The Battle of Sunderland – remembering North East’s Black Thursday as Battle of Britain raged in our skies

The Hurricane flown by 607 Squadron ace Francis Blackadder pictured at Usworth after the 'Battle of Sunderland' on August 15, 1940.
The Hurricane flown by 607 Squadron ace Francis Blackadder pictured at Usworth after the 'Battle of Sunderland' on August 15, 1940.
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This month marks the 75th anniversary of probably the most significant day in the Battle of Britain for the North East – when the conflict was fought in the skies over Sunderland.

Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped dozens of bombs along the coast in an attempt to saturate British defences on August 15, 1940, with scores of men, women and children killed or injured.

The people of Fulwell try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after a wartime bombing.

The people of Fulwell try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after a wartime bombing.

But the raiders were beaten back after suffering heavy casualties during fierce battles with the RAF – including Usworth’s 607 Squadron. A Luftwaffe flank attack was never attempted again.

“It was the largest raid on the North East by the Luftwaffe, and became known as Black Thursday by the Germans,” said John Stelling, of the North East Land Sea and Air Museum, at Usworth.

“The Luftwaffe hierarchy believed all the RAF fighters were committed to the Battle of Britain on the south coast but, unknown to them, there were several squadrons stationed elsewhere – like 607.

“Banking on tactical surprise, the Luftwaffe launched two simultaneous thrusts into the North and North East. They expected little opposition, and their reception came as a painful surprise.”

It was the largest raid on the North East by the Luftwaffe, and became known as Black Thursday by the Germans.

John Stelling, of the North East Land Sea and Air Museum at Usworth.

The first evidence of a possible raid was picked up by radar just after midday on August 15, when a formation of 20-plus enemy aircraft was spotted some 90 miles from the Firth of Forth.

RAF squadrons across the North East were immediately placed in attack positions, with 72 Squadron Spitfires at the Farne Islands, 605 based over Tynemouth and 607 patrolling Sunderland.

“No. 72 Squadron was first to make contact; one section attacking the fighters, and the rest the bombers. Some enemy planes jettisoned their bombs and headed back to Norway,” said John.

Many of the raiders, however, escaped attack to fly south to Sunderland – where 607 and 41 squadrons were waiting for them. A fierce tussle for supremacy of the skies saw the Germans retreat.

Squadron Leader Ronald Gustave Kellett DFC, DSO, Polish VM.

Squadron Leader Ronald Gustave Kellett DFC, DSO, Polish VM.

“Of a German force of about 100, eight bombers and several fighters were destroyed, and several more damaged without British loss. The airfield target of Usworth went unscathed,” said John.

“Several Allied planes suffered damage in the raid too, such as a Hurricane which crash-landed near Usworth. But, for the most part, the damage was repairable and the injuries treatable.”

However, the damage caused by the Luftwaffe attack to civilians was far more severe – with bombs dropped on Tynemouth, Sunderland, Durham, Easington Colliery, Thornley and Dawdon among others.

Twelve people were killed at Dawdon, four at Sunderland, one at Barnard Castle and one at Bishop Auckland. Scores more were injured, and dozens of houses damaged.

Incidents included:

•Seven people injured at Cleadon after 48 high explosives and 20 incendiary bombs dropped, A bull was killed at Moor Farm and 25 houses were slightly damaged.

•Four people died and three were seriously injured after bombs dropped at Newcastle Road, Denbigh Avenue, Sea Road and Tyzack’s Yard at Sunderland.

•Bombs dropped at Dawdon killed 12 people and left 119 homeless. Five houses were demolished, while Dawdon Church, vicarage and 230 houses were damaged.

•One person died while out horse riding at Hawthorn during the raid, and a further 12 were killed when bombs fell on the pit sidings at Easington Colliery.

The final death tally could, however, have been much worse had it not been for the actions of the RAF in pushing back the raiders.

“It was the first, and only, major daylight raid during the Blitz,” said John.

•Biddick Hall flying ace Ronald “Boozy” Kellett attained near-legendary status during the Battle of Britain, after shooting down at least five enemy aircraft.

The Squadron Leader commanded the Polish airmen of 303 Squadron during the battle – the highest scoring fighter squadron with 113 kills and many “probables”.

Later he formed a night-fighter unit and became a fighter training instructor. He was awarded a DFC and DSO, as well as the Polish medal for valour.

Following his demob in 1945 he became a partner in a stockbroking firm.