Sunderland man’s memories of wartime bomb blast

Sheila Smith on her wedding day, pictured with her father.
Sheila Smith on her wedding day, pictured with her father.

A Sunderland brother and sister - who lived through the Second World War - have had their stories re-told.

Mike Curtis, from Loughborough, is sharing family tales with the Echo.

Frank Smith.

Frank Smith.

People can find out more in his book Deadlines, and at www.deadlines101.com.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt all about the childhood memories of his mum Sheila and her brother Frank.

Sheila Smith was nine when she first heard the wail of the air raid siren.

As the threat of German bombs intensified, Sheila and Frank Smith were evacuated from their home in Hastings Street to the Yorkshire Dales.

One evening I heard a German plane and then there was an enormous flash which blew me backwards. A whole street was devastated. There was a horrible smell of smoke and dust. There were gas leaks

Frank Smith

It was quite a change. There were many days in the Dales without school because the snow was so deep. And the ice on Semerwater was so thick that the Army could drive a 15 hundred weight truck on it, sometimes towing youngsters on their skates.

But it was a better option than the alternative. One of Sheila’s school friends was sent to Canada on the SS City of Benares in Liverpool in September 1940 - 77 evacuees died when the Benares was torpedoed by a U-boat.

Frank loved his time as an evacuee and said most of the locals “were marvellous. Both my sister and I stayed in contact with the people we lived with until they died.”

In 1940, Frank reached school leaving age and returned to Sunderland - to the serious bombing which had started around the shipbuilding yards.

Hendon docks.

Hendon docks.

Frank joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, first as a messenger, then as a junior fireman and despatch rider.

In Mike’s book, he said: “One evening I heard a German plane and then there was an enormous flash which blew me backwards. A whole street was devastated. There was a horrible smell of smoke and dust. There were gas leaks.

“I could hear people crying and shouting. I tried to lift a large piece of wood to help an old woman who was trapped. I swore at a chap who was trying to help because I thought he was making matters worse. I then realised I had sworn at my father, who served as a medic in the trenches of the Great War. He was in charge of the First Aid party.”

On the same street, he saw a badly injured woman and said: “I turned away and I was sick and crying and shaking. An old copper came and put his arm round me and said ‘Steady on, lad. Go and take a walk along the road.’

“That was me finished for the day. I wandered around in a daze. It really was horrific and haunts me forever.”

He remembered Binns in Fawcett Street being hit and set on fire.

He said they pumped water out of the Wear but the fire raged all night.

Fires lit up the shipyards and the town night after night.

Some bombs plopped harmlessly into the river. A corrugated tin roof at Hendon Dock took three days to burn out. It was red hot and the water bounced off it with an angry hissing sound. A warehouse full of butter and sugar was hit one night and the burning combination poured into the gutters.

“I was terrified at times,” said Frank. “I was also elated to be involved. There was no time to think about it. I hated the Germans for what they had done to my life and my town but I could not personalise it to the man in the plane.”`

For the next three years, Frank worked with the fire service - exciting at times, riding on the fire engines, ringing the bells as they rushed through the streets.

He won a scholarship to Sunderland Technical College to study marine engineering and an apprenticeship at ship builders, John Dickinson and Son.

He was also in the local Army Training Corps and reported for training every Wednesday afternoon and on Saturdays to be shouted at by a Sergeant in his father`s old regiment, the Durham Light Infantry.

Frank had no memories of VE Day in May 1945 other than he went for a bike ride in the country.

He qualified as a junior draftsman in 1946 and got a new job at the Aberdeen shipbuilders of Hall, Russell and Company.

Before he could take it up, he was called up for national service to work as an RAF driver.

Sheila died in 2003 and Frank in 2013.

But their memories will live on thanks to Mike’s book.

Find out more at www.deadlines101.com.