Wearside echoes: From birth to Big Bertha

Suffolk Street Hendon  -  German bomber crashed into back lane  old ref number  8/949
Suffolk Street Hendon - German bomber crashed into back lane old ref number 8/949
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THE pounding of an anti-aircraft gun known as Big Bertha provided the soundtrack to Peter Pybus’ wartime childhood in Sunderland.

Nights were spent huddling for safety in a air raid shelter with his grandmother. Days were spent foraging for shrapnel on bomb sites with his pals.

“Bombers came over regular as clockwork,” he recalls in his book, The Dancing Seedsman. “During 1940 and 1941 they were over nearly every night.

“Behind us was Hendon cricket field, filled with anti-aircraft guns. One we nicknamed Big Bertha and, when it went off, it used to shake everything.”

Peter enjoyed just three years of peace after his birth in January 1936. Even his babyhood, however, was to prove traumatic.

Diphtheria almost claimed his life at just six months and, in 1939, his world was turned upside down.

“War was looming and my father, who was in the Territorial Army, was called up,” he said.

“But far worse than my father being sent away was the death of my mother, from appendicitis – something which rarely proves fatal today.

“I don’t remember her at all, as I was so young. The first person I really remember is my Gran, who was my mother’s mother and called Ethel.”

With Peter’s father away with the Royal Artillery and his mother, Mary Jane Hammal, now gone, the little boy was cared for by Ethel and her husband, Peter, at 5 Lawton Street in Hendon. “It was a small terraced house, typical of thousands thrown up in Victorian times to provide the cheapest housing possible to workers,” said Peter.

“It had two bedrooms, a scullery, kitchen and living room, but no bathroom. Bath-time was a tin bath in front of the fire and the toilet was outside.

“As I grew up, I was surprised to see people’s appalled faces when I told them where I was from. ‘That’s the backside of the town!’ they’d say.

“Well, maybe it was, but our cobbled streets housed a very close-knit community. There were plenty of doors where I could be sure of a warm welcome.”

While Lawton Street may not have been Sunderland’s most desirable address, it certainly proved of interest to Hitler. Indeed, the nearby shipyards, gas works and petrol depot made it a major air raid target.

“There was hardly a night Gran and I weren’t in the shelter, but Grandad was an ARP warden who had to go out on patrol as soon as the siren sounded,” said Peter.

“One night my school, Valley Road Infants, was bombed. When we emerged from the shelter, there wasn’t a door or window left in any of the houses and the streets were deep with shrapnel.

“We were very lucky to survive that night, but me and my pals soon forgot the danger and were out collecting shrapnel again. There was a lot of competition for the biggest and most interesting bits.”

His childish delight in the spoils of war, however, was not to last long.

“Despite being so young, it soon came home to me that war was not a game. One morning, after a bad raid, we emerged to the news that two of my school pals had been killed,” he said.

“They had been in a shelter which received a direct hit from a bomb and their family of 15 was wiped out. The shelters offered protection from a blast, but if a bomb dropped right on top, that was it.

“It was a very sad day. That was when you realised that the job was serious. Up until then you’re just a kid; then you go to school and your mates aren’t there, they’re dead. After that you’re different.”

Peter faced death again in 1942 when, at the age of six, he contracted diphtheria for a second time. Locked away in an isolation ward, he could only wave at his family through a window.

And he had a near miss, too, towards the end of the war – when he fell from the top of a grain stack while visiting his father at his army billet in North Yorkshire; smashing his head on the ground.

“For a time I couldn’t see properly and had to take green tablets every day, but I eventually got better,” he recalls.

Peter also remembers with great clarity the celebrations which marked the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 – when Sunderland rang to the sounds of street parties.

“As a child I had known nothing but war. I didn’t really understand what peace would mean, but I was very glad there wouldn’t be any more bombs falling on me!”

Once his father was demobbed, Peter’s life was to change again. A new step-mother and a move to Darlington followed – with the details documented in later chapters of his poignant but often humorous book.

“People often said I should write a book and it’s been on my mind for years,” said Peter, who grew up to run his own farm seed business and is 75 today.

“From time to time, as I used to motor around Thirsk, I’d bump into a vet called Alf Wright – better known to millions as James Herriot – who’d be working on farms to which I delivered seed.

“We’d stop and have a natter and one day I told him I was thinking about writing a book. He replied: ‘Look Peter, it’s not easy, but I shall help you all I can.’

“Poor Alf died and we never got the book written, but it has been written now. If I bring a smile to a few faces with my stories, I’ll feel I’ve achieved something.”

l The Dancing Seedsman is available in hardback at £11, including postage. It can be ordered from www.carolinebrannigan.com or by calling Caroline Brannigan on 01748 821 041.