Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner today marks the 70th anniversary of VE Day.
THE bombings and bloodshed of World War Two were temporarily forgotten across Wearside on May 8, 1945 - when Germany signed the act of military surrender in Berlin.
Thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate VE Day, marking the beginning of a new era with band concerts, bonfires, parties, fireworks and even dancing in the park.
“It was my piano to which the crowds danced on VE night in Mowbray Park,” Jean Wake later recalled. “I lived at Frederick Street and my husband and his mates pushed it there.
“After a glorious night of dancing and singing, the piano was pushed back, more slowly than it went down to the park, and was carried back upstairs. It was a marvellous night.”
Wearsiders were war-weary and battle-scarred by May 1945. Six long years of conflict had claimed the lives of hundreds of Sunderland folk both at home and abroad.
Indeed, it was a war when civilians on the street were as much on the front line as those in the RAF, Army, Royal and merchant navies. No-one had been safe from Hitler’s wrath.
“With its many thriving shipyards, engineering works and collieries, Sunderland was a prime target of the Luftwaffe from day one of the war,” said local historian Carol Roberton.
“This was the People’s War. More than any other conflict, it drew on faith in success against the odds, the fortitude amid deprivation and the everyday courage of ordinary people.
“As the bombs rained down on Sunderland, bringing tragedy and destruction, so the people carried on regardless - producing the ships, engines and coal so vital to fight the war.”
The early months of war saw 10,000 children evacuated from Sunderland, but it wasn’t until June 21, 1940, that the first bombs fell near Wearside - demolishing a barn in Whitburn.
Within months, however, “swathes of devastation” had been cut through Sunderland and along the North East coast - with the shipyards targeted by bombers in August 1940.
“I saw two bombs drop through the clouds, followed by explosions as they fell on Laing’s shipyard. Others landed around Monkwearmouth Station,” John Lingwood later recalled.
“We were heartened to hear “first hand” from my older brother, who worked on the South Docks, that he had actually seen this plane shot down off Whitburn.” Bombing brought death and destruction throughout 1940, with four people killed in a brief, but devastating, daylight raid over Fulwell on August 15.
And, on September 5, a German bomber crash-landed in Suffolk Street, after being shot down over Hendon. All four airmen perished in the crash, as did resident Rachel Stormont.
Losses mounted, and scores of families were torn apart, as bombs continued to rain down on Sunderland in 1941 - with Hitler’s Luftwaffe targeting factories, shipyards and collieries.
The Victoria Hall, both Binns stores and the Winter Gardens were all reduced to rubble, while raids over Hendon, Tunstall Vale, Southwick and Millfield left dozens dead or hurt.
Young Larry Smith’s life was turned upside down on November 7, 1941, when bombs dropped around the family home in White House Cottages - trapping him under rubble.
“I remember coming to and being trapped. I couldn’t see, as my eyes were full of brick dust, and I couldn’t open my mouth because of dust - which also made it hard to breathe,” he said.
Miraculously, rescuers managed to pull him uninjured from the wreckage - but Larry lost his eight-year-old brother Edwin, sister Madeline, 18, and his mother in the raid.
“I have such vivid memories of the night of the bombing. It changed our family forever and it is a time I will never, ever forget,” he later told the Echo.
The year 1942 brought Wearsiders welcome periods of relief from air raids - including one four-month spell of peaceful nights. But, when bombs did drop, they were often fatal.
Two people were killed in an air raid shelter in Fulwell in April 1942, while three died when Ryhope was bombed in August. Another two were killed in the Seaham area in September.
One month later, on October 11, seven Wearsiders died when the docks were targeted and on October 16 a further 14 people were killed when bombs fell on Tatham Street.
A scene of devastation greeted Molly Nelson when she arrived at the bomb site the next day with her baby Hazel - completely unaware that her mother and four sisters had perished.
“My mother had been trapped in the shelter behind the house in a raid the year before, and was terrified to go back inside. She chose to hide under the stairs, and died,” she said.
The year 1942 also saw Sunderland suffer the most grievous single blow of the war - when all 600 members of its 125 Anti-Tank Regiment were captured at the fall of Singapore.
Most were put to work on the Burma Railway, known as the Railway of Death, or sent to mines and factories. All endured starvation and deprivation, and almost 200 were to die.
“I watched so many of my friends die when they shouldn’t have. They just needed proper medical help. The conditions were terrible,” said former Lance-Bombadier Len Gibson.
The arrival of 1943 did not, sadly, bring any relief. Indeed, it was the year death stalked the skies, the land and the seas - with the first of the town’s air raids arriving on January 13.
Two months later, on the night of March 14, bombs fell on the town centre - destroying St Thomas’s Church, the Empress Hotel and dozens of homes. Sixteen people lost their lives.
Southwick and the East End were targeted in raids soon after and, on May 16, 127 high-explosives and 1,300 incendiaries were dropped on the town - killing over 70 Wearsiders.
More carnage was to come. On May 24, in what was to be the last major North East raid of the war, more than 80 people died as parachute mines, firepots and bombs were dropped.
“The raid was to become known as “Hitler’s Last Swipe”,” said Carol. “Many of the casualties occurred when a parachute mine landed in St George’s Square, killing 18 people. “It took rescuers many days to recover the bodies, and two were never found. A school, church and Masonic temple were also badly damaged - and three public shelters were hit as well.”
Wearsiders were able to heave a sigh of relief in 1944, however, when it was all quiet on the home front for most of the year - although thousands of local men continued to fight abroad.
Indeed, Sunderland’s beaches were finally re-opened after five years of barbed-wire barriers - although bathers were warned to watch out for unexploded bombs washed up on the tide.
“It was wonderful,” recalled Maud Collinson, of Roker. “A whole new generation of children leaned what fun it could be to plodge in the sea and go rock-pooling.”
Finally, the years of conflict in Europe came to an end with VE Day on May 8, 1945, with crowds thronging Fawcett Street to hear the news of Germany’s surrender announced.
But, although Germany had at long last been defeated, many Wearsiders were still fighting – or imprisoned – in the Far East. It would take until August 15 for the Japanese to surrender.
Weeks and months later, the surviving members of the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment finally started to arrive back on Wearside - but there was to be no heroes’ welcome awaiting them.
“I got home four years to the day that we left. There was no reception, as by then it was all forgotten,” John Lee, a member of the regiment, was later to recall