WHEN Wearside sailor Ninian McFarlane fought for King and Country during World War Two, he always carried a photograph of his beloved sister Ella in his wallet.
Indeed, the junior engineer kept the snap close to him at all times while in the Royal Navy – until one fateful day in 1941 saw him parted from it forever.
Today, however, Ella still treasures the special picture – after a twist of fate meant it survived the devastating air raid that claimed her brother’s life.
“He was a lovely big brother, a lovely man,” she said. “He was only 23 when he died, but at least his death was instantaneous. We were told he didn’t suffer.”
Ella, the youngest child of shipyard boilermaker Robert McFarlane and his wife Margaret, was born in Southwick in 1927 and grew up in Trinity Street.
The storm clouds of conflict were gathering over Europe when she won a coveted place at Monkwearmouth Central School at 11 and, just a year later, war broke out.
“My three brothers and one sister were all much older than me. One brother went into the RAF, another into munitions and Ninian joined the Royal Navy,” she said.
“As they went off to war, so I was evacuated. I still remember leaving Monkwearmouth Station for Yorkshire, eventually ending up in a village called Kilham.
“We were taken to the village hall, where we were told where we would be staying. I was billeted with a lady called Mrs Sellars and her two daughters.”
Ella’s new home – three cottages converted into one large house – formed a focal point in the village, as it operated as a bakery, newsagents and general store.
Childhood pal Joyce Shanks shared the billet with Ella, and the Southwick schoolgirls immediately took to countryside life with a passion.
“It was a very nice environment, and a very happy time in my life,” recalls Ella. “We really made the most of country living, from hay-making to picnics.
“Mrs Sellars sometimes let us help out with the baking, which I enjoyed, and there were lots of other things to do too – such as school plays, tennis and hockey.
“It was a completely different way of life for us, moving from the town to a country village. It was just a lovely time – something was always happening.”
Ella enjoyed two happy years in Yorkshire but, in the spring of 1941, her mother arrived to take her home – bringing the terrible news that Ninian had been killed.
The former Sunderland Forge engineer had been aboard HMS Registan, an ocean boarding vessel, when it was bombed by German planes off the Cornish coast on May 27, 1941.
The bombardment left Registan in flames and 63 lives were lost, including Ninian. Two other Wearside men, William Archer and James Parkin, also perished in the blaze.
“When the bombing started, my brother, who was working in the engine room, asked a friend if he could go and get his wallet with my photo in it from his cabin,” said Ella.
“Just after the chap left, the engine room took a direct hit. My brother was killed on the spot, but his friend was saved – just because he was fetching the wallet.”
The survivors of the Registan tragedy were rescued by HMS Wivern, HMS Vansittart and HMS Wild Swan, while the badly damaged ship was towed to Falmouth by the tug Goliath.
Many of those rescued went on to serve throughout the rest of the war, but the rebuilt Registan was sunk by a U-boat close to Barbados in 1942, with the loss of 16 men.
“Some time later, when I was back in Southwick, my brother’s friend knocked at the door,” said Ella. “He’d come to return Ninian’s wallet – and my photo was still inside.
“It was very nice of the fellow to do that, and I’ve kept the picture ever since. It has been something to remember my brother by.”
Ella’s own return to Wearside was not, however, without incident – as the town was bombarded with repeated Luftwaffe air raids until 1943.
“It was a huge change coming back from the quiet of the countryside to all those raids. The ceiling of our cottage came down during one raid,” said Ella, now of Washington.
“I have both happy and sad memories of the war.”
l Do you have a wartime story to share? Email email@example.com