Wearside Echoes: Sunderland’s Big Bertha gunning for action

A Wearside Anti aircraft battery in 1941 - But where was it?
A Wearside Anti aircraft battery in 1941 - But where was it?
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THE sound of the anti-aircraft gun known as Big Bertha boomed out across Grangetown and Ryhope throughout the Second World War.

Indeed, so well known did Bertha become that photographs of what was believed to be the powerful – and extremely noisy – ack-ack gun were featured in the Echo in December 1941.

Strict Government censorship, however, prevented the paper from stating the exact position of the weapon, and the presumed location has now been called into question.

“The information recorded in Echo files states the photos were of the Grangetown Battery,” said Rob Shepherd, author of new book – A history of the village of Grangetown, Sunderland.

“But the visible landmarks in the background would suggest in fact that they are of the Whitburn Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. Perhaps readers will be able to help out with this?”

Anti-aircraft defences were established across the North East during World War Two, in an attempt to guard key industries, mines and shipyards from Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

“They were organised into batteries under the command of 7th Anti-Aircraft Division, and given an alphabetical suffix to denote the site, from A to Z,” said Rob.

“The battery in Grangetown was known as ‘Tyne Q’ and was located on land that formed part of Clark’s Farm, at Ryhope Grange.

“There were also batteries at Grindon, Town End Farm, Carley Hill, Southwick, Cleadon and Whitburn, with local command head-quartered at Humbledon View, Tunstall Road.”

Interestingly, it was not a local unit which first manned the Grangetown battery.

Indeed, from June to December 1940 the area was home to 197th Battery of the 66th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Leeds Rifles, East Yorkshire Regiment) – who took command of Bertha. “For the vast majority of the war, however, it was the 180th Battery of the 64th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment who protected the skies over Grangetown,” said Rob.

“They were under the command of 30th (Northumbrian) Anti-Aircraft Brigade, until finally replaced by 1945 by the 497th Battery of the 144th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

“Research shows that in 1942 the site had four 4.5ins guns with GL Mark II radar, and by 1945 there were four 3.7ins Mark VI anti-aircraft guns and GL Mark II and Mark IIIB radar.”

Anti-aircraft defences were supported by numerous searchlight batteries throughout the town too during the six-year conflict.

“In the beginning batteries formed part of three different corps – the Infantry, Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. By 1940 they were all commanded by the Royal Artillery,” said Rob.

“Those within the vicinity of Grangetown were manned by men of the Royal Artillery too, who were thought to be attached to the 5th Battalion The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

“There were two based close to village. One was to the south, in the fields of Shirley Banks and just outside of Ryhope Village, the other further north along Ryhope Road at South Moor.

“In late 1943 and early 1944 these batteries were taken over by the men of the USAAF 225th Searchlight Battalion, as the Fusiliers were deployed south to help with ‘D’ Day preparations.”

Eye witness and war diary accounts reveal the Grangetown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery was involved in the downing of a Heinkel Bomber over Sunderland in 1940.

Indeed, the destruction of the enemy plane is the only confirmed successful victory of any of the town’s anti-aircraft batteries – after the Heinkel crashed in Suffolk Street on September 5.

“I remember the night clearly, because it was my birthday,” said former Ryhope woman Eve Douglas. “I knew there was a raid, because I could hear the ack-ack battery in Grangetown.

“Then I saw the bomber caught up in the searchlights and saw it going down in flames. It was a quiet night and I could hear the cheers of the men manning the gun when they hit it.”

The crew of four young German airmen – Hans Werner Schröder, Franz Reitz, Rudolf Marten and Josef Wich – were all killed in the crash, as was a Sunderland woman.

“In an attempt to silence the guns of the anti-aircraft battery, a high explosive bomb fell just south of Sunderland Cemetery in May 1941,” said Rob.

“But this caused little damage other than a large bomb crater in the fields of Clark’s farm, and some roof damage to the nearby Ryhope Grange Hotel.”

Following the end of hostilities, the Grangetown Battery was retained as a – Nucleus Force Headquarters Battery – and, for many years, also became a Territorial Army Camp.

“I’d be delighted to hear from any readers with recollections or old photographs of the Grangetown area, particularly of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery,” said Rob.

l Rob can be contacted on 5482040 or by e-mail at robshepherd1974@googlemail.com.

 His new book, Just Like It Was Yesterday ... A History of The Village of Grangetown, Sunderland, is due to be published later this year.