Nostalgia: Memories of wartime Sunderland

ROYAL VISIT: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit a bomb site in Sunderland during the war.
ROYAL VISIT: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit a bomb site in Sunderland during the war.
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GEORGE Forster jammed a kitchen sieve onto his head and dashed outside after hearing the drone of a lone aircraft – ignoring his mother’s screams to seek shelter under the table.

The little lad was rewarded for his “bravery” with views of an enemy plane dropping two objects on his home town of Seaham. Seconds later they exploded.

“I thought at first they were parachutes, but they did not open,” he recalls. “There was the sound of a ‘wheee’ and then a ‘pop.’

“About a minute later I jumped down from my father’s workbench in the yard, opened the back gate and was enveloped in a cloud of dust.

“Later we learned that two landmines had been dropped on Viceroy Street, killing several people.”

George’s memories of the war, when he watched the Battle of Britain being fought in the skies over Seaham, are recorded in a new book by local historian Andrew Clark.

Wartime Memories: Stories of the Second World War in the North East, published this month by Summerhill Books, features scores of other anecdotes and reminiscences too.

And dozens of archive photos of air raid shelters, bomb damage, evacuees, gas masks and rationing are also included, together with wartime adverts and propaganda posters.

“Although the war ended over 60 years ago, many of the storytellers have vivid recollections of their experiences of evacuation, air raids, rationing or VE Day,” said author Andrew.

“Many of those sharing their memories were children at the time, but the fact that they were a part – in their own small way – of global events has made a lasting impression on them.”

Preparations for battle began many months before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced Britain was at war with Germany in a BBC broadcast on September 3, 1939.

Brian Scott, then a schoolboy from Wear Street in Sunderland, still has vivid memories of his neighbour toiling for several weeks to create an air raid shelter before war was declared.

The poor man’s efforts proved to be in vain, however, during the first air raid warning of the war – as people were too stunned to even run for cover.

“As the sirens wailed, Mr Burns was cajoling, ordering, demanding, that we take our places in the shelter,” Brian recalls in the book.

“By the time he had convinced us that the shelter was the best, and safest, place for us to be, it was too late. The All Clear was sounding, and the ‘air raid’ was over!”

Preparations to evacuate children living in areas classed as possible Luftwaffe targets, such as the coast and shipyards of Sunderland, were also drawn up well in advance of the war.

Operation Pied Piper saw hundreds of Wearside youngsters sent to the safety of the countryside. Among those to leave was Eileen Hopper, then five, who ended up in Teesdale.

“My family knew a lady that had a spare room, so with my Auntie Elsie and cousins Ronnie, Pat and Jean, we went to Egglestone. Five of us living in one bedroom,” she said.

Eileen and her relations eventually moved into three rooms at a nearby farmhouse - where they were joined by three more cousins and two extra aunties as the war dragged on.

“Obviously we were unhappy being away from our mams and dads, but people thought you were soft if you made a fuss and called you a baby if you cried,” she said. “I was luckier than some children, who had to stay with strangers. At least I had my family around. My cousins were like brothers and sisters to me, with living together so long.”

The evacuation of so many children was to prove a blessing, however, despite the misery it sometimes caused, as Sunderland became one the seven most-bombed towns in England.

Those left behind on Wearside’s home front had to deal with strict rationing and tough blackout regulations, as well as repeated air raids. Hundreds were killed or injured in the attacks.

Ann Nora Robinson, nee Henderson, was a teenager when war was declared, and she still has vivid memories of a trip to the cinema with a pal during a blackout one evening.

“We were on our way to The Villiers when we heard machine gun fire. We were told if we ever heard gun fire to lie face down, so there was less chance of being shot,” she recalls.

“When it became quiet again we continued on our way, only for it to start again, so again we lay face down until it stopped.”

Only after they heard gun fire for a third time did it dawn on them that the noise was actually the “rat-tat-tat” of Ann’s belt buckle scraping on the corrugated-iron sheets of a bomb site.

“When we arrived at the pictures we could not believe the state our coats were in. We were black from head to toe from diving to the ground to avoid the ‘gun fire!’” she said.

Other stories detailed in the new book include memories of digging for victory, women at war, life as a Bevin Boy, wartime entertainments and victory celebrations.

A tribute to the eight Sunderland evacuees, who were killed when the ship taking them to the safety of Canada was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1940, is also featured.

“Over the years I have asked many people what they did in the war, and included in this book are some of their memories,” said Andrew.

“Unfortunately, I do not know the names of all of these storytellers, so please contact me and I will include your name in future editions.

“I would also like to hear from anyone who would like to share their experiences of the war.

“It is important these memories are not forgotten and are passed on to future generations.”

l Wartime Memories is published by Summerhill Books at £9.99. The book is on sale at Waterstones, Sunderland Tourist Information Centre and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. Andrew can be contacted by email at or at: Andrew Clark, Summerhill Books, PO Box 1210, Newcastle, NE99 4AH.