The story of Cyril Barton VC, the pilot who died so that others could live, as a new mural remembers him in Ryhope
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Cyril Joe Barton was born in the tiny village of Elvedon in Suffolk on June 5, 1921. As a boy he liked a spot of adventure and became a Boy Scout.
When he was 16 he became an apprentice engineer at an aircraft factory in Tolworth, now part of Greater London. It was little surprise that he would join the Royal Air Force.
Although he was in a reserved occupation, meaning that his engineering job was important enough to the war effort to make him exempt from military service, he wanted to fight for his country.
He stepped into World War Two when he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 16 April 1941. He was still only 19.
He trained in Alabama, USA and was qualified as a sergeant pilot by November 1942. By September the following year he was part of Bomber Command and in action over occupied France.
The fateful night
On Thursday, March 30 1944, Barton was captaining a Halifax bomber with a crew of seven as part of an attack on Nuremberg, Bavaria. His vessel was struck by two Luftwaffe fighters. Both fuel tanks were punctured, the engine was damaged and his radio disabled.
He was in massive trouble, but had enough flying skill to evade the enemy. However, a miscommunication led to three of the crew bailing out. Nevertheless, Barton continued with the mission and struck the designated enemy target. This would cost him his life.
After turning back for England, his plane’s starboard engine exploded. He somehow guided it, without navigational assistance, over occupied Europe, across the North Sea and just over the North East coast of England. It had been a perilous, four-and-a-half-hour flight.
This was 90 miles north of his base. He had one remaining engine; damaged and virtually running on fumes for fuel.
The bomber was too low to parachute to safety, so he was forced to crash-land in Ryhope, avoiding the houses and pit heads as best he could. It was his final descent.
Cyril was still alive when he was pulled from the wreckage, but he died from the injuries he sustained during the landing before he even reached the hospital. He could have parachuted earlier, but died to protect others. He was 22 years-old.
The other three remaining crew members survived. However, George Head, a Ryhope miner, was killed when he was struck by debris.
Flying Officer Cyril Barton was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross. Today it is displayed in the Royal Air Force Museum in London.
He is buried in a military grave in Kingston-upon-Thames Cemetery in Surrey.
In 2021 the Echo spoke to 88 year-old Ryhope man Alan Mitcheson, who said: “I have never forgotten about it. I remember it very clearly, as if it had happened just last week.”
Mr Mitcheson had placed flowers every March 31 at the Ryhope Cenotaph, where Barton is commemorated with a plaque.
The new Ryhope mural and the naming of Barton Meadows are just the latest fitting tributes. The story will always be worthy of a retelling.