RETRO: Gallant airman gave his life to save hundreds

HEROIC ACT: The remains of the plane flown by Cyril Barton, with Cyril inset. Schoolboy Alan Mitcheson is circled.
HEROIC ACT: The remains of the plane flown by Cyril Barton, with Cyril inset. Schoolboy Alan Mitcheson is circled.
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A GALLANT wartime pilot saved the lives of hundreds of Wearsiders after flying his crippled plane away from their homes in 1944.

Cyril Barton, 22, died when his bomber crashed just seconds later, but was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions.

Ryhope man Alan Mitcheson was asleep at his home in Hewitt Avenue, Hollycarrside, when the sirens rang out at 5.15am on March 31, 1944.

Just a few minutes later, the youngster – then 12 – spotted a Halifax bomber as it flew towards the gasometers at Grangetown.

“As it neared our street, it appeared to be getting lower,” he said. “It was making a terrible noise, like a car backfiring.

“I jumped out of bed and ran into my parents’ room, just in time to see the aircraft pass over our roof by no more than 100ft.

“It banked to the left and went down behind the houses in front. This was followed by a bang, which sounded like an explosion.”

Young Alan went to investigate the crash site, near Ryhope Colliery, just a few hours later – and found a scene of devastation.

The pilot of the Halifax, Cyril Barton, had been fatally injured, and a local miner, George Heads, had also been killed.

“Wreckage was scattered everywhere,” said Alan.

“One house, at the end of West Terrace, had been completely destroyed.

“But the story behind the crash only came to light a few months later, when Cyril was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross.”

It was all quiet on the home front in Sunderland for most of 1944, however, with the majority of action taking place abroad.

As thousands of Wearside men fought around the globe, so women took on their work of building ships, driving trams and even catching rats.

Jayne Thompson, of Hylton Castle, worked as a pest controller after being drafted into the Land Army – killing moles, rabbits and foxes.

“Vermin were eating the farmers’ crops and killing the farm animals, and we needed the food,” she later recalled. “We used to gas the foxes and rabbits and used strychnine on moles. We would mix poison with biscuit meal to kill rats; then collect the bodies.”

But, although war-torn Wearside was much quieter by 1944, Jack Coates enjoyed a little springtime excitement – when Silksworth was invaded.

“I was confronted by a column of khaki-coloured soldiers while out delivering Echoes one day,” recalled Jack, who was 12 at the time.

“There were motorcycle riders, lorries and men piled on gun carriers – a whole Army on the move. Silksworth was being invaded – by the Jocks!

“Dangling from their khaki kilts were huge purses. On their heads were Tam-o-Shanters. They were either Seaforth or Gordon Highlanders.”

The soldiers spent the next few days living among the residents of Aline, Lord, Robert, Quarry, Maria and Hill streets in Silksworth.

“Our tin bath, which usually hung on the backyard wall, worked overtime. It was constantly being filled and emptied,” he said.

“I was even given a ride on a gun carrier, which kept going under khaki-draped clothes lines. A never-to-be-forgotten experience.”

One early morning however, when Jack dashed out to start his newspaper deliveries, he found “the Jocks” had disappeared.“Later we heard they had been off to the Normandy Landings. I often wonder how many of them didn’t come home.”

One other home front event of 1944 proved a huge talking point – the re-opening of Sunderland’s beaches after five years of barbed wire barriers.

Thousands of Wearsiders flocked to the seaside that summer – although trippers were warned to watch out for unexploded bombs washed up on the tide.

“It was wonderful,” recalls Maud Collinson, of Roker.

“A whole new generation of children learned what fun it could be to plodge in the sea.”


Jan 15: An earthquake killed 10,000 people in San Juan, Argentina, making it the worst natural disaster in the history of the country.

Mar 2: A train stalled inside a railway tunnel outside Salerno, Italy, causing 521 to choke to death.

Mar 10: The British Education Act lifted the ban on women teachers marrying.

May 9: Soviet troops drove the last the German forces from the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol.

Jun 6: Operation Overload, otherwise known as D-Day, took place.

Jun 29: The deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps began.

Jul 20: Adolf Hitler survived an assassination attempt by German Army officer Claus von Stauffenberg.

Aug 4: Jewish diarist Anne Frank and her family captured while hidden in an Amsterdam warehouse.

Aug 12: The world’s first undersea oil pipeline laid between England and France under Operation Pluto.

Sep 3: The Allies liberated Brussels.

Oct 14: German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel committed suicide rather than face execution for allegedly conspiring against Adolf Hitler.

Oct 21: Aachen, the first German city to fall, captured by US troops.

Dec 31: Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Imperial forces killed in action at the Battle of Leyte – a significant Filipino and Allied military victory.

Dec 31: Hungary declared war on Germany.


Wearside singer/actress Christine Norden became the first female performer to land on the Normandy beaches to entertain the troops in 1944.

Christine, travelling under her services name of Captain Molly Thornton, admitted she was left “numb with fright” during the Channel crossing.

Away from the war, however, the world of music was dominated by Bing Crosby in 1944 – as well as the mysterious disappearance of Glenn Miller.

Bing crooned his way to the top of the limited charts available several times this year, scooping four out of the top five biggest sellers.

Other musical highlights of 1944 included the Metropolitan Opera House in New York hosting its first jazz concert, featuring Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.

Sadly, Orville “Hoppy” Jones, bass singer of the Ink Spots, passed away in New York this year – just as his band was enjoying huge success with Ella Fitzgerald.

And, in December, the world of music was thrown into mourning when bandleader Glenn Miller mysteriously disappeared while flying to Paris for a concert.


Sunderland-born comic actor Nat Jackley made a return to his Wearside roots in 1944 – in celluloid form.

Nat, the veteran of 50-odd pantomimes, starred in the wartime drama Demobbed this year, as an ex-soldier who solves a crime and stages a concert party.

But it was to be another light-hearted musical comedy, Going My Way starring Bing Crosby as a young priest, which was to prove the biggest box office draw.

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it went on to pick up seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and also Best Actor for Crosby.

Another musical, the Judy Garland feel-good romantic and family tale Meet Me in St Louis, made the No 2 spot at the box office in 1944.

Adapted from a series of short stories by Sally Benson, the film was directed by Vincente Minnelli – who met his future wife, Garland, on the set.

Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker starred in the third biggest hit of 1944; romantic drama Since You Went Away, adapted from a novel by Margaret Buell Wilder.

The American film noir Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck, made it to No 4 at the box office in 1944.

And a host of Hollywood stars appeared as themselves in cameo roles in the No 5 hit of 1944 – the Warner Bros feature film Hollywood Canteen.

Set in the Hollywood Canteen, a free entertainment club open to servicemen during the war, the film officially starred Joan Leslie, Robert Hutton and Dane Clark.

Other hits of the year included Spencer Tracy/Irene Dunne drama A Guy Named Joe, frothy musical tale Cover Girl and thriller To Have and Have Not.


The year 1944 proved an uneventful and slightly disappointing one for Sunderland on the pitch.

Roker favourite Raich Carter managed to inject a little sparkle into the team after being picked to play for England against Scotland in April.

But, according to the Echo’s resident football critic Argus, “not even the Roker reserve strength was up to standard” this year.

“Sunderland’s displays must be giving manager Murray some headaches,” the critic wrote on April 24, just before the rather ‘wishy-washy season’ drew to a close.

“He certainly has cause to worry over post-war problems for, apart from Bircham and Harry Bell, and possibly Boyd, I cannot see a single young player making the grade.

“Some are as good as ever they will be, and the whole policy needs revising. Particularly does this apply to the chief scout looking after the reserve team.”

Argus made his comments following Sunderland’s ‘poor’ showing against Newcastle on April 22 – the same day Raich Carter played for England against Scotland.

Raich Carter shot home England’s third goal in the England v Scotland game, “scoring with a beautiful left-foot drive.