To the memory of my father; Thomas William Pears (14th November 1919 – 28th September 1991) and of Thomas Carrick Middleton (23rd October 1909 – 26th July 1992)
Both men served Rowlands Gill well; Mr Pears as a local historian who was always ready to share his knowledge and love of the subject with others, especially young people; Mr Middleton as the dedicated village Sub-postmaster, a position he held from 23rd February 1949 until the day of his death – more than 43 years.
Both men also served their Country during the Second World War. Mr Pears served briefly with the 1st Durham (Blaydon) Battalion, Home Guard at High Spen before taking up an appointment “For Duration of Emergency” as “Craftsman 10566554 PEARS, T.W.” (R.A.O.C. 25 Sep 1941 – 27 Oct 1943, R.E.M.E. 28 Oct 1943 – 20 June 1947). Mr Middleton served throughout the war with the 5th Durham (Hamsterley) Battalion, Home Guard and progressed rapidly through the ranks from Private to Lieutenant. Shortly before his penultimate promotion (to 2nd Lieut. on 1 Jun 42), Mr Middleton had a grandstand view of the events described in the following pages – from the Home Guard look- out post on the pit heap at Lintz Colliery.
Thursday April 30th had been a gorgeous spring day, surprisingly warm for the time of year, and, just after nine-thirty, as the sun sank slowly into Chopwell Woods, there was the promise of a beautiful night too – the moon was already making its way across the cloudless sky. But any such thoughts were tinged with doubt – it was a full moon, better known then as a “Bombers’ Moon”, for this was Thursday April 30th 1942, day 971 of the war with Nazi Germany. At least it would be a welcome relief from the blackout.
The night-shift workers in the mines and factories were already hard at work; the day would soon be over. The Home Guard finished off the evening parade in the customary way – at the Towneley Arms. Buses brought folks back to the village, perhaps from a visit to Chopwell pictures; some might even have Ventured to the Newcastle Odeon to see Bob Hope in “Louisiana Purchase” or to the Theatre Royal where “Rigoletto” was on offer. But most of the passengers were weary workers returning home after long hours of overtime in the factories.
Soon only the duty Specials and Wardens walked the streets and most of the villagers were preparing for bed. Some, no doubt, took the opportunity to read the papers – the Japanese had made advances in China, more air-raids on Malta, a raid on York two nights earlier, thousands of Russians deported to work in Germany, and a meeting between Mussolini and Hitler. It wasn’t all war news, there were some local snippets too – a fire at the Haymarket Cinema, a big funeral at Rowlands Gill yesterday for retired headmaster and prominent freemason Mr Evan Cellan-Jones of Strathmore Road, the Shipcote Baths at Gateshead had opened its doors for the first time, High Spen St Johns had presented some first-aid certificates, there was to be a Whist Drive and Social tomorrow night at Low Spen Welfare Hall with Mr George Jamieson and Mr Joe Peacock as MCs, and High Spen Womens’ Institute had held a birthday party and had been entertained by a rendition of “Felix the Cat” by Mrs Polly Donkin and by a film show from the Ministry of Information! Of course, there were the advertisements including the announcement of “Binns Half-price Remnant Sale” on Saturday and the Silk Shop’s incredible bargain; “Utility Cami-Knickers” for only 9s8d (plus 3 coupons)!
Some might have chosen to listen to “Billy Cotton and His Band” on the Home Service or to “Dancing Time” on the Forces Programme, but, as the day ended, everyone’s thoughts turned to their loved ones – fathers, brothers, husbands, sons- far from home and facing terrible dangers. For some tragedy had already struck. Edward and Ann Oxley had lost their 20 year old nephew and adopted son, Harry, only seven weeks into the war when his ship, the battleship “Royal Oak”, was torpedoed by the submarine U47 just off Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Then, as our boys had made their desperate attempt to reach the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940, more grief struck the village with the news that two local lads, 32 year old Thomas Slater and 23 year old Isaac Oxley both serving with the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, hadn’t made it. In July 1940 William and Elizabeth Matthews of 38 Lilley Terrace heard that their son, Sergeant George Alexander Matthews, aged 22, an air-gunner serving with 220 Squadron of Coastal Command at Thornaby, had been killed. While returning from a mission, his plane had hit the balloon barrage protecting Sunderland and had crashed at East Boldon. Finally, almost exactly a year ago, the dreaded news was delivered to Wingrove Villa at the bottom of Smailes Lane, the home of 25 year old Telegraphist Arthur Reay, the home he would never see again – his ship “H.M. Trawler Alberic” had been lost with all hands.
The village Bobby, P.C. 667, Bill Meehan, had made his final round of the village and spent an hour or so with his text-books. He was as ready as he would ever be for the inspector’s exam in the morning, but, with promotions frozen for the duration, it would be a while before he could even make sergeant.
A quarter to one, in Northern France, three hundred and fifty miles south-west of Rowlands Gill, aircraft of the mighty Luftwaffe gathered speed as they rushed along the tarmac. They soared over the villages and towns their gallant armies had conquered, over the beaches where, two years earlier, they had bombed helpless soldiers and unarmed pleasure boats. They headed north. Their colleagues in Holland were preparing to join them in their venture. For some this was their first mission; for forty or more of their number, it would also be their last!
A hundred yards or so from Bill Meehan’s home in Station Road, in a windowless brick and concrete hut between 10 and 11 Norman Road, sat 41 year-old full-time A.R.P. Warden Jack Foster. He was not a happy man. Were the rumours true? Surely they wouldn’t really sack all the A.R.P. full-timers in low-risk areas like Rowlands Gill. They would never get enough volunteers to take their places. But, as he flicked through the pages of the note book on his desk headed “A.R.P Warden Post C2”, he could see little to justify his job. There had been no casualties, no damage, no bomb incidents – not even an incendiary- anywhere in the village. Not one.
The bombers flew on in radio silence, just far enough off the English coast to avoid being seen or heard and just low enough to avoid the radar – quite easy over the sea in moonlight.
Jack Foster’s colleague, 52 year-old Mrs Ellen Chapman of “Rothesay” on the main road at Lockhaugh, was not particularly worried about the prospect of losing her job; her husband was the breadwinner. But it had been quite convenient – her Warden Post, designated “C1”, was just across her garden, beside the old waggonway.
The bomber crews were feeling quite relieved; more than half way to the target and no sign of the R.A.F. They were a motley assortment for the most part – anti-shipping, mine-laying and even reserve training units- hurriedly transferred from their usual tasks at the whim of the Fuhrer. The aircraft, Junkers 88’s, Heinkel III’s and Dornier 217’s, were carrying 55 tons of high-explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries.
“Rowlands Gill Rescue” or, more correctly, Blaydon Council’s “Heavy Rescue and Demolition Service” was situated in R.C. Williamson’s builders’ yard beside the L.N.E.R. track. Rather grand titles for two lorries carrying props, rope and jacks, but they had shown their worth after the raid on Blaydon last September when they rescued young Emily Dodgson from the ruins of her home at 10 Delacour Road, and last April they had joined with rescue squads from all over Tyneside to clear up the jumble of bricks and bodies where Guildford Terrace, Heaton had once stood. Now, as always, “Rowlands Gill Rescue” were ready. The crew might be asleep in their homes but their duty man was dutifully manning his telephone – and reading his newspaper.
Twenty-five minutes past two and the lead bombers turned towards the Durham coast and climbed.
Rachael Robinson sat knitting in Strathmore Road Welfare Hall which, for the duration, was “Rowlands Gill First Aid Party Depot”. From here trained First-Aiders, under the leadership of Mr G.W. McNab, would be sent to treat casualties anywhere in the area.
Twenty-seven minutes past two at No 30 Group Observer Centre in the back of the Post Office in Providence Row, Durham City. Around the plotting table sat the “plotters” connected by telephone to the observers of the Royal Observer Corps in their lonely outposts around the region. All was quiet until one of the plotters heard the three words that would set in motion the most effective air defence system in the world – “Low Raid Urgent”. A black counter was placed on the plotting table.
Around Rowlands Gill, in kitchens, garden sheds and the back rooms of shops, the firewatchers struggled to stay awake. It wasn’t easy after a hard day at work.
In the Operations Room of No 13 Group, Fighter Command, deep beneath the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries offices at Kenton, in the Sector Operations Room at R.A.F. Ouston, and in the anti- aircraft Gun Operations Room at Low Gosforth House on the southern edge of Gosforth Park, teams of men and women quietly and efficiently performed their vital tasks. At each a plotting table similar to that at Durham now showed the same picture:- 30+ hostiles heading north-west across County Durham.
Newcastle Telephone Exchange received a brief message from Kenton and banks of operators cleared their boards, cutting off all but an especially privileged group of subscribers. Then they began the well practised routine which would alert the population to the menace overhead. The message was first passed to other local manual exchanges; then they and the operators in the other exchanges worked through long lists of telephone numbers – Military, Civil Defence, Fire Service and Police establishments and dozens of siren control points around the area- to each they repeated the same short message. Seconds later an eerie wail began its journey across the County.
Two thirty-three. Jack Foster was still thinking about his future when a familiar sound reached his ears, distant and indistinct at first, then quite clear. He put on his steel helmet which bore a large “W”, turned off the light and opened the door. Moonlight flooded in and, almost simultaneously, the Burnopfield siren joined in with the others. Jack’s telephone rang; he picked it up and an urgent voice said “Air Raid Warning: Red”. He turned a switch above his desk and “Wailing Winnie” three feet above his head came to life. It was something of a landmark, but one which went entirely unrecognised; this was the two-hundredth time that the streets and lanes of our little village had echoed to Winnie’s banshee notes.
Before Winnie had reached her first crescendo her relatives at High Spen Colliery and Chopwell Power Station had joined the mournful chorus. Highfield had to be different. There, on the boiler house down at the Alloy Works, they had a large ship’s siren alongside the much smaller work’s hooter. The “whoop … whoop … whoop” struck a somewhat incongruous note in a village sixteen miles from the sea. Perhaps it was a cunning ploy to fool would-be invaders.
In the reinforced basement of Blaydon Council Offices on Shibdon Road, Council officials, volunteers and full-time A.R.P. personnel prepared for their busy schedule. Young women hurried in as they did on every alert to augment the duty telephonists. This was Blaydon Report Centre, the hub of the District’s Civil Defence organisation. It was to this centre that the Wardens, First-Aiders and Rescue Sections reported by messenger or telephone, and it was from here that help was summoned to wherever it was needed.
Many thought that Air Raid Precautions in areas like Blaydon Urban District had proved excessive and should be reduced. Blaydon Council had supplied five thousand Anderson shelters and had erected one hundred Communal and forty-three Public shelters; many hundreds of people gave up their spare time to train for and perform A.R.P. duties. Yet in the 971 days since the war started only 9 high- explosive and 32 incendiary bombs had fallen in the whole of the Urban District. Most of these had fallen in remote areas and had caused little damage, but, at 2.20 a.m. on Tuesday May 6th 1941, a single high-explosive bomb had fallen near the top of Shibdon Dene, quite close to Warden Post A8, and had caused damaged no less than 564 properties, three houses were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished. No one had been killed or seriously injured but 42 people needed treatment at the First Aid Post.
It was a different story, however, four months later. At 10.15 p.m. on Tuesday September 1st two bombs had fallen on Blaydon. One demolished Donald Brown’s Engineering Works on Tyne Street killing the night-watchman, Martin Heanagham (59), and two men, John Cowings (36) and William Irwin (17), who were on a Venture bus at a bus stop across the street. Another 25 of the bus passengers needed first-aid treatment. The second bomb had landed on Delacour Road completely demolishing numbers 8 and 10, and damaging numbers 10 and 12 in neighbouring Lynwood Avenue so badly that they had to be pulled down. Three people died at Delacour Road – John Henry Moore (72) and Margaret Moore (73) from Number 8, and Thelma Dodgson (20) from number 10. Two more, Emily Dodgson (17) and Albert Greenfield Dodgson (56), died later in hospital. A total of 306 properties were damaged and 70 people needed treatment for minor injuries.
The nature of the work done at Donald Brown’s factory caused particular problems for the A.R.P. and Fire Service personnel that night; the factory made bomb-casings. A large load had been shipped out that very day, but there were still some around. It must have been rather unpleasant searching the ruins of a factory in the dark and encountering bomb-casings! Any one of them might have been a time-bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe along with the conventional bombs. This was a tactic designed to kill people engaged in rescue work.
Everyone agreed that a deliberate raid on the Blaydon District was unlikely, but the whole A.R.P. organisation was still necessary to deal with such accidental attacks. Even one bomb in the wrong place could be catastrophic. Nobody would forget that awful night of May 3rd/4th 1941, when a single bomber swept down the Tyne, dropped three bombs on North Shields, and flew out to sea. One bomb scored a direct hit on Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory and killed 105 people who were using the factory basement as a shelter. And it could have happened much closer to home; the two bombs which hit Blaydon four months later had straddled the Plaza Cinema during a film show – what would happened if one had hit it?
Above the Report Centre in the Civil Defence hierarchy was the County Sub- Control at Lanchester Council Offices, County Control underneath both Shire Hall and the Police Station in Durham City, and the Regional War Room at the Royal Grammar School at Eskdale Terrace, Jesmond – the school had been evacuated to Penrith. If Blaydon needed more resources than they could provide themselves, a quick call to Lanchester would bring help – heavy cranes, ambulances or whatever- from anywhere in the Region. This had only been necessary once; after that 1st September raid described above, when Blaydon called in a Rescue Party and an ambulance from Ryton, and Rescue and First-Aid Parties from Whickham.
Now, once again, the A.R.P. personnel around the Region were hurriedly preparing to deal with whatever the night might bring – they had to hurry; the preliminary “Yellow” warnings had been abolished on October 28th 1941, the “Red” was now their first warning. Would this be another false alarm like the alerts on April 16th, 22nd, 23rd and 29th? Or would it be something more serious like the night of Tuesday April 15th when 28 had died in an attack on the area? Middlesborough had been the main target that night, but there had also been bombs at Shelton and Saltburn, and further north at West Hartlepool, Usworth Aerodrome and even at Newcastle.
A clerk at Blaydon Report Centre opened the log-book and entered the date, “1.5.42”, and the time of the Red, “0233” – this was 2.33 Double-Summer-Time (D.B.S.T.), two hours ahead of G.M.T., a wartime light-saving measure to increase productivity. Sunrise would be a long four hours away – a lot was to happen before then!
At Acklington and Catterick airfields the engines of Hurricanes and Beaufighters roared as the planes lifted off the runways and climbed to meet the intruders. Their controller, callsign “Bluebell”, directed them to their targets relentlessly crossing the Durham skies.
Rowlands Gill woke in answer to Winnie’s early call; clothes were pulled on over pyjamas, small children were wrapped in blankets and older children fought over missing socks and shoes. Gone was the panic of the early raids when everyone confidently expected to be blown up or gassed every time the sirens sounded. Now it was almost a routine part of life.
As Winnie fell silent, another distant sound took its place. The heavy guns of “Tyne X” Battery at Ouston Camp near the Birtley ammunition factory were firing the products of that factory at the enemy. On the wall of the main hall at Low Gosforth House a red light appeared alongside the words “Tyne X: Guns in Action”. It was soon to be joined by another as the crew of “Tyne G” at the top of Lobley Hill, next to the railway track, made their final preparations to join the fight. “Predictor on target”. “Height finder on target”. The heavy guns swung into position and a 50 pound high-explosive shell thundered into the night sky.
When “Big Bertha” at Lobley Hill went into action you could not ignore it. Even at Rowlands Gill, more than four miles away, the ground shook, windows rattled and ornaments tottered on shelves. Now people hurried across the back garden or down the street to their shelters. Most carried gas masks; well, you never knew!
At Bone Hill Searchlight Site, High Spen, just across the road from Towneley Terrace, uniformed men hurried from the small collection of huts to their posts. A generator ran up to speed and a finger of light, 210 million candlepower of light, flashed across the sky over Rowlands Gill.
Not everyone in Rowlands Gill went to their shelters. Of course there were the “it can never happen to me” types who simply turned over and went back to sleep, but there were also many for whom the siren was a call to duty. The Special Constables made their way to their headquarters in the Reading Room on Stirling Lane – “The Gestapo” the locals called it- or to their unofficial base at Hollinhill Farm. The Home Guard, complete with rifles, made their way to their look-out posts around the village – just in case the planes were carrying parachute troops instead of bombs. The First- Aiders went to the Welfare Hall and the Rescue Workers to Williamson’s yard. And last, but certainly not least, the Wardens and their Messengers – Boy Scouts from the 1st Rowlands Gill Scouts- went to their posts.
Miners underground in Lilley Drift were quickly brought back from the coal faces to safer parts of the mine. Theirs was a shallow pit, a bomb on the surface above the workings might well cause dangerous roof falls.
Another sound now drifted across the valley; it was the unmistakable throb of German bombers – why on earth did they run their engines at slightly different speeds? And yes, there they were, just to the east over the new wireless mast at Marley Hill, like vultures silhouetted against the moon. Where were they going tonight? Flashes to the north showed that a third anti-aircraft battery, the unit at Hill Head Road, Westerhope had joined the battle.
At 18 Norman Road, a few doors from the A.R.P. Warden Post, William Richardson had grabbed his 2 year old son, George, and was leading his wife, Ceridwen, and daughters, Betty and Gwyneth, down the staircase to seek shelter. Suddenly, when they were half way down, there was a crashing sound above them; the upstairs ceiling had collapsed. It was shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells – when these shells exploded in the air, chunks of hot metal, each more deadly than a bullet, whizzed to the ground. The Richardsons didn’t have an Anderson shelter and they usually used their neighbour’s shelter in the garden of number 17, but this time it was too dangerous to go outside. Instead they all huddled together under the kitchen table.
The Firewatchers too, now had a job to do; they had to be dressed and awake all the time they were on duty, but during alerts they had to be in a position to spot fires and to seek out the Street Fire Parties or to call the Fire Service if necessary.
The planes flew on. Big Bertha’s shells burst among them, the fingers of light danced across the sky. There would never be a firework display to match the scene. And then… What was happening? Over Lockhaugh and beyond a hundred suns hung in the sky. The question was answered; they had reached their target.
As the “Chandelier” parachute flares floated slowly to earth lighting up the valley as brilliantly as the midday sun, the engine notes changed abruptly. The planes were diving. At Lockhaugh, Barlow, Winlaton, Winlaton Mill and Axwell Park yet another sound filled the air as incendiary bombs rained down in their hundreds. Children screamed as the whistles grew louder and mothers cuddled them, trying to hide the terror which gripped them too.
With incendiaries falling all around, Alice Blenkinsop of 5 Glamis Crescent hurried across Thornley Lane, somewhat belatedly making for the Warden Post which was her shelter. She nearly didn’t make it. Just behind her a line of machine-gun bullets streaked across the road and into the fields. She ran the rest of the way. Mrs Bina Deacon of 2 Glamis Crescent had just as lucky an escape. She was still in her home when bullets tore into her living-room – but fortunately the only serious casualty was her sideboard!
Further up Thornley Lane, at Low Thornley Farm, farmer Thomas Robinson grabbed a spade and tackled an incendiary in his farmyard. Despite all the warnings he flapped the spade near the glowing white-hot missile and then collapsed in agony as a spurt of molten metal shot straight into his eye. That eye would never see again.
In Larch Road, Blaydon, in a small white painted building a telephone rang. It was the first of many calls received there that night because this was the National Fire Service message room. The call was from Derwenthaugh Coke Works reporting fires across the road near Hagg Hill Farm. Seconds later a van and trailer pump left the yard behind the Council Offices and headed along Shibdon Road.
They were an experienced crew, having seen service in Glasgow and Coventry and at the huge blaze at the L.N.E.R. Goods Station in Newcastle. But, as they passed Axwell Park Estate and turned onto the A694, they faced an incredible scene the like of which they had never seen before. Dotted over the grounds of Axwell Park Approved School and over Winlaton Mill beyond were hundreds of intensely luminous incendiaries looking like a swarm of glow-worms in the night. Here and there trees and hedges were on fire and heaps of brushwood burned furiously. Soon they were pumping water from the Derwent up the hillside onto the fires near the farm and wondering what else the night might bring.
There were fires at Winlaton too. Incendiaries had fallen in the fields to the south of the church and in the Twizell Avenue area where they set houses alight. The Wardens sent Messenger, John Sydney Robinson, of the 1st Winlaton Scouts, with an urgent message to the Fire Station at Blaydon. He jumped on his cycle and set off down the bank. It was to be an eventful journey for eighteen year old Sydney.
Over at the Stella Staithes Hotel an incendiary bomb had fallen through the roof setting fire to the lounge and bar. Luckily the fire was caught early and was extinguished with stirrup pumps.
In the yard behind the Green Tree Inn at Barlow two men and three women stood watching the awesome sights around them. They included the publican, William Newton, and neighbours Arthur and Hannah Maughan. They chatted excitedly and decided that the raid was over; there were still planes about but nothing much was happening. Suddenly a whistle overhead told them they were wrong. As the whistle became a shriek, the publican dived into his shelter and the others jumped into the outside toilets beside them – Arthur into one and the three ladies into the next.
This bomb was no incendiary; the Green Tree Inn would never again quench the thirsts of the local farmers. The pub was blown into a thousand pieces and blast waves surged outward lifting roofs, bringing down ceilings, shattering windows and cracking walls and floors. The villagers huddled in their shelters realised at that instant that the incendiaries burning around them were not meant to burn them out; they were simply marking the target for the rest of the bomber force.
In a nearby farmyard two men ducked behind a trap as the bomb fell, and a split second later other bombs landed close by. The body of the trap was blasted completely off leaving just the wheels but, miraculously, the men were not only alive, they were unhurt. At least they thought they were – it would be a little while before one of them realised that a slate blasted off a nearby roof had cleanly amputated one of his fingers.
As the dust settled, four figures emerged onto the heap of rubble that minutes earlier had been a pub. The fifth, 29 year old Arthur Maughan, couldn’t join them- he was dead. There wasn’t a single mark on his body, but, nonetheless, he was quite dead. As neighbours rushed to the scene and tried to comfort poor Hannah, Special Constable William Roddham helped carry her husband’s lifeless body to a barn.
Poor little Barlow had already had its share of excitement. Just a year before, at 8.20 a.m. on April 26th 1941, a warden found a crater measuring 7 feet by 2 feet 6 inches at East Farm. It turned out to have been caused by one of Big Bertha’s shells which hadn’t exploded in the air as it should have done. Then, sixteen hours later, at five past midnight, the village was rocked by a high- explosive (HE) bomb. The strange thing was, after more than one hundred alerts with no bombs, when Barlow’s first bomb fell, the sirens hadn’t gone off at all. Still, nobody was hurt and there was little damage – just a few window panes and tiles lost. But planes, even friendly ones, seemed attracted to Barlow; back in January this year, a Spitfire made a forced landing there and a few years before the war Colonel Cody, who ran a flying circus, brought his biplane down there too.
It couldn’t get much worse, but this night’s ordeal wasn’t over. As the local First-Aiders helped two men and two women who had been slightly injured, Warden Frankie Scott checked the bomb craters and found an unexploded bomb (UXB) quite close to the ruins of the pub. It might be a dud, but it was probably a time bomb. The villagers couldn’t even go back to check their damaged houses until the experts had dealt with it. Frankie hurried back to his hut and passed the first message of the night to the Report Centre: “Warden Post B4, Barlow Village- 7 HE, 1 UXB on open ground, IBs. Damage. Casualties- 1 fatal”.
When this message was received at Blaydon Report Centre, the staff immediately telephoned Newcastle 26050, the Regional War Room at the Royal Grammar School. The location of the first bombs in each District was always reported directly to Region, and Region then informed Fighter Command to help them direct their fighters to the bombers.
Back at Lockhaugh, the incendiaries still burned on the fields and roads, and the dull thuds of the Barlow bombs had shaken the ground. Just across Thornley Lane from Thomas Robinson’s farm, a farm hand hurried to a stable. Inside was a very frightened mare – it was indoors because it had given birth to a foal a few days earlier. Thinking that the mare might feel better outside, he opened the door and it bolted across a field. At the same moment, a bomber came screaming down from the west and released its bombs. One of them landed only feet from the horse and it was blown into the air. It landed a hundred yards away in the next field: dead of course.
Six bombs landed in the fields around the farms; two were quite close to the four houses at the bottom of Thornley Lane (Numbers 1- 4) and the six houses on Glamis Crescent (Numbers 2,4,5,7,9 and 11 – there never would be a 1 or 3!). It was most fortunate that the plans for building the rest of Glamis Crescent and for more houses on Thornley Lane, had been held up by the war – many of them would have been flattened and there could well have been many deaths. As it was, the farms, the houses on Glamis Crescent and three of the houses on Thornley Lane, lost their roofs, and all of them had damage to walls, ceilings and furniture.
Bombs also landed in Low Horse Close Wood quite close to the main road; between Hollinhill Farm and the Lilley Brickworks; and down by the river near the sewage works. There had also been a small bomb across the river in Lady Haugh Field, Gibside, but that was Whickham’s problem. Heavy clods of earth blasted high in the air by these and the other bombs, landed over a wide area and caused roof and ceiling damage to almost every house on the main road at Lockhaugh and up High Horse Close as well. The bomb near Hollinhill Farm fractured a wall of the farmhouse and caused roof and ceiling damage to twelve houses on Cowen Terrace and three on Lilley Terrace.
There was also roof and ceiling damage to 6 Burnopfield Road and to numbers 12 and 33 Dene Avenue! No bombs fell anywhere near these houses and it seemed likely that this damage had, like that at 18 Norman Road, been caused by shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells. There was a possibility, however, that it might have been the result of machine-gun fire from German bombers – automatic gunfire had been heard distinctly by many in the village just after the flares were seen- some had even thought an invasion had started!
The Special Constables and Wardens along in the village heard – and felt- the Lockhaugh bombs going off, and they hurried along the road to help their colleagues at Lockhaugh. When P.C. Bill Meehan got there, quite quickly he thought, he was amazed to see that everything was well in hand. Councillor Harry Swan, Head Warden for Rowlands Gill and Lockhaugh, had taken charge and, with the help of his Wardens and the Specials, was carefully checking that everyone from the damaged houses and farms was accounted for and unhurt. Bill was quite relieved, the responsibility in emergencies usually fell on his shoulders, but he was quite happy to let Harry carry on; he was definitely the right man for the job, a man able to act with coolness, compassion and efficiency in a highly traumatic situation.
An unexploded bomb was quickly located in one of the fields and there was also a rather worrying report of a possible second UXB – a bomb had been heard to land in Thornley Woods, near to the railway bridge over the road to Winlaton Mill. If the report was true and the bomb went off when a bus was passing it could be very dangerous. Another message was passed to Blaydon Report Centre:- “Warden Post C1, Lockhaugh- 9 HE, UXBs on open ground, IBs. Damage. Casualties.”
The first set of routine “State of Party” messages were also reaching Blaydon from the various First Aid Party Depots in the District – they were required 25 and 55 minutes after a red alert and on stand-down. 2.56 a.m. “Blaydon (Axwell Park Clinic) 7 personnel”; 3.00 a.m. “Winlaton (Congregational Hall) 5 personnel and 1 ambulance”; 3.00 a.m. “Rowlands Gill (Welfare Hall) 5 personnel”; 3.04 a.m. “Chopwell (East School) 5 personnel, 1 ambulance and 3 attendants”. Reports were also received from Rowlands Gill Rescue (6 personnel), from the First Aid Post at Blaydon Miner’s Welfare Hall (7 personnel), and from Blaydon Ambulance Depot (at the Mortuary, Friars Garage, Garden Terrace) where 3 ambulances were manned and ready. These figures had to be passed to County Sub-Control at Lanchester, but that could wait, there were more urgent matters.
Coloured flags were now being placed on a large-scale wall map at Blaydon showing where the ambulances and first-aid parties had been sent. Doctors were being called to the First Aid Post to assist the nurses and volunteers when the casualties arrived. The building shook; those present knew then that they would be using more flags before the night was out.
Another wave of bombers had reached the illuminated target area and dived to deliver their deadly loads. Three high-explosive bombs went off just behind The Avenue on Axwell Park Estate – one was actually in someone’s garden. Houses on The Avenue, Western Way and Shibdon Road suffered; two were wrecked, five lost their roofs and a further twenty-six had various degrees of damage.
Incredibly there were only very minor injuries, but some folks had very lucky escapes. One man, a teacher, who had not bothered to take shelter, was blown clean out of bed and woke to find his roof off, most of his bedroom furniture downstairs and most of his back garden – wet sloppy earth- in his bedroom. Two terrified ladies in the house jumped out of bed and had to scramble over a fallen tree to get outside and then had to jump their garden gate which had jammed.
Sydney Robinson, the Scout who was taking a message to the Fire Station, also had a lucky escape, or rather two. As he free-wheeled down Shibdon Bank, he was twice blown off his cycle by the blast from the Axwell Park bombs. But, undaunted, he jumped back on his cycle and the message got through. Seconds later another fire unit set out from the Council Yard.
H.E. bombs had also fallen in the Approved School grounds, but the school only suffered minor damage to the roof and to wall and ceiling plasterwork. Two bombs straddled the Derwenthaugh Coke Works and many others landed on the other side of the River Derwent, but they did little damage – the bungalow just across the road from the cokeworks lost a few tiles and window panes.
Blaydon Report Centre received yet another message: “Warden Post A1, Shibdon Road- 7 HEs, 1 UXB, IBs. Damage.” The figures from the various depots had been passed on to Lanchester at 3.13 and, late as usual, the Fire Service report had been received at 3.15:- 4 pumps, 3 medium and 1 light, available at Blaydon, and 2 light units at Station 3Y, Chopwell – behind the Chopwell Hotel. Up at the First Aid Post, at the Blaydon Miners’ Welfare Hall, some casualties had arrived. They were assessed by a doctor and those with serious injuries were sent straight to hospital in Newcastle; the rest were treated on the spot.
More bombers screamed down, this time towards the burning hedges and still- glowing incendiaries near St Paul’s Church at Winlaton. Six high-explosive bombs were dropped but only two caused any real problems; they landed in allotment gardens at Knowledge Hill and the blast surged outwards towards the nearby houses and businesses on Church Street and Front Street.
Several lost roofs and dozens were damaged. Perhaps worst affected was the Winlaton and District Social Club and Institute; it would be a while before their top room could be used again. A little hut behind the Highlander Pub was demolished. It had contained materials for contractors putting up an overhead electric supply from Dunston to an I.C.I. factory at Prudhoe. The contractors’ lorries in the car park were damaged too. The two private ambulances belonging to the “Winlaton and Blaydon Public Van Fund” were damaged, but could be repaired. In the other direction and, fortunately, further from the bombs, the church and vicarage had their windows blown in.
More important than the damage to the buildings was the distress caused to the people of Winlaton. Very few had been physically hurt but many were temporarily homeless and had lost most of their possessions. Winlaton Council Schools on West Lane were quickly opened to fulfil their alternative role as “Durham County Council Emergency Sleeping Centre No.173”.
On a lighter note, it was reported that a Mr Rippeth was somewhat distressed to find that his newly delivered cart-load of manure, which he intended to spread over his allotment next day, was now spread over much of Winlaton!
More routine messages had reached the Report Centre from the First Aid Party Depots around the District; 3.25 a.m. “Blaydon 10 personnel and 2 cars”; 3.27 a.m. “Winlaton 5 personnel, 1 ambulance, 1 attendant and 1 car”; 3.34 a.m. “Rowlands Gill 8 personnel, Chopwell 10 personnel, 1 ambulance and 3 attendants”. Rowlands Gill Rescue also reported that they now had a crew of nine, but no messages were received from the First Aid Post or from Blaydon Ambulance Depot – they were far too busy. Once again there would be a delay before the figures were passed to Lanchester; a more urgent message was coming in:- “Warden Post B1, Winlaton, 6 HE, IBs. Damage. Casualties”. More flags appeared on the wall map and yet more messages went out to the Ambulance Depot and the First-Aiders.
The A.A. batteries and RAF night-fighters were having some success. Early in the raid a bomber was seen coming down in flames just off the Durham coast. A fighter flown by Wing Commander Max Aitken D.F.C., the son of Lord Beaverbrook, brought down a Dornier 217, and another pilot, an Englishman flying with a Canadian squadron, watched as his quarry burst into flames, went into a vertical dive and broke in half. There had also been a very unpleasant surprise for some of the leading bomber crews as they returned to their bases in France. Just as they thought they had reached safety, they were attacked by several RAF fighters that had been waiting for them over the bases. Three of the bombers were shot down and their wreckage scattered over the French countryside. Four enemy planes, presumably those which came down on land in the North- East, were identified as Junkers 88s; two from IV/KG3 and two from IV/KG30. (The “IV” indicates the aircraft were from Reserve Training Units.)
Over at Winlaton Mill, the new Winlaton Mill built on the hillside in the 30’s to replace the old village down the lane next to the Golden Lion, the villagers waited in their shelters. They had seen the flares, they had heard the incendiaries, the anti-aircraft guns, the shrapnel from their shells showering the village and they had felt the high-explosive bombs in the neighbouring villages. Everyone wondered what would be next. A few stepped out of the shelters when everything seemed quiet to gaze around, and what a sight – the little village was almost surrounded by fires. Whistles above grew steadily louder and suddenly a terrific gust of wind swept across the village. Window panes shattered, people were thrown to the ground and even a piece of an Anderson shelter was blown off.
Six bombs had exploded to the north and west of the village, and there was also a bomb, a huge bomb, which hadn’t exploded. It had buried itself underneath two houses: numbers 50 and 52 June Avenue. Soon the wardens, directed by Head Warden Thomas Anderson, were hurriedly evacuating the nearby streets and roping them off. Many people would spend the rest of the night, what little was left of it, with friends and relatives elsewhere in the village.
Another message reached Blaydon:- “Warden Post B5, Winlaton Mill. 6 HE, 1 UXB under dwellings, IBs. Damage”. But things were quieter now at the Report Centre and the “1 hour” routine report was sent off to Lanchester at 4 a.m., twenty-five minutes late. Five minutes later a message arrived from the telephone exchange:- “Air Raid Message – White”. A wall switch was turned and from the siren high above came a long continuous drone; it was the “All-Clear” – commonly known as “Raiders Passed”.
The monotonous tune spread across the area as the message was repeated to other siren control points. When it reached Norman Road in Rowlands Gill, “Moaning Minnie” told the weary villagers that it was safe to return to their homes. The alert had only lasted 1 hour 32 minutes, quite a short raid – the village record was 7 hours 43 minutes on the night of March 13/14 1941- but for the first and, as it turned out, the only time, the village had known what it was like to be under attack from the air. How on earth had those poor souls in London survived when they had this night after night for weeks on end.
Moonlight still lit the valley when the “All Clear” sounded and in the affected areas many paused to take in the scenes around them. Missing roofs, burnt hedges, cracked paths and pavements, windows shattered, still-smouldering incendiaries on the streets and in the fields. Many souvenirs – mainly shrapnel and tail fins from incendiaries- were quickly collected before officialdom spotted them. It is to be hoped that nobody repeated the antics of a Crawcrook lad who picked up a live incendiary after a 1941 raid and took it to school next day. Never has a school been evacuated so quickly!
There were more messages from Warden Posts. From Post A7 – 1 HE had blown the roof off a garage at Stella Hall; from Post A2 – 1, possibly 2, unexploded bombs beside a factory at Blaydon Haughs; and from Post B3 – 35 houses at Blaydon Burn with roof and window damage, apparently caused by high-explosive bombs on Burn Hills in the Ryton Urban District Council’s area.
The official Civil Defence stand-down was received at Blaydon at 4.27 a.m., and the extra personnel at the Report Centre and the various outposts were released from duty. Many were still occupied, of course, and would remain hard at work for hours – the staff at the First Aid Post, the Wardens and Specials in the bombed areas, and the Firemen, still had much to do.
For the Surveyor, the work was just starting. He had to go around the whole District assessing damage, deciding which buildings would have to be demolished, which would be uninhabitable for some time but could be repaired, and which could be re-occupied quickly after emergency repairs. He then had to liaise with the Housing Department to rehouse the homeless. Later in the morning he would meet with teams of building workers and assign them to their tasks. Roofs were a priority – missing slates and tiles would be replaced immediately and more seriously damaged roofs would be temporarily covered with tarpaulins. Eventually all that could be repaired would be – at no cost to the householder.
More immediate statistics – casualties, damage, UXBs and so on- were passed from Blaydon to County Sub-Control at Lanchester, from Lanchester to County Control at Durham, and from Durham to the Regional War Room at Jesmond. Reports from other Districts were also reaching Jesmond: 3 fatal casualties at North Walbottle; 2 fatal casualties at Roker; 6 at Longbenton and, from Wallsend, – rescue work proceeding, 5 confirmed fatalities. There had also been incidents in Ryton and Whickham U.D.s, and at Beamish, Carrville, Scotswood, Jarrow, Hebburn, Finchale Priory, High Knitsley and at Blackwell near Darlington.
Ryton Urban District reported 3 high-explosive bombs on Burn Hills, between Winlaton and Greenside. There had been no casualties but there was extensive damage to plant at Burn Hills Sand and Gravel Quarry.
A bomb was believed to have fallen in the River Tyne about 50 yards from the Hawthorn Leslie Shipyards at Hebburn and apparently it had not exploded.
Beamish, the home of Deputy Regional Commissioner Jack Lawson M.P., had been shaken when, at 2.55 a.m., a high-explosive bomb fell close to the village causing slight damage to a few houses. Very shortly afterwards a large UXB was discovered on the embankment of the colliery railway line beside a wooden footbridge and dangerously close to several shops and houses. This was the second bomb incident in the little village; in the first, some time ago, a single oil bomb, a large incendiary, had landed in the woods, but the only casualty had been a dog – Jack Lawson’s dog. The locals concluded that their village had been singled out for attention because it was sandwiched between two railway tracks, the colliery line and the L.N.E.R. line, and might look like a large factory from the air. This second onslaught only confirmed that view.
At 2.59 a.m. a number of explosive incendiaries fell on Jarrow setting fire to a hut beside Jarrow Tube Works and slightly injuring a woman. One caused a short-circuit on overhead electricity cables at a pylon about 500 yards north-west of Boldon Railway Station. This type of incendiary bomb, an “I.B.E.N.”, had a small explosive charge in its nose which would explode up to seven minutes after the bomb ignited. It was designed to kill anyone attempting to extinguish it. [This seems to have been the first time such bombs had been used against this country. A.R.P. personnel were not warned about them until 11th August 1942 in Ministry of Home Security Circular H.S.C. 159/42.]
Three high-explosive bombs fell at 3.10 a.m. in the Grange Colliery Yard at Carrville. The Colliery Offices were demolished and some nearby houses were slightly damaged. No casualties were reported.
Four high-explosive bombs fell in the vicinity of Finchale Priory at 3.10 a.m.; two on the north side of the River Wear and two on the south side. One was a U.X.B. Only slight damage was caused and there were no casualties. Some Boy Scouts camping near the Priory were fortunate to have escaped injury; the blast had blown the camouflage netting from their tents. [One of the Scouts, Raymond Selkirk, now a noted local author, historian and aerial photgrapher, recalls that there was actually a fifth bomb which must have escaped official notice. It was in the river itself and had blasted stones from the river bed in a symmetrical pattern on both banks.]
Whickham Council reported incidents over quite a wide area. Incendiary bombs had fallen on Marley Hill Colliery without causing any damage. At 3.15 a.m. a small high-explosive bomb dropped beside the River Derwent at Lady Haugh Field, Gibside, but there were no problems there either. Then there were numerous incendiaries over Whickham Fell and Fellside from just west of Metal Bank, Sunniside, right down to the River Derwent. Ten HE bombs had later fallen over the same area. Most had fallen on open ground, but Old Axwell Farm, near the Clock Burn, had suffered badly. Farm buildings were damaged, a haystack was set on fire and two beasts (beef cattle) were killed. There was also damage to an overhead electricity cable which had recently been erected and was not yet in use.
At 3.50 a.m. four high-explosive bombs exploded in a field at High Knitsley, Consett. No damage was reported.
Another four high-explosive bombs had fallen on Blackwell, south of Darlington. They fell at 3.52 a.m. near the junction of Blackwell Village Road and Blackwell Lane causing minor injuries to two people. Several houses were also damaged.
At North Walbottle a bomb had virtually demolished numbers 12 and 13 Coley Hill Terrace and had killed 54 year old William Musgrove and severely injured his daughter Dora Irene, aged 20, and their neighbour, 67 year old Margaret Allen. Both died later in the day in hospital. They had been so unlucky; in a tiny village surrounded by fields, one bomb had found its fateful mark and had deprived poor Albert Allen of his wife and poor Mabel Musgrove of her husband and daughter.
The Roker incident happened when a bomber dived to attack a train on the branch line which joined the main Newcastle to Sunderland line at Seaburn Station. Machine-gun fire and bombs rained down, they did little damage to the train but one bomb landed close to an air-raid shelter in the garden of 26 Mayswood Road. Inside the shelter were a family who came originally from Dunston – John and Edith Swaddle, both aged 48, and their 19 year old son, Leonard. The couple were killed outright, but their son, although trapped for a while, was relatively unhurt.
It was a similar story at Longbenton; a single bomb scored an almost direct hit on an air-raid shelter in Hiddlestone Avenue. One lady in the shelter, Mrs Lilian McGraw, was seriously injured, the other occupants were killed. They were Nora Rheuhema Greaves aged 25, Gertrude Walker aged 34, Olive Eleanor Parmley aged 61, Mary Anderson Parmley aged 54, Eveline Garrod aged 49 and her son, 19 year old Frederick Charles.
Holly Avenue in Wallsend stretched for nearly half a mile beside the main railway line to the coast. It consisted entirely of terraced flats divided occasionally into blocks by intersecting streets. In the easternmost block, the first downstairs flat had its front door around the corner, so its address was 43 Willow Grove. James Anderson, a 64 year old retired labourer, lived there with his wife, Annie Elizabeth aged 64, and five of his children: Dennis aged 28, Marian aged 26, Andrew aged 24 who was home on leave from the army, Ernest aged 22, and Elsie aged 19. On that night Ernest was on night shift. Further along the block, in the downstairs flat 159 Holly Avenue, James’ son, Stanley, a 36 year old foreman moulder, lived with his 35 year old wife, Elizabeth Ann, and two of his children, 11 year old Stanley and 3 year old Ann. Their other two children, Doris and Ronald, had been evacuated to Haughton Castle. Stanley too had been evacuated, but was sent home because he wet the bed! Next door, the upstairs flat 157 Holly Avenue, was the home of Doris and Samuel Lee and their 18 month old twins Nicholas and William Alexander. Samuel was away serving with The Black Watch and, on that night, a relation, 22 year old Margaret Elliott from number 151, the wife of Robert Hilton Elliott, happened to be there. In 156 Holly Avenue, Arthur Dempster aged 30 had a visitor; his sister, 34 year old Margaret Gallantry Duffy, from Stanley.
When the sirens sounded, Stanley Anderson went on duty with the Home Guard, but the rest of these people stayed in their homes instead of seeking safety in the communal surface shelter built against the railway embankment opposite. A fatal error, but the Andersons, at least, had a reason; three of their relations, Smith Anderson and his sons, Harold and Kenneth, had been killed in a shelter along in Bede Crescent, Willington Quay during the raid on September 1st, 1941.
As the planes came nearer and the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns went into action, James Anderson and his son, Dennis, went outside to look at the sights. Stanley Anderson popped into the shelter to see if his family were there and, when he found they weren’t, he dashed into number 159 to get them. Just then, a bomber dived to attack the Wallsend Shipyard, just over the railway track, and one of the bombs landed right on Stanley’s home. It demolished the whole block. The people in the shelter were badly shaken but otherwise unhurt.
Neighbours rushed to try to help the victims but the wardens stopped them; the remaining walls were in a dangerous condition and there was gas escaping. They had to wait for the Rescue Squad. Eventually everyone was accounted for but Margaret Elliott, the Lee twins, Arthur Dempster, Margaret Duffy and six of the Andersons – James, Annie, Elsie, Stanley, Elizabeth and young Stanley- were dead. Doris Lee and the other Andersons were released from the rubble alive but they were all injured, most of them badly. The injured were taken to the First Aid Post, in a hut near the Drill Hall on Coach Road, before being sent to hospital. Andrew Anderson had been trapped by his legs for three and a half hours and would have to spend nine weeks in Shotley Bridge Military Hospital. Marian Anderson never recovered from the shock and was to spend years in Northgate Hospital at Morpeth.
It is hard to imagine the nightmare faced by James Anderson of 35 Edwin Grove, Willington Quay. He was brought to identify the bodies of six members of his family including his parents and his brother and sister. And poor Doris Lee, her husband miles away in the forces, and her twin babies dead – she would never get over it.
Local opinion dismissed the obvious reason for the bomb hitting Holly Avenue – a bomb aimed at the shipyards. Instead they blamed a smoke generator which had overturned and burst into flames just yards from the end block of Holly Avenue immediately before the attack. These smoke generators used a mixture of fuel oil and water and were spaced at about 30 feet intervals along Holly Avenue, and indeed along major stretches of both banks of the River Tyne. They were lit during raids when the wind was in the appropriate direction to produce a smokescreen which would obscure the river and the industry along its banks.
At 9.30 a.m. a Bomb Disposal Squad was approaching Beamish to tackle the time bomb on the railway embankment. The area around the bomb was roped off and the Post Office and other nearby shops and houses were empty. As they approached Moorhouse Crossing, the Squad were somewhat irritated to find the gates closed to allow a train to pass. They had a lot to do that day; and why is that train running with a bomb on the embankment? Just as the gates opened, there was a terrific bang along in the village – the bomb had exploded. The Squad had had a lucky escape; they reckoned that if they had not been held up at the crossing, they would have reached the bomb just as it went off.
There was further damage to the houses already damaged by the first bomb, a water-main was fractured and the foot-bridge and railway track were wrecked, but nobody was hurt. With the danger gone, the villagers made their way back to their homes and businesses to pick up the pieces and try to get back to normal. They could not possibly even guess at the tragedy which was soon to strike their little community.
A Bomb Disposal Squad also tackled the bomb at Winlaton Mill. It was right under the foundations of two houses and a huge hole was dug in the gardens in an attempt to reach the bomb. But, time after time, as they dug sideways under the house, the bomb simply sank deeper into the earth. Time bombs had clockwork “No. 17” fuse mechanisms which could be set to go off anywhere between 90 minutes and 72 hours after dropping, so the men working to recover the bomb knew very well that they could be blown to pieces at any time. While they worked, as if to emphasise their danger, they heard a dull rumble which echoed across the valley. The time bomb at Blaydon Haughs had exploded at 10.05 a.m. badly damaging an I.C.I. factory and a few houses. [This is what eyewitnesses stated, but official accounts only mention damage to a railway fence! Was the Censor at work again?]
Eventually the bomb settled on to harder material under the houses and the Squad were able to get a rope around it and haul it to the surface where it was made safe. Before being taken away it was briefly put on display at the end of the street. Villagers gasped when they saw its size; it was a 1000 pound bomb and was nearly 7 feet long and 1 foot 6 inches in diameter! What would have been left if that had gone off?
There was a rather humorous footnote to the Winlaton Mill saga. Private George Thompson from June Avenue, Winlaton Mill was stationed at Otterburn Army Camp about 30 miles away from his home. It was the last place he wanted to be because his young wife, Anne, was expecting their first child in July. When he heard, through the military grapevine, about flares and bombs at “Winlaton something near Newcastle” he jumped into a lorry and drove home to see if his wife was safe. When he stopped beside his home an officer caught up with him and told him he could have 15 minutes with his wife and then 2 weeks locked up in Fenham Barracks. No doubt he thought it was worthwhile.
In Blaydon, the Surveyor had his information: 1 building, the Green Tree Inn, was irreparable; 17 buildings (13 of them houses) were unusable but could be repaired; 47 buildings (43 houses) were seriously damaged but, with first-aid repairs, could still be occupied and an incredible 654 buildings (603 houses) had slight damage – and that did not include those with window damage only. The 31 high explosive bombs which landed in the Council’s District had damaged no less than 718 buildings and made over 150 people temporarily homeless! But, with only one death, things could have been very much worse.
The building teams had been sent early in the morning to the more seriously affected areas. The clearing up at Lockhaugh was proceeding well. The UXB had been taken away by the army. Builders from Heales of Gateshead were busy replacing slates on the Low Thornley farmhouse roof. The horse was being buried. Wardens and Council workmen cleared the burnt-out incendiaries from the roads, footpaths and gardens. Householders nailed wood or cardboard over missing window panes. But it had all been too much for full-time A.R.P. Warden, Ellen Chapman. She had already sent her resignation off to Blaydon.
At Barlow, the unexploded bomb was easily recovered from a small crater in the middle of a field and dealt with. Workmen were pulling down what was left of the Green Tree Inn and attending to the many other repairs. But Hannah Maughan’s life could not be so easily repaired. Not so long ago she had been Sarah Hannah Evans, bus conductress with Hursts of Winlaton, then she was Hannah Maughan, a pitman’s wife, now she was Hannah Maughan, widow.
John Cheeseman, aged 67, of 1 Lesbury Terrace, Chopwell, had worked for about two years at Benson’s Brickyard on the riverside at Scotswood – just across the Tyne from Blaydon Haughs. He had volunteered to work there, despite his age, because of the serious labour shortage. His had been a varied career: a Taxman at Whickham during the Great War, a Rating Valuation Officer for Blaydon Council then a builder who was responsible for putting up several streets in Chopwell including Elizabeth Street, William Street and Joseph Terrace.
His previous shift at the brickyard had finished before the air- raid and he wasn’t due back at work until that evening, but he decided to go to the yard in the afternoon to see if there had been any damage during the raid. As he was standing in the brickyard talking to a Mr Winskill, an unsuspected time-bomb exploded close by. It had apparently been buried in the soft earth of the river bank. The two men disappeared in a cloud of mud, soil and brick chippings.
Workmen quickly uncovered Winskill alive from the rubble, but they did not look for anyone else – no one knew that John Cheesemen had been there. Fortunately a policeman hurried into the yard and told the men that he had seen two people hurled high into the air by the blast, and they managed to dig Mr Cheeseman out before he suffocated. He was seriously injured and was taken to the General Hospital where he needed 26 stitches in a head wound. He also had many cuts and bruises caused by flying chippings. He was only in hospital about a week but he never recovered; a fit and active man had become an old old man capable of little more than sitting in his armchair.
Coincidentally, John Cheeseman’s daughter, Maud Ridley, lived at Pawston Birks Farm, Barlow, and his wife, Mary, and his other daughter, Dorothy, were there checking that Maud had not been hurt, when news of the tragedy arrived by telegram.
No attempt had been made to tackle the suspected unexploded bomb in the Tyne near the Hawthorn Leslie Shipyard, but boats were kept away from the area. The bomb exploded at 4.15 p.m. without causing any damage whatsoever.
The village of Beamish had become something of a tourist attraction. Theirs was the first real bomb anywhere in the area. All day folks were turning up by bus from Stanley, from Pelton and from Chester-le-Street just to see the bomb damage. At 9.05 p.m. a few folks stood at the bus stop waiting for a bus to Stanley. Children played in the street. Special Constable, P.C. 7566, Sam Edgell was patrolling nearby. Suddenly an explosion ripped across the road towards the bus stop. Trees were blown down and stones, glass and people were hurled through the air. Villagers rushed to the area not understanding what had happened, but a cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, temporarily hiding the horrendous scene. When it cleared, they could not believe what they saw. Twisted bodies lay all around and the injured lay among them, too stunned even to cry out.
Jack Edgell, who had been helping his wife shake a carpet outside their home in Woodside when the blast occurred, ran to the scene. He had passed there minutes earlier and knew his father, Samuel Edgell, was in that area. Sure enough, the first casualty he came across was his father; he was unconscious and badly hurt but still alive. Jack noticed that his father had no boots on – he had been blown out of his boots.
Women sobbed openly and tears ran down the faces of burly miners as they found two tiny bodies. One they all recognised was 9 year old Clive Graham Lawson from 7 Woodside, the adopted son of their friends, M.P. Jack Lawson, and Councillor Isabella Lawson. The other was a little girl who they later found out was 8 year old Irene Seymour from 8 School Terrace, South Moor. She had been sightseeing with her grandmother, 77 year old Matilda Seymour, who was found nearby very badly hurt. 17 year old Gwendoline Hannant from 24 Delacour Street, West Stanley, was also dead and another child, 10 year old Sylvia Spence of 40 South View, Craghead, was found severely injured. Sylvia’s mother, 45 year old Elizabeth Ann Rebecca Spence, was nearby and she too had terrible injuries.
The casualties were checked one by one; Mrs Palmer had a broken shoulder. Audrey Lumley, Dodie Dobson, Alec Walker, Mrs Barker from Stanley and many many others were hurt. A search of the buildings uncovered the body of 61 year old Special Constable, Bob Reay, a 61 year old widower of Urpeth Hill Top. He had been helping to repair damage in one of the shops. The dead and badly injured were carried to Pit Hill Farm, the less seriously hurt were given first aid on the spot. Soon help was arriving from West Pelton and Stanley.
Everyone was asking the same question. What had happened? Gradually they realised that there had been a second time bomb in Smith’s shop opposite the bus stop. They had seen a hole in the roof but everyone assumed it had been caused by blast from the first bomb in the morning. George Anderson, who lived above the shop, said that when he was able to get back into his home that morning he had felt in a cupboard for his slippers but had not found them – there was no floor in the cupboard. It would seem that the bomb had gone through the roof, down through an upstairs cupboard and into a cupboard in the shop below. There it had been hidden all day. As people cleared up the damage from the morning bomb in the shops and houses and as visitors walked the pavements yards away, the clockwork timer was counting off the hours.
Mrs Spence and old Mrs Seymour died next day. By Monday the death toll had risen to eight with the deaths of Sylvia Spence and Sam Edgell, who passed away without ever regaining consciousness. In addition to the eight dead, the Beamish bomb had severely injured seven and caused less serious injuries to a further 28 people.
Reports of bombs falling away from the North East were being passed around in A.R.P. circles. Apparently some of the bombers had dropped their loads on the way back to France; perhaps they had “hang-ups” – jammed bomb release mechanisms- which were later rectified, or perhaps the bombers were chased away by fighters before reaching the target. Two places in East Anglia received high- explosive bombs, but they had caused little damage. In Hull, however, another family had been destroyed. The bodies of 42 year old Mary Humphrey and her 14 year old daughter, Audrey, were recovered from the ruins of their home. Mary’s husband, 44 year old Harold, and two older children, were seriously injured and taken to hospital. And finally, 15 hours after the raid, 8 year old Laurence Humphrey was found. He was conscious and the first thing he said to his rescuers was “Where’s mum?”. Sadly little Laurence died at the scene soon afterwards and his father died later in hospital.
At 10.30 on the Sunday morning, May 3rd, the Rowlands Gill Home Guard assembled beside the Mart at the end of The Crescent as usual. But, instead of their usual training session, they were sent to search Low Thornley Woods and the fields beside the main road just beyond Lockhaugh. They collected the remains of hundreds of incendiary bombs that littered the area. They found some duds that were still intact and even part of the container which held the bombs in the planes; it still had two incendiaries attached. But the main purpose of the search was to locate the second UXB which had been heard to land. They never found it – perhaps it is still there!
Over the next three days the tragic victims of that awful night were laid to rest. At 2 p.m. on Monday the six members of the Anderson family were buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Wallsend. At the same hour, at St Andrews Church in Newcastle, a service was being held for sisters-in-law Mary and Olive Parmley. On Tuesday services were held for little Clive Lawson – 2.15 West Pelton Chapel, for John and Edith Swaddle – 2.30 Mere Knolls Cemetery, for Nora Greaves – 2.30 at the Crematorium, for Margaret Elliott and the tiny Lee twins – 2.45 Holy Cross, and for William and Dora Musgrove – 4.00 at Whorlton. Arthur Maughan was buried at 4 p.m. too, after a service in St Paul’s Church which still bore the marks of that night. On Wednesday the heart-breaking rituals continued; for Bob Reay – 11.00 Woodside Chapel, Beamish, for Gwen Hannant – 1.30 at Stanley, for Eveline and Frederick Garrod – 2.00 Heaton Cemetery, for Samuel Edgell – 2.45 West Pelton Chapel, for Matilda and little Irene Seymour – 2.50 at East Stanley Chapel, for Elizabeth and Sylvia Spence – 3.00 Craghead, for Margaret Allen – 4.00 Whorlton, and for Margaret Duffy and Arthur Dempster – 4.30 at St Andrews, Stanley.
For all this misery what had the mighty Luftwaffe achieved? They had killed 36* people including old men, women and children – nine children. They had damaged hundreds of houses. But they had done absolutely nothing to further their cause, nothing at all. At least our fighters and gunners had ensured that they paid a high price. Out of the 37 bombers which took off that night, no less than ten, and perhaps twelve, were destroyed – nearly one third. It was the one of their worst nights in the whole of the war.
* The 36th, John Cheeseman, died at his Chopwell home on December 5th, 1944, more than two years after the raid.