The quest for the Staunton 7

Preview Piece on Snowdrop Weekend.') L\R; Di Ablewhite, Anne Hogg.
Preview Piece on Snowdrop Weekend.') L\R; Di Ablewhite, Anne Hogg.

THE fate of these seven men appeared destined to become another forgotten chapter in history until amateur archaeologist Di Ablewhite got chatting to retired Staunton farmer Sid Baggaley in November 1999.

Sid had found some old Roman pottery in his field and, learning of Di’s interest in the subject, asked her to pop round to take a look.

Di recalls: “On top of the pottery was this big chunk of metal. He said “do you know anything about aircraft?”, and I told him I didn’t. To be honest, I couldn’t have been less enthusiastic about that piece of metal when he showed me it.”

Sid described to Di how, when he was young, he saw a plane fly low over his house with flames billowing out of it. Moments later the plane crashed into the field owned by his family.

The aircraft came down between the railway line and the river, so that night Sid was asked to help investigators get to the crash site.

Di said: “The site was pretty horrendous, as you can imagine, and Sid said what he saw always stuck with him.”

A few weeks later, while out walking in the field, Sid came across the chunk of metal. Not knowing what to do with it, he put it in his shed where it lay for more than 50 years.

Di said: “Sid told me that every time he looked at that piece of metal he would think of those poor chaps and wonder who were they? Where were they from? What did they look like?”

Di said she would see if she could find anything out - not knowing she was about to embark on an 11-year project which would become, in her own words, an obsession.

Di first visited Newark Air Museum and began wading through Bomber Command logs. Nine months of work yielded nothing, but a breakthrough came when Mike Smith, the curator at the museum, cleaned the chunk of metal, revealing a serial number which showed it had come from a Lancaster Bomber. Returning to the books, Di found the log for the accident, giving the names of the seven men killed in the crash.

Di said: “I told Sid we’d found the names and one of them was Canadian. Then he said “I’d really love to see what they looked like”, so that set us off on the rest of the investigation.”

In March, 2003 a memorial was built near the crash site in memory of the men who were killed. But at that stage they had no photographs and little more than names and ranks.

However, over the years, through appeals as well as countless hours of research, Di began tracking down the airmen one-by-one, including the Canadian pilot’s family who were found via a newspaper in his hometown of Saskatchewan.

By late 2010, Di had tracked down photographs and surviving family members for each of the airmen killed - apart from one.

Di had all but given up hope of tracking down the details of Thomas Newton but she did know he hailed from the north-east. An appeal in the Northern Echo led to Thomas Newton’s sister, Hazel, getting in touch.

Di said: “The families have tended to be quite surprised that there are people that don’t really know their family members and yet they have made this memorial to keep their memory alive. It was very emotional to speak with her because he was the last one. She was only one-month-old at the time of the crash so we could actually tell her more about her brother than she could tell us.”

Di cannot help but think the crash denied them chance to fully serve their country.

She said: “The seven of them had only been together for a couple of weeks but they were ready and within a couple more weeks they would have been going on ops. They could have gone on to be heroes but they never got the chance.”

An information board with details on each of the seven men will be unveiled at a special invitation-only ceremony, which will also bring to a close Di Ablewhite’s 11-year project.

She said: “I probably did become quite obsessed because I just had to find those final missing pictures.The only thing I regret is that, only a year into the investigation, Sid died.

“He knew the names of all those that were killed but he never did get to see any of their photos. It does make me sad because if he could have seen what we discovered he would have been fascinated.”

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