Wearside Echoes: Growing up in battle

CLOSE ESCAPE: The results of an air raid in August 1941. Malcolm was standing in the garden of his uncle's house in the same street when the bombs fell.
CLOSE ESCAPE: The results of an air raid in August 1941. Malcolm was standing in the garden of his uncle's house in the same street when the bombs fell.
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LANDSCAPES filled with death and destruction form some of Malcolm Nolan’s earliest memories. Bomb sites were his playground, and danger his constant companion.

“We moved from place to place when I was a child, trying to stay one step ahead of Hitler’s bombs. It didn’t work. Wherever we went, there were air raids. It was a very frightening time,” he recalls.

Malcolm, a retired ship and engine surveyor for Lloyds, has now put pen to paper to write a book about his wartime experiences – as well as the austerity years which followed the end of hostilities.

Drawing on diaries and letters written by his mother, he paints a vivid picture of a war-torn town where death rained down from the skies – and finding enough to eat was a daily challenge.

“It took three years to finish the book – as I had a lot I wanted to get off my chest,” said Malcolm, who was born at Sunderland Municipal Hospital just six months before war was declared.

“Initially I wrote it for my children, but then I thought it would be good for my grandchildren too, as they can’t grasp what things were like in the war. No-one can, really, if they weren’t there.”

The storm clouds of war were already gathering over Europe when Malcolm was born on March 14, 1939 – the day before Hitler’s armies entered Prague and Slovakia became a Protectorate.

As thousands joined the services or volunteered for civil defence, so Malcolm’s father Harry – a civil engineer – was sent to the south of England to prepare vital defences against invasion by sea or air.

“He supervised the building of tank traps, pillboxes and gun emplacements, and also disguised gas works and oil storage depots, so Nazi bombers could not see them from the air,” said Malcolm.

Harry’s posting to the south coast was to prompt the first of several moves. Malcolm was just a few weeks old when he left Sunderland for the first time – heading for the “safety” of Hampshire.

Mounting speculation of a German invasion, however, saw the family return to Wearside on June 20, 1940. Just one day later Sunderland was bombed for the first time – two horses dying in the blast.

A further raid followed on August 15, when the north of Sunderland suffered extensive damage, but it took a third – on August 18 – for Malcolm’s mother Dorothy to start demanding another move.

“It was a brief but devastating daylight raid over Fulwell, when four people were killed,” said Malcolm. “It was getting too dangerous in Sunderland, so my mother decided to evacuate me and her.”

A village in rural County Durham was the next destination for Dorothy and Malcolm, but their stay was to be brief. Within months they were heading back to Hampshire, via blitz-hit London.

“We arrived in Southampton on the very night it was subjected to a fierce attack by dozens of German bombers – it was probably the country’s most intense air raid of the war,” said Malcolm.

Eventually, the stress of repeated air raids and an ever-increasing threat of invasion prompted Dorothy to return to Sunderland with Malcolm in 1941. They arrived just as the town suffered a record snowfall.

“Snow fell continuously for three days,” he said. “Buildings made unsafe by bombing collapsed under the weight and horses pulled snowploughs to clear the streets. The snow was above my head.”

Just a few weeks later, on the day after Malcolm’s second birthday, a lone bomber dropped four high explosives around his grandfather’s home in Moray Street – killing four people. “We were staying there at the time, and I remember being in our Anderson shelter and feeling the vibrations as the bombs dropped – then hearing the distinctive drone of the aircraft,” he said.

“We waited until it had passed, then peered out of the shelter door. There was the bomber, caught in a searchlight, moving very slowly, it seemed, in a long right-hand turn towards the sea.”

The Germans kept up their onslaught with repeated attacks over the next few weeks. A raid on April 10, 1941, destroyed both Binns department stores, as well as several large commercial buildings.

“I remember looking across Thompson Park towards the town and seeing this incredible blaze,” said Malcolm. “My mother and her brother Bill were debating which buildings were being destroyed.

“Next day my mother carried me into the town centre, where the scenes we were confronted with were truly horrific. Roads were lined with hundreds of fire-hoses amongst the rubble and glass.

“What stuck in my memory was the smell of burnt wood, soot and foul water pouring out of the gutted buildings. It was not really the place for a small child, and we did not stay long.”

Another raid on May 3, 1941, destroyed 25 houses and left 13 dead. Just two days later a landmine landed in the street where his Uncle Bill lived – and where Malcolm and Dorothy were now staying.

“It landed about 60 yards from his front door. Luckily for all of us it failed to explode, but lay in a big hole in the road until a brave army bomb squad defused it,” said Malcolm.

“If this bomb had exploded, many surrounding homes would have been destroyed and many families – including our own – would certainly have been killed.”

A lull in bombing after the May 5th attack gave Sunderland’s workers the chance to carry out vital repairs on homes, factories, roads and railways – and Dorothy the opportunity to move on again.

This time she and Malcolm went to stay at the home of another of her brothers, Matthew, in Mayswood Road. Within days the area was bombed – leading to another narrow escape for Malcolm.

“Just before noon on August 13, 1941, a lone Heinkel bomber sneaked in over the beach at Roker. The sirens sounded too late for people to take shelter,” he recalls.

“People stared in disbelief as it dropped three bombs, which landed close together on the little cul-de-sac where I was now living. A pair of semi-detached houses took a direct hit, killing four people.

“My uncle’s house had many of the windows blown in, and about half the slates were missing from the roof. I was in the back garden at the time, so escaped the blast and was uninjured.

“But Mother thought this was a bit too close for comfort, and decided to join my father in South Wales. So off we went again. I must have travelled more than most children during the war.”

The pair returned for Christmas, however, and soon settled back into Matthew’s house. Five months later, on Mayday 1942, the cul-de-sac was bombed again and two people died. “My uncle reckoned we were living in the most bombed street in England! With this in mind, my mother moved us back to my grandfather’s house, then south to Plymouth,” said Malcolm.

Mother and son were to return later in the year, however, after the defeat of the Germans at El Alamein sparked hopes that peace was just around the corner. Hopes that proved to be in vain.

Repeated raids by Hitler’s Luftwaffe awaited them. Dorothy and Malcolm spent night after night in a shelter, while their days were confined to the cramped one-bedroom Fulwell cottage owned by her parents.

“On my fourth birthday, and by way of celebration, Hitler hit the town with its worst air raid so far. Damage was extensive, with many buildings demolished or damaged,” said Malcolm.

“I visited the next morning with my grandfather and the scenes were unbelievable. There was bomb damage everywhere, and I remember all the public clocks were showing different times.

“I was sad to see the damage to Palmer’s Arcade. The bomb which had destroyed St Thomas’s Church also broke the glass roof of the arcade. The damage was so great the King and Queen came to visit.”

Hitler had not yet finished with Sunderland however. As the sirens sounded on May 15, 1943, there was a scramble for cover at the family home in Moray Street – and then a loud bang.

“There was now too many of us living in that little house to be fitted into the shelter. My mother and my new baby sister had priority; I was pushed under the bath with my cousin Dorothy,” said Malcolm.

“It would be an understatement to say we were very scared, as we knew this was a heavy raid. Suddenly, there was an almighty “crump whoosh,” the house shook and the toilet lid fell down.

“We heard the sound of breaking glass and large objects falling. Then we were aware that the bathroom was full of choking dust and soot. We lay there terrified until the All Clear.” Only with the dawn of a new day could Malcolm and his family fully appreciate the damage done. A landmine had destroyed seven nearby shops – and blasted away the gable end of their home.

Wearside was still counting the cost of the raid nine days later when yet another attack was launched. Almost 100 people died, 109 series injured and 3,5000 made homeless in the incident on May 24.

“We were now seeing heroism, devotion to duty and unselfishness on a scale never seen before. The townsfolk were certainly worthy of their fathers, brothers and sons away at war,” said Malcolm.

That was to be Sunderland’s last air raid – although Wearsiders did not yet know it. The rest of the war on the home front would be spent repairing the damage caused by Hitler – or knocking it down.

“For a small boy war was a bit of an adventure,” said Malcolm. “I wanted to absorb everything that was going on.”

l Read more about Malcolm’s war memories in his book Peril and Privation in Paradise. It is priced at £15 and can be ordered by contacting 01322 311 233.