Today marks the 70th anniversary of the last – and deadliest – air raid to devastate Sunderland during the Second World War. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner takes a look.
DEATH stalked the skies, the land and the seas during 1943. No-one was safe.
The new year brought a renewed intensity in the bombing raids carried out by Hitler’s Luftwaffe – with eight explosives dropped on the South Docks on January 13.
Two months later, on March 14, the town was hit again. Dozens of bombs cut a swathe of devastation from Hylton Road to Humbledon Hill – killing 16 people.
One of the worst nights of the entire war came on Sunday, May 16, when 127 high-explosives and 1,300 incendiaries were dropped across the town, leaving 70 dead.
But it was the Luftwaffe’s last major North East air raid, on May 24, which brought the highest death toll – later becoming known as Hitler’s Last Swipe.
Eleven parachute mines, 67 high-explosives, nine fire-pots and 600 incendiaries fell on Sunderland during a 40-minute period just after 3am, causing terror.
More than 80 townsfolk lost their lives in the raid that day, including 17 friends and neighbours seeking safety at a public shelter in Lodge Terrace, Hendon.
Bill Walker, then a 14-year-old shipyard apprentice, walked away without a scratch when the building was bombed – but lost his best pal Alan Hutchinson in the tragedy.
“I was trying to get a little sleep in the shelter when the bomb dropped. I woke to find just the back wall behind my chair still standing,” he later recalled.
“I never heard the bomb, the whistle or the explosion. It had been a quarter-ton bomb, not just a little hand grenade, but it dropped onto soft earth, muffling the sound.
“Lodge Terrace was pulled down in the 1950s, but I’ve never forgotten that night. Sadly, if people had stayed at home instead of the shelter, most would have survived.”
Many of the other deaths of May 24 occurred when a parachute mine landed in St George’s Square. The blast killed 18 men, women and children and left six homes wrecked.
Robin Auld, then an ARP messenger, recalled: “There was a tremendous cacophony, with bombs and land mines exploding. We expected our end to come, but it didn’t. The dust was choking when I left the shelter and got to the side of a crater. In front was a young girl lying dead across the edge. A voice called out to fetch bandages.
“St George’s Square was rubble. There were piles of bricks, timber half houses with ragged wallpaper, bits of stairways, wisps of smoke and that awful acrid burnt smell.”
One of the first on the scene was ARP warden George Simpson, who witnessed such a tragic sight that day that it was to remain a vivid memory for the rest of his life. My father-in-law told me that, as he was going through the debris of a house, he came to a cupboard under the stairs,” Wilf Shillaw recalled in the Echo back in 2009.
“When he opened it he found a man and woman, standing straight and erect, with not a mark on them. They had both been killed. Playing at their feet was a little girl.
“That little girl sought George out when she got to about 21, and they became friends. When she married and had a baby, she even brought the child over to show him.” Despite the tragedy and devastation brought by the raid, however, the morale of Wearsiders was officially reported as “excellent” in the Echo the next day.
“Thankfully, these were to be the last bombs of the war to fall on Sunderland – although, of course, no-one knew that at the time,” said local historian Kevin Brady.
•Do you have a war story to share? Contact Sarah Stoner via email at: email@example.com.
How 1943 took its toll on Sunderland
•St Thomas’s Church was demolished in an air raid on March 14. The vicar of the church perished in the blast. The Empress Hotel was also reduced to rubble.
•A story similar to Saving Private Ryan played out after Adelaide Hutchinson lost two sons, Alan and Ronnie, when Lodge Terrace shelter was bombed on May 24. Adelaide’s oldest son, Joseph, was serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers and her fourth son, Billy, was due to be sent overseas – until neighbours petitioned MPs.
Billy was instead granted a home posting and, when 21-year-old Joseph died in action in Greece in 1945, was on hand to help Adelaide through her grief.
•A camp for prisoners of war – Harperley Hall in County Durham – opened in January 1943 for Italians captured in North Africa. Germans were later admitted.
•Flying Officer Noel Douglas Wilkinson, from Marsden, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry in flying operations over Germany in 1943.
In a night attack on Berlin, his aircraft was caught by searchlights immediately after releasing its bombs and then repeatedly attacked by a fighter.
With one engine out of action, and struggling on without the help of his blinded navigator, Noel flew the plane back to England and made a successful crash-landing.
•Wearside bomb disposal expert John Bridge won the George Cross in 1943 after helping to make 290 booby-traps safe at the Sicilian port of Messina.
•Southwick came under attack on March 22, when 240 incendiary bombs were dropped. High explosives also brought chaos to the East End in the same raid.
A bomb hit railway sidings at Prospect Row, damaging 150 houses and buildings – including St John’s Church and the Hartley Street Mission – and one person died.
•Royal Navy sailor George Peel, who was home on a 24-hour pass, was killed when a landmine hit Fulwell Crossing on May 16.
•Sunderland was one of the seven most heavily bombed towns in Britain during the Second World War, with 267 civilians killed and more than 1,000 wounded.