Sunderland teenager died in 100ft plunge from plane

Silksworth Colliery in the 1930s - when James was growing up in the village.
Silksworth Colliery in the 1930s - when James was growing up in the village.
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A WEARSIDE teenager who died more than 1,500 miles from home during the Second World War is at the centre of an appeal for help.

Aircraftsman First-Class James Ridley was just 19 when he was killed in a tragic accident at Vaenga airfield, near Murmansk in Russia, on September 27, 1941.

Death of a hero: How the death of James Ridley was reported in the Echo in 1941.

Death of a hero: How the death of James Ridley was reported in the Echo in 1941.

The Silksworth man was laid to rest at Severomorsk Cemetery and now, more than 70 years after his death, plans are being drawn up for a memorial to all allied servicemen buried there.

“We have been contacted by one of the organisers, asking if we can help track down any relatives of James, so they can get involved in the project,” said Sandra Arkley, of Silksworth Heritage Group.

“Unfortunately, we have drawn a blank so far. Even though there are still Ridleys living in the Silksworth area, no one we’ve talked to so far remembers him. Hopefully an Echo reader can help.”

James, son of Hannah and James Ridley, was born in Silksworth in 1921. By the 1930s his family was living at 36 George Street and it is believed both James senior and junior were pitmen.

James deserves to be remembered for his sacrifice. At the very least the new memorial will help keep his memory alive.

Tragedy, however, stalked Mr and Mrs Ridley. Oldest son Thomas, who was born a year after their marriage in 1913, died aged just one. Another son, John, also died at the age of one in 1920.

Their daughter Dorothy died on July 26, 1932, aged three, and a third son - Norman - passed away on January 11, 1937 at the age of two years and 10 months. It is not known if any others survived.

“It is possible James was the only child to reach adulthood. What a tragedy, as he was then killed at just 19. It is hard to imagine the grief Mr and Mrs Ridley must have gone through,” said Sandra.

War was raging on land, sea and in the sky when James turned 18. As Hitler’s Luftwaffe repeatedly targeted Wearside’s mines and shipyards, so he volunteered to fight back by joining the RAF.

His fate was sealed, however, when Joseph Stalin called for help following Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. Winston Churchill’s response was to base fighter air squadrons at Murmansk.

More than 550 men of 151 Wing, together with 24 Hurricanes, made the long journey aboard RMS Union Castle as part of the Arctic Convoys - setting off on August 12 and arriving on September 1.

Over the next 10 days the planes were assembled, tested and ferried to Vaenga airfield. The first full day of operation, September 11, proved quiet, but the next saw three Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and one British casualty.

Just two other fatalities occurred during the squadron’s months in Russia - one of them being James. “It was a tragic, and awful, way to die,” said Sandra.

The day dawned with James - one of the ground-crew - helping Flight Lieutenant Berg, of No. 134 Squadron, ready his plane for patrol. Out of nowhere, an enemy Junkers Ju 88 appeared overhead.

Because of poor ground conditions, two ground-crew airmen were routinely required to lie over the rear fuselage and tailplane while aircraft taxied, to stop the plane nose diving into puddles or ruts.

But Berg, with one eye on the enemy plane, mistakenly believed James and his colleague had jumped clear as he took to the skies. He climbed to 100ft before the load on the tail caused his plane to stall.

“It fell to earth killing James and another ground-crew man, as well as seriously injuring the pilot,” said Sandra.

“Against the tally of three Allied deaths from the months the RAF spent in Russia can be set a confirmed tally of 15 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed, as well as several probables and damaged.”

Back home in Sunderland, news of James’s death was announced on the front page of the Echo on October 4, 1941 - as part of a Roll of Honour article featuring several brave servicemen.

“James deserves to be remembered for his sacrifice. At the very least the new memorial will help keep his memory alive,” said Sandra.

l Relatives of James can contact Sandra on 521 3293.