Over half a decade ago a young RAF dog trainer rushed to the scene at William Pit, Whitehaven, to see if he and the search and rescue dog Jet could help in the aftermath of a terrible disaster.

Today that 19-year-old serviceman is 82 and living in retirement in North Wales. But the memories of that harrowing time and of the brave dog at his side never leave Liverpudlian Bruce Marshall.

The German Shepherd dog had already distinguished himself in wartime rescues when he was brought from his Liverpool home to Whitehaven in 1947 to look for miners trapped in the William Pit disaster.

As we recently passed the 63rd anniversary of that terrible August day when 104 men died, it is fitting to remember Bruce and the dog Jet, whose involvement in the West Cumberland mine was the first on record of dogs having been used to search for trapped miners.

He is indeed a celebrated animal having been awarded the Dickin medal for valour for his wartime work and the Star of Whitehaven, both of which are kept in the Imperial War Museum.

Bruce himself served in the RAF for three years and in 1947 found himself at the RAF School for Police Dogs at Staverton, Gloucester, on instructor training. The William Pit disaster occurred on August 15 and two days later an RAF party of four – Bruce, accompanied by Fl Lieut R D Cooper, Corporal Jenkinson and Corporal W Darnell and the dogs Rex, Prince and Jet - were sent for.

Bruce recalls: "It took us 12 hours to get to Whitehaven and we arrived at midnight and were accommodated at the Waverley Hotel. They made us so welcome. We had brought portable kennels with us for the dogs and they were set up in the yard outside.

"On Monday morning we were waiting to go down in the cages and were supplied with helmets, masks and lamps. The press were there; we were told not to speak.

"We went down below and boarded the tubs with the dogs and chugged down about a mile – to a scene of devastation. The explosion had occurred on the Friday and they had cleared some of it. Most of the men had been killed by gas poisoning, they were just lying there. I recall men were digging and shovelling, going in with canaries and Davy lamps before we went in. We carried on all week, through to Saturday and then returned on Sunday but were not able to find anyone alive which we were very sorry about. The work was recovery, not rescue. The dogs recovered several men, under rubble."

Jet had a natural instinct for scenting victims buried amid the rubble of bomb-destroyed buildings, saving many lives, and in June 1946 he led the Civil Defence section in the Victory Parade in London. Jet, Prince and Rex were the first to be trained in wartime search and rescue.

At William Pit the party helped search a 2,000-yard stretch of mine, hoping to find explosion survivors.

Although it was too late to save any miners’ lives, Jet did save the rescue party. During a search he stopped, looked up and pricked his ears and moved back. It was a signal to get out of the area. Bruce called to the search party to stop and move back; they did so just before a wall of rock collapsed. The search party of 10-12 men had been saved by Jet's warning of the impending collapse of the mine roof and the handler’s quick response.

Bruce says he and his fellow handlers would exercise Jet, Rex and Prince on the Whitehaven beach to harden their pads with salt water. After all the remaining bodies were found, Jet was returned home to his owner. The dog hardly moved from his bed for two days.

The work of the dogs and their handlers was recognised in a letter of thanks from HM Inspector of Mines, Mr A M Bryan, who wrote: "The conditions under which they worked were difficult and must have been particularly arduous for both men and animals who had little or no previous experience underground, yet they all behaved magnificently."

Jet died in October 1949 and was buried with honours beneath a memorial in Liverpool's Calderstones Park. Bruce sent a card to Jet's owner on the dog's death.

He currently enjoys retirement in Eglwysbach, Conwy, North Wales, having worked for many years for Heinz foods in sales management at Chester and London. He has a son and a daughter and two grandchildren.

Although he used to have two Westies, Bruce doesn’t keep a dog these days - but he knows he will never forget Jet.

A memorial service will remember the lives of the 104 people who died in the William Pit disaster.

It will be held at the head of the former pit at North Shore on Tuesday from 5.30pm.