The 75th anniversary of the day the Battle of Britain was fought over the North East has brought memories flooding back for one “very lucky” lady.
Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped hundreds of bombs across the region on August 15, 1940, in an attempt to saturate British defences – with dozens of men, women and children left dead.
But Joan Ward and her family had a miraculous escape that day – after a bomb fell in a neighbour’s garden at Ranksborough Street in Seaham, but failed to explode.
“We were told we were lucky, and we knew we were lucky. If that bomb had exploded, that would have been it. I can still picture that sunny summer day vividly in my mind,” she said.
“In fact, I can still see my father jumping into our air raid shelter and landing on top of us – and we never got to eat the lovely Yorkshire pudding dinner my mother had made us.”
The Battle of Britain – the first major campaign fought entirely in the air – had been raging over southern England for several weeks before the Luftwaffe opted for a North East attack.
We were told we were lucky, and we knew we were lucky. If that bomb had exploded that would have been it. I can still picture that sunny summer day vividly in my mind.Joan Ward, survivor of a Luftwaffe attack on Seaham during the Battle of Britain.
Germans officials mistakenly believed the RAF’s fighters were all committed to the south coast and expected little opposition. Instead, several local squadrons fought off the attackers.
The raid – the largest on the North East by the Luftwaffe – became known as Black Thursday by the Germans, due to their defeat. However, the enemy planes left a trail of tragedy in their wake.
Four people were killed in Sunderland, 12 at Easington Colliery and one at Hawthorn. A further 12 perished when Heinkels and Messerschmitt 110’s dropped bombs on Seaham and Dawdon.
“We were Catholics and had been to Mass that morning. It was a lovely sunny day and I remember my mother had made us a proper dinner with Yorkshire puddings,” said Joan, 87, who still lives in Seaham.
“We were about halfway through the meal when the sirens went off. We had to leave the food on our plates and run to the air raid shelter in our garden. It seemed such a shame!”
Joan, daughter of Vane Tempest miner Thomas Ward and his wife Lilian, had just turned 12 when war broke out. Despite her young age, she has never been able to forget the events of that long-ago day.
“While my mother and the rest of the family sheltered and prayed, my father and some of the other men from the neighbourhood stayed out in the street to watch the events unfold in the skies above them,” she said.
“Dad and the other men quite often walked around the town during raids, checking to make sure things were OK. But that day my father actually saw a bomb fall from one of the aircraft and ran for home.
“He made it just in time to throw himself into our shelter as the bomb landed in the garden of the house opposite us. Amazingly it failed to explode, and we escaped unscathed.”
Indeed, Joan didn’t realise anything was wrong until wardens hammered on their shelter and told them to evacuate the area immediately, as it was feared the weapon might blow up.
The family then spent several hours huddled together in a shelter at a nearby school, before being allowed to find temporary accomodation with relatives round the town until the all-clear was given.
“It was almost a week before we got back to our house – and our dinnmer was still waiting for us. Everything our mother had been making was still in the same position,” said Joan.
“My father later had a word with the bomb disposal captain, who told him that we’d been very lucky – as the makers of the bomb hadn’t put a detonator in it.
“He could tell it had been made in Poland and told my dad ‘You’ve got some friends in Poland’. The fact they’d failed to use a detonator meant a lucky escape.”
Seaham was repeatedly targeted by the Luftwaffe during the war, including a raid in 1941 which killed the landlord’s wife of the Seaton Colliery Inn.
Two people were killed in Deneside in 1942, while a landmine exploded in Adolphus Street on May 16, 1943, killing 33, injuring 147 and damaging 1,120 houses.
There was never, however, a second attempt at a flank attack over the North East by the Luftwaffe – and Joan still feels “lucky to have survived”.
“I joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as soon as I could, as I wanted to do my bit. The bombing is something I will never forget,” she said.
The raid of August 15, 1940, left the community of Seaham in mourning.
Homes in Illchester Street, Stavordale Street and Fenwick’s Row were destroyed during the attack – killing 12 and leaving dozens injured or homeless.
Among those to perish were widow Mrs Shaw, 56, and her married daughter Mrs Johnson, 29. Miraculously, Mrs Johnson’s 18-month-old baby survived unhurt.
Others to die included Mrs Ferry, 46, and 35-year-old Edward Swan. Among the injured were siblings John and Doreen Ferry, aged 16 and 14.
British fighters were seen to bring down an enemy plane into the sea during the raid but, although the lifeboat was sent to investigate, no survivors were found.
“I saw the plane come from the north,” one witness told the Echo. “It seemed to be crippled and was flying very low. It unloaded its bombs in the sea and they exploded with a crash.
“Three Hurricanes came up from the south and gave the German two or three bursts of fire and he fell into the sea. The plane rested on the water for about five minutes then sank.”