more conventional means.