ON THE WATERFRONT: Military stores from the Wear

US Army vehicles being unloaded at South Docks
US Army vehicles being unloaded at South Docks
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Although the Port of Sunderland’s contribution to the 1939-45 war effort is well-recognised, its role in supporting military operations overseas is often overlooked.

Due to heavy air raids on key UK port cities, war materials began to be shipped through other ports, such as Sunderland. From August, 1941, Corporation Quay was successfully utilised, leading to South Docks being used for similar purposes from 1943.

By the end of 1945, 130 10,000-ton deadweight ships had seen some 500,000 tons of Government cargoes passing over the quaysides. Large quantities of United States Army stores were also discharged.

After the war, the port began regular exports of military stores to Hamburg for the British Army of the Rhine and RAF units based in Germany.

These stores originated from a depot in Carlisle and later Paisley near Glasgow, being shipped from Corporation Quay on board vessels operated by Tyne-Tees Steam Shipping Co Ltd of Newcastle, which had become part of Coast Lines Group in 1943.

One regular trader was the 1,188 tons gross motor vessel Iberian Coast, built by George Brown and Co of Greenock in 1950. Besides military stores, she occasionally carried other items, such as clothing collected by the WRVS for refugees and displaced persons in Germany.

Almost all of the other Tyne-Tees ships left Sunderland for Hamburg at some time or other, these being (year of build / gross tonnage in brackets) the steamers Dorian Coast (1925/967), Northumbrian Coast (1935/1180), Hampshire Coast (1941/1224), Belgian Coast (1929/1599), Virginian Coast (1930/1599) and Persian Coast (754/1919); and motor vessels Olivian Coast (1946/749), Hebridean Coast (1938/586) (ex-Valerian Coast), Sylvian Coast (1936/513), Frisian Coast (1937/586), Novian Coast (1936/507), Grampian Coast (1937/481), Cyprian Coast (1936/508) and Suffolk Coast (1938/541).

The end of the Wear as a hub for the export of Government stores in favour of Leith came unexpectedly and without consultation in 1954; the last vessel to load at Corporation Quay being Suffolk Coast, which sailed on September 25. Such was local indignation over the decision, the town’s MPs Paul Williams and Fred Willey raised questions in the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, the Government was not in the mood for compromise, with the Secretary of State for War making it clear that the switch to Leith had been made on the grounds of cost and speed.

By this time, the annual Hamburg traffic comprised about 8,400 tons of rations from the War Department at Paisley. As the distance between Paisley and Leith was only a third of that to Sunderland, the transfer made sound economic sense.

Furthermore, this contributed to reductions in both defence expenditure and avoidable rail journeys.

It was claimed that sometimes ships sailed almost empty, carrying as few as 50 tons of stores.