DEATH rained down from the skies as Hitler unleashed a new weapon of mass destruction on Wearside 70 years ago.
Firepot bombs – filled with highly flammable phosphorous – set fire to everything in their paths. Shops, homes and people would all fall victim to the devices on October 11, 1942.
“By the light of the flames, rescue parties worked like Trojans to release men, women and children trapped in the wreckage of their homes,” reported the Echo the next day.
It was not, however, the Firepots which caused the worst chaos. Indeed, many failed to ignite. Instead, it was an old-school 1,000-kilo High Explosive which wrought carnage.The bomb fell in the middle of Corporation Road, about 50 yards south of Villette Road, leaving a crater 36ft across. Seven people died in the explosion, with 21 seriously injured.
“A 16-year-old girl called Joan Doyle was one of the casualties. She was killed at a bus stop outside Hendon Valley School,” said Echo photographer and war historian Kevin Brady.
“The school, where Joan had been a pupil, was wrecked in the bombing. The junior school log book entry for that day comprises just five words: ‘School destroyed by enemy action.’”
Hundreds of homes surrounding the school were wrecked by the blast too, with many residents left trapped under debris. “Women and children were the chief victims,” the Echo stated.
Senior Company Officer Leslie Allinson was among the first on the scene and, as he searched the wreckage for survivors, a faint cry for help came from beneath a pile of rubble.
“We got to work by the light of the flames,” said Officer Allinson. “The heat from the blaze was terrific, and we were almost scorching as we worked. Firemen played a hose on us.”
Slowly, carefully, the rescuers dug through the debris. Eventually, they reached “an old man who was lying in the wreckage of his bed”. He was still alive, and still shouting.
“He had been saved from serious injury by a roof joist, which had caught on a dressing table and was lying above him, holding up a huge mass of debris,” recalled Officer Allinson.
“We got him away to the first aid post. There was a terrific noise going on at the time. It sounded as if bombs were crashing all around, but it must have been the barrage.”
Several other lucky escapes were also reported, including that of Mrs Weir, her husband and daughter, Mrs Mason – who cheated death by inches when the blast wrecked their home.
“We were wondering whether to go to the shelter in the yard when we heard a plane overhead and made a dash for it. We just got in when there was a terrific crash,” said Mrs Weir.
“We heard the roof of the house being smashed in. Great lumps of stone crashed around us, but we escaped without a scratch.”
Another lucky chap was Hendon man Fred Blackburn, who was on his way home when he heard the bomb drop. “I could not get along the front street for the flames,” he told the Echo.
“I found the house all smashed in, but my wife and daughter were in the shelter unhurt. My son, Fred, was trapped in a doorway, but managed to free himself.”
Among the luckiest of all, however, must have been Sarah Lister and her daughter, Mrs Elliott, who had been fire-watching at the Christian Spiritualist Church during the air raid.
The montage featured on this page, created by Kevin, shows just how badly the building was damaged. Indeed, all that was left intact was a banner, which waved from a wrecked gable.
“Things got pretty hot and we went downstairs and stood in the doorway. We heard a bomb coming down and then the blast blew us backwards up the stairs,” Sarah later recalled.
The pensioner, whose husband was injured when the blast ripped through their home as well, added: “The whole church is wrecked – except the staircase on which we were standing.”
Not so lucky was 12-year-old Gwendoline Miller. Although she managed to escape the debris of her home “covered in blood,” her younger brother, Ernie, perished in the raid.
Cinema manager James Beattie was among the many listed as injured, as was tramcar driver Mr A. Powell – who was hit by flying glass when his vehicle was caught in the blast.
“The Echo carried several photos of damage suffered during the raid, as well as a poignant one of a little dog called Flash, who was owned by Mr Beattie and his wife,” said Kevin.
“The Beatties’ home was demolished in the blast, and both were injured. But Flash refused to leave the scene, and lay on a pillow on top of the wreckage.
“In another house a canary was still singing in its cage the next day, while in the yard of a third, two rabbits – their hutches perched on top of rubble – nibbled cabbage leaves.”
l Do you have war memories you would like to share? Contact Sarah Stoner via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.