PLANS to name part of a new hospital after a wartime hero have brought memories flooding back for a Wearside miner
THE wailing of the air raid siren woke Wearside miner Thomas Richardson at 5.26am on March 31, 1944.
Just minutes after retreating to the family shelter, however, the 16-year-old Ryhope lad was surprised to hear the all-clear sound.
“As my mother, brother Ken and I left the shelter we all heard a plane circling the area,” recalls Tom, who was living at 1 West Terrace at the time.
“They both went into the house but I remained on the steps, talking to my friend Chris Cowey – the two of us following the progress of the plane.
“We watched it fly round the colliery, losing sight as it disappeared behind the stone heap, before coming back into view as it headed out towards the sea.”
The pals were, by now, in deep conversation about aircraft and, when Chris offered to lend him a book on planes, Tom jumped down the steps to get it.
“I had taken a couple of steps towards Chris when I heard what sounded like a strong wind, the sort of sound when trees are disturbed by a strong breeze,” he said.
“Now, one of the first things taught to you by the Civil Defence was to drop alongside the bottom of a wall if you heard or saw something unfamiliar – which I did.
“Then came the loudest bang I have ever heard in my life. The first thing I remember seeing as the dust started to clear were bricks spinning and flying overhead.”
When Tom finally managed to stand up, he found the “pile of debris” which had once been his home. “My mother and brother are in there,” he shouted.
As wardens sifted through the rubble, a loud hissing could be heard. Initially it was thought to be an unexploded bomb, but instead turned out to be broken gas pipes.
“Then came the biggest surprise – as my mother was spotted trying to push my brother through a small gap she had found,” said Tom, who now lives in Silksworth.
“After the wardens pulled out Ken, it took two wardens quite a time to prise my mother’s fingers from the sill she was holding, as she had frozen in shock.
“Being next to the fireplace, making a cup of tea, had saved their lives, as the fireplace wall was the furthest away from the heaviest damage.
“But I was shocked to find the steps where I had been standing talking to Chris had now vanished. I could so easily have been killed.”
Chris, who also survived, went on to father another Chris Cowey, who started The Tube TV show.
Tom’s father Thomas, who was manning the phones at Ryhope pit, rushed home to check on his family. As their reunion took place, so details began to emerge.
Pilot Officer Cyril Barton, returning from an ill-fated raid on Nuremburg in a crippled Halifax, had been forced to crash-land his plane after running out of fuel. The 22-year-old, who died after being taken to a nearby hospital, was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery and attempts to avoid the houses of Ryhope.
“Our house was at the end of the terrace and the bomber ploughed into the back of it, taking most of the building with it,” recalls Tom.
“Our main concern at the time was to see if any of our belongings were left to salvage. We were shocked to find most of our furniture had been destroyed.”
Villagers quickly rallied round to help the Richardsons, with one miner even giving up the keys to his new colliery home for them.
“It seems that when the plane hit our house, the nose broke off with the pilot inside. He was found very badly injured in our garden,” said Tom.
“The rest of the plane careered on, jumping across a cutting, landing on another garden and eventually dropping over a 20ft cliff into a pile of manure. I’m sure this soft landing helped save the lives of the rest of the crew as, by now, there was only the fuselage left.”
Plane debris covered the village, with a “massive engine” found just yards from Tom’s home. The broken wings lay in a garden near the pit head.
“The tail landed in the gangway leading to the pit. A friend of ours, a pit winding man called George Head, was found underneath it,” said Tom.
“He had been on his way to work when the sirens sounded the all clear and, knowing his wife was a little hard of hearing, returned home to tell her.
“It was on his return trip that he was struck by the tailplane. It was very sad. He was a kind and gentle man, a great miss to his many friends.”
Tom’s parents later met the parents of pilot Barton when they visited the site of their son’s death, and the couples kept in touch with each other for several years. “We tried our best to get back our lives back to normal after that,” added Tom.
•A new hospital to replace Cherry Knowle is currently under construction at Ryhope. The central facilities building is to be named after Cyril Barton.
Heroic pilot awarded Victoria Cross
A CHILDHOOD passion for planes saw Cyril Joe Barton – the son of a Suffolk electrician – sign up for the RAF during World War Two.
The pilot made several successful sorties with No.78 squadron before he was posted to Yorkshire-based No.578 squadron in 1944.
On the night of March 30, during a raid on Nuremburg, his plane was attacked, puncturing two fuel tanks, setting an engine ablaze and disabling the radio.
A misinterpreted signal resulted in three crewmen bailing out, leaving Barton without a navigator, bombardier or wireless operator, but he released the bombs himself.
On the return journey, while crossing the English coast, the fuel ran out and, with only one engine working, Barton crashed as he tried to avoid the houses of Ryhope. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, London.