Wartime memories of a Sunderland man

Schoolboy Jim Leadbitter on duty as an ARP runner.
Schoolboy Jim Leadbitter on duty as an ARP runner.
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A wartime Christmas homecoming with a chicken dinner awaited a Whitburn teenager in December 1941.

It was the most treasured of Jim Leadbitter’s wartime Wearside memories.

Jim brought his Chelmsford sweetheart Rita home to meet the family in 1946, two years before they married.

Jim brought his Chelmsford sweetheart Rita home to meet the family in 1946, two years before they married.

His cousin, Carol Roberton, shares some of those memories he passed on to his family.

Whitburn housewife Lizzie Ann Leadbitter answered a knock on the door of her Percy Terrace home just before Christmas 1941.

She found young farmer Arthur Shield smiling, and offering a large, plump chicken.

Chickens were the most expensive meat and subject to strict rationing, but there was no payment to be made here.

He remembered the first hit of the war on Wearside when a lone raider came in from the sea and dropped bombs at the Bents, demolishing a barn, killing a horse and damaging the roofs of the new Fishermen’s Cottages.

Carol Roberton

It was, said Arthur, in recognition of the work Lizzie’s son Jim had done on White House Farm, on milk delivery rounds, at weekends and school holidays in between his wartime duties as ARP runner in the village.

Arthur also knew that just as harvest was safely gathered in, Jim, just 16, had left the close-knit village community for an apprenticeship at Marconi in Chelmsford, in far-off Essex.

It was a dark day for the Leadbitters and the wider Anderson clan to whom Lizzie belonged.

But Jim was coming home for Christmas and that chicken was the answer to his mother’s prayers – served fresh vegetables grown on the allotment kept by young Jim’s Dad, Whitburn miner Jimmy Leadbitter senior.

The last photograph of Jim Leadbitter.

The last photograph of Jim Leadbitter.

That Christmas night, Jim’s extended family, headed by grandparents Rob and Emily Anderson, arrived for a party.

Those parties had games and songs to the accompaniment of the piano, and were a tradition which saw a whole generation regaled with the tale of the chicken.

Jim settled in Essex but cherished his Wearside memories such as the first buses to Sunderland in the 1920s, and wartime Wearside.

He passed the scholarship for Ryhope Grammar School and relished the sports coaching which led to a trial with Sunderland AFC, the team he supported all his life. His early heroes played in the 1937 FA Cup-winning team (and in 1973, he was at Wembley with his son Neil to see his team win the cup again).

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Jim saw the fortification of the beaches and the billeting of regiments not only in the existing army camp, but also in nissen huts on the Lizards and on Cleadon Hills.

And on the golf course, he discovered later, there was a secret radar facility capable of acting as a decoy for enemy aircraft. Radar played a huge role in his life.

Jim saw his dad, a Great War veteran, come in from the pit and then go on duty with the Royal Observer Corps at Whitburn windmill – as well as “digging for victory” in the allotment which kept the family fed in the depressions of the 1920s and 1930s.

Jim’s sister Audrey served as a first aider with the ARP and helped the WRVS provide refreshments to soldiers based at Whitburn Camp, after her day job as an audit clerk.

Jim himself joined the ARP in the post of runner, carrying messages to the various wartime operations.

He remembered the first hit of the war when a lone raider dropped bombs at the Bents, demolishing a barn, killing a horse and damaging the roofs of the new Fishermen’s Cottages. Then there was the night two destroyers came to grief on the rocks off Whitburn. All crew were rescued but the ships were stranded for weeks.

Wartime duties often left Jim tired at school, but he passed the school certificate, confirming a coveted place as an apprentice at Marconi, where radar was being refined.

After RAF service, he became installations manager and later worldwide operations manager for Marconi Marine but never missed a chance to come to the North East.

He married Rita, his Chelmsford sweetheart, in 1948, and they visited Whitburn for holidays with their family.

He was well known in Essex cricket and football circles, playing, then refereeing and serving on committees. A minute’s silence was held at Mid-Essex League games in his honour.

He remained a fervent SAFC fan and his hand-knitted red-and-white scarf adorned the coffin at his funeral.