It will probably come as a surprise to those too young to remember the war years, that the peaceful East Allen valley was bombed on two occasions by the Luftwaffe and that there were some tragic wartime accidents which claimed two lives.
The first bombing “incident”, to use the official term which covered everything from the trivial to the disastrous, occurred at five minutes to midnight on the night of Saturday April 26th 1941. It was a quiet night in the North-East, unlike the previous night which saw an horrendous attack on Tyneside during which 124 high-explosive bombs, 64 parachute mines and 9,840 incendiary bombs were dropped. 76 people died that night, 35 of them at Guildford Place, Newcastle, where a parachute mine had demolished an entire block.
On that awful Friday night the A.R.P. had received their early warning of the attack at 9.50 p.m. and the sirens had sounded two minutes later. It looked like a repeat performance when the Preliminary warning came from Fighter Command at 1 minute past ten on the Saturday night, but the warning was cancelled at 10.49. Another preliminary alert came through at 11.37, however, followed by a “lights” warning (for firms exempted from the “blackout”) at 11.42 p.m.
Apparently a single Luftwaffe bomber was roaming the skies in the area – not at that time considered to be sufficient reason to sound the public warning sirens, a policy which caused considerable public resentment. Whatever the pilot of that aircraft was seeking to bomb that night he seemed to have been singularly incompetent; he scattered his bombs far and wide over Northumberland and County Durham and hit virtually nothing at all.
He first dropped a high-explosive bomb in a field at Coundongate, just to the east of Bishop Auckland, then he flew over the town, which would have made an excellent target, and scattered 300 incendiary bombs on open ground between Etherley Dene Farm and Dam Head. He flew north and carefully selected his next target – Ramshaw – where he dropped a further 200 incendiaries on fields. Then it was the turn of the East Allen Valley; 200 incendiaries fell between High Acton and Knockshield Farms and a further 50 between Juniper and Bishopfield (the police report says “between Thornley Gate and Bishopfield”), none caused any damage or casualties. Later four of the containers which had held the incendiaries in the aircraft were also found in the area.
Extracts from Northumberland County Constabulary
Air Raid Report, Hexham Police Office, 26 April 1941
Reproduced courtesy of Northumbria Police. N.R.O. NC/6/10
It was then time for him to turn back towards the coast and wreak more “havoc” on the way. 100 incendiaries fell on a plantation to the south-east of Slaley; here there was some damage – 150 young trees were destroyed. His next target would have been a good choice 30 years earlier; Currock Hill near Hedley-on-the-Hill had been a World War One landing ground. In 1941 it hardly warranted the five incendiaries which were dropped – one in a grass field, three in a ploughed field and one on the roadside – all of which simply burned themselves out. A single high-explosive bomb dropped harmlessly nearby, in a field near Chopwell, followed by another in a field at Barlow near Winlaton. The latter damaged an overhead electricity cable and caused minimal damage to perhaps a dozen houses. His final attack, which consisted of a mere two incendiary bombs, was as pointless as the rest – they landed on grass at Newbottle, just to the north of Houghton-le-Spring.
The preliminary warnings were cancelled when the plane cleared the coast at 25 minutes past midnight. We can only speculate as to what this pilot recorded in his log. What did he claim to have hit? No doubt his imagination was better than his navigation! Some of his colleagues – there were 120 bombers over the United Kingdom that night from the Shetlands to the West Country – had more “success”; the worst incident being at Horning Ferry in Norfolk where 15 died in a public-house which received a direct hit.
The second attack came later in the same year, on the night of Sunday October 12th, the night when the R.A.F. made their first major attack on Nuremberg. There were attacks by the Luftwaffe that night on shipping in the Irish Sea and a heavy attack by 46 bombers on the Manchester area which resulted in 55 deaths including 23 at Oldham and 13 at Denton – this was the worst attack in the last four months of 1941. Some of these aircraft chose the Tyne Gap as their return route – it was often used in raids on both Merseyside and Clydeside – and at 10.51 p.m. a lights warning was issued in the North-East, followed by the sirens at five past eleven. As the sirens sounded *, one aircraft dumped three high-explosive bombs in Chopwell Woods – the three craters can still be seen to this day. Twenty minutes later, at 11.25, another aircraft released a single bomb; according to the police report this one landed in a quarry one mile west of Allendale Town on Oustley Farm, Keenley but it was actually on the north of the Ninebanks road just before the drop down to Hawksteel Burn. It was a very large bomb and it made a crater thirty feet in diameter and twenty feet deep; the blast caused slight damage to windows and a door “in a nearby farmhouse” – High Oustley Farm.
Extracts from Northumberland County Constabulary
Air Raid Report, Hexham Police Office, 12 October 1941
Reproduced courtesy of Northumbria Police. N.R.O. NC/6/10
No other bombs fell anywhere in the region that night and the all-clear sounded at 34 minutes past midnight. Why did the bombs fall where they did? We can only conclude that the aircraft had been chased away from their target areas before they had released all their bombs, or perhaps they had suffered a hang-up – a jammed bomb release mechanism. Whatever the cause they would have simply dumped their remaining bombs at the earliest opportunity to reduce weight for the return flight.
Thus ended Hitler’s efforts against the land of my ancestors, but another tragedy was to befall the area. On Thursday November 4th 1943, the day when the gallant Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery took the vital Isernia road junction in Italy, a pair of naval air-defence balloons escaped from their mooring, presumably on a ship in the North Sea. It was fairly common for barrage balloons to escape, and they occasionally caused minor injuries, but the escapes generally resulted in nothing more serious than a few chimney pots being knocked down by the trailing steel cable, or a set of tram wires being short-circuited – there had even been an incident in Allendale involving minor damage to telephone lines. These balloons, however, were not simple barrage balloons – they had an explosive device attached. After a lengthy journey they came to earth, late on that Thursday morning, at Swinhope, on the ‘top’ before Hayrake, and the mooring rope fouled on a rock. Not surprisingly, quite a crowd gathered to see these unusual visitors and the authorities were informed. Meanwhile, Home-Guardsman Robert Batey, unaware of the danger, decided to deflate the balloons and, while he was doing that, the attached bomb exploded.
Six people – Robert Batey, Annie Featherstone, Vera Nixon, Joseph Noble, Harold Nixon and William Wright – were injured and were taken to Hexham Emergency Hospital. Tragically, 43 year old Robert Batey, a council roadman of Broadgate Cottage, Sinderhope, died from his injuries later in the day. He left a widow, Violet, and four teenage daughters, Molly, Nancy, Violet and Joyce. Robert’s widow now lives in Allendale Town. Three others were badly hurt; Vera Nixon had shrapnel wounds in her chest and two people each lost an eye. One of these, Annie Featherstone, now lives at Sparty Lea, just a stone’s throw from the scene of that awful tragedy
The other accidents mentioned in the introduction were air crashes – two of the many R.A.F. aircraft which came to grief during those terrible years. The first crash occurred on Saturday April 26th 1941, just a few hours before the incendiary bombs fell over the area. Low cloud hung over the fells as Hurricane fighter V7619 flew up the valley with three other Hurricanes on a training flight. The East Allen Valley was a dangerous place for low flying, especially in poor visibility, and to make things even worse the pilot was new to the area and new to flying. He was being trained by 55 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) which had moved to R.A.F. Usworth (Now a Nissan Car Factory) just a few weeks earlier on March 14th. The unit also used the newly opened R.A.F. Ouston (opened March 10th; now Albermarle Barracks). The Hurricane simply flew into the ground; it struck just north of the Allenheads to Nenthead road, a short distance east the cattle grid. and wreckage was strewn over the fell on the south side of the road. Sergeant Band, the pilot, was killed instantly; his parents later visited the area and erected a small memorial to their son at the spot where he was killed.
The second crash occurred around 5.00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday August 26th 1944 – just a few hours after the liberation of Paris – when Halifax III bomber MZ658 of 431 (Iroquois) Squadron, stationed at R.A.F. Croft, was returning from a bombing sortie to Brest. The aircraft was diverted to one of the North-East aerodromes, perhaps because of poor visibility at Croft, but a navigation error put the plane too far to the south. Running out of fuel and with high ground ahead, the crew, 6 Canadians and 1 Englishman, had little option but to bale out. Happily all landed safely in the Edmundbyers area, but the doomed plane flew a further 12 miles before plunging into the ground in a field at Knock Shield Farm, Sinderhope, about 450 yards north-west of the farmhouse. Parts of the wreckage still lie buried in the field. The Halifax had been one of some 334 bombers which attacked coastal battery positions around Brest. Brest was one of the Germans’ last footholds in North-Western France and the garrison finally surrendered to Patton’s forces on September 19th after a 27-day siege. The night of August 25th/26th was a new record for Bomber Command:- the total effort amounted to some 1311 aircraft dispatched, of which 33 were lost including 8 which, like Halifax MZ658, crashed in Britain.
* There was no air-raid siren in Allendale or Allenheads during WW2, but the Hexham siren was just audible on a quiet frosty night. Ironically a siren was installed at Allendale after the war and for many years it was used by the fire service to call out retained (part-time) firemen; now they have a radio paging system instead.
© Brian Pears 1993, 1998
Principal source:- Northumberland Constabulary War Department records, Northumberland Record Office Accession No. NC/6/10.
Thanks to Miss A.Featherstone, Miss E.B.Philipson, G.R.Philipson, Mrs M.Ruddick, J.Rutland and J.D. Walton.