Wearside Echoes: Dad’s Army

Home Guard exercises
Home Guard exercises
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IT was a scene worthy of comedy classic Dad’s Army – but one which severely tested Wearside’s wartime front-line safety.

A man in full German uniform took to the streets of Sunderland at the height of the Nazi bombing campaign in 1942 – enjoying the freedom of the town for almost two hours before being apprehended.

“The headline in the Sunderland Echo the next day read ‘German Walked Wearside Streets,’” said Kevin Brady, author of The People’s History: Sunderland’s Blitz. “But there wasn’t any cause to really worry, as it was all part of a training exercise.”

Army and RAF units joined forces with the Home Guard and Civil Defence to mount the invasion exercise on October 16, which took place across Sunderland and surrounding districts.

“The objective was to test the defences of the town, not only against air raids, but from assault by invading land forces,” said Kevin.

“The defenders, mainly Home Guards, had to act against heavy ‘air raids,’ simulated by RAF planes flying low over the town, which ‘knocked out’ one of the bridges over the Wear – hampering transport.

“Acts of sabotage also had to be dealt with, which included a WREN with fake identification cards gaining access to a Civil Defence Control Centre and causing damage, and a soldier supposedly out jogging being caught spying.”

The ‘German soldier’ was another stunt dreamed up for the exercise, while members of the Civil Defence had to cope with around 30 ‘air raid incidents’ at the same time.

“It was assumed that the ‘attackers’ – played by the regular army – had gained a foothold to the west of the town and were keen to capture a port, to allow reinforcements by sea,” said Kevin, a photographer for the Sunderland Echo.

“Other attacks came from the north and south and made ground, but at heavy cost.  

“When artillery pieces were brought up to a vantage point overlooking the town, a Home Guard unit hiding nearby captured them and their crews.”  Fierce battles were also fought for control of ‘two hills’ on the outskirts of the town – with umpires having to intervene at one point, when the defenders proved overwhelmingly “strong at beating off attacks.”

Indeed, the defenders were eventually disqualified – just to allow the attackers to reach their objectives before the exercise ended.

“The attackers finally forced their way into the town and street fighting broke out, with blank rounds, smoke bombs and thunder flashes adding to the realism,” said Kevin.

“However onlookers – especially children, who followed the soldiers through the streets – proved to be a hindrance. Some were reportedly lucky not to have been injured.

“But, although the attackers finally managed to “seize” Sunderland, their victory was a hollow one. It came at such a cost that it was concluded real attackers would not be able to defend against a determined counter-attack.”

Several of today’s pictures are believed to have been taken during the invasion exercise – but, due to wartime censorship, they carry few details. “We would love to put some names to faces,” said Susan Swinney, photographic archivist for the Echo.

“Censorship was extremely tough during the war but, some 70 years on, it would be nice to add to our local knowledge of the war.”

l Can you help identify anyone in the pictures? Contact Susan on 501 7152.