WHEN the Second World War began in September 1939, George Mercer McKinlay had just turned 18 and was working at an insurance office in Newcastle.

Before the war’s end, he would sacrifice his life performing one of its greatest acts of heroism at Newhaven.

On the morning of July 12 1944, George had already shot down one of Hitler’s autopilot V1 flying bombs, or doodlebugs, while flying his Spitfire MkXIV.

Then at 4.15pm the people of Newhaven looked to the skies as they heard the unmistakable rasping sound of a V1 flying bomb approaching the town from the sea.

In hot pursuit was George in his Spitfire.

Crossing over the harbour, the plane opened fire on the V1 with machine guns and cannon. As the doodlebug flew over the area known as The Drove, it exploded in a tremendous fireball.

Eyewitness reports stated the Spitfire was seen emerging from the explosion, clearly in some form of trouble.

The burning plane was on course to hit the town. But rather than bail out straight away, George stayed in the cockpit.

He circled his damaged Spitfire in a wide loop away from the town.

Before he could escape, the plane stalled and crashed into the fields of The Drove.

He died with his plane, aged 23, in order to save the lives of the people of Newhaven.

George had an illustrious flying career.

He signed up for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve at the age of 18 and quickly became an accomplished fighter pilot – though his call to action would not come until 1941.

His brother Leslie White McKinlay had already answered the call of King and country and was serving as a Fitter 2nd Class with 404 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force based at Wick.

Tragically, on September 2 1941, Leslie was a passenger in a plane that crashed during a routine test flight.

He and the three-man crew were all killed.

The brothers were among seven children of William and Bessie McKinlay and grew up in a strong working-class household.

George was born on April 24 1921.

His father was an iron moulder at the Dumbarton shipyards on the banks of the Clyde.

The family later moved to an estate for industrial workers in Gateshead, Newcastle, where his father took up work in the shipyards on the Tyne.

After basic training, and now with the rank of Flying Officer, George was posted to 610 Squadron Royal Air Force based at Bolt Head on December 4 1943.

It was around this time that 610 Squadron became the first operational squadron to receive the new Spitfire MkXIV fighter, powered by the mighty 2050 horse power Rolls-Royce “Griffon” engine, with a maximum speed approaching 400mph. With more training completed, George re-joined the squadron on May 13 1944 at West Malling in Kent.

As the momentous events of D-Day were taking place across the Channel in Normandy, George and the rest of the squadron were preparing for another move — this time to RAF Friston, a windswept airfield on top of the Seven Sisters near East Dean.

This move would bring George and the other pilots of 610 Squadron to the forefront of a battle waged that summer against Hitler’s new and terrifying weapon, the autopilot V1 doodlebug, the first of his fabled “vengeance weapons”.

The Germans launched the first V1 on the morning of June 13, only a week after the Normandy landings.

In the months that followed, more and more of these flying bombs were set loose.

They were aimed at London and launched day and night from sites hidden in the occupied French countryside.

On the morning of his death, George was the second “top scorer” in the squadron against the flying bombs, with two and a half under his tally.

Letters of condolence and thanks were sent by the clerk of Newhaven Urban Council on behalf of the townspeople to George’s parents William and Bessie McKinlay in Newcastle.

They were touched by the many kind tributes paid to their son for his action that day, stating he had grown up with a “thoughtfulness for others”.

They said: “If anything could make his loss more bearable, it would be the thought that he ended his life in the spirit in which he lived it.”

Flying Officer George Mercer McKinlay is buried at Saltwell Cemetery, Gateshead, and will be remembered at a 75th anniversary commemoration at Newhaven Fort tomorrow.

The doors will open at 10am, with a replica Spitfire fly-past just after 4pm.

A commemorative plaque will be unveiled at 3.30pm. British armoury equipment from 1944, including mortars, will be on display

For more information on opening times, the day’s itinerary, price for admissions, and how to reach the fort, visit www.newhavenfort.org.uk or call on 01273 517622.