Rare photos of a war-time Wearside funeral – and the Sunderland star who was a pall bearer

A group of Sunderland historians believe they have shed light on rare photographs of a funeral held on Wearside – and it has a footballing connection.

Tuesday, 19th February 2019, 11:25 am
Updated Tuesday, 19th February 2019, 11:29 am
The funeral of Sergeants McDonald and Wickenden at St Margaret's in Castletown.

Trevor Thorne, Norman Kirtlan, Sharon Vincent and Dave Charles have investigated images of an RAF funeral.

They were given to Sunderland Antiquarian Society by Janette Russell, the granddaughter of Thomas Simmons.

A second image shared by Trevor Thorne

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They are, said Trevor, “clearly of an RAF funeral during the war. One of the funerals he conducted was photographed. Research by the Society, with help from Dave Charles, the historian for Washington air museum, has we think shed some further light on the event”.

Thomas W Simmons worked for a local funeral and taxi hire company JJ Wilson (Sunderland) Limited. One of the contracts they had was with the RAF at Usworth, during the Second World War.

RAF Usworth was brought back into service in the early 1930s with Reserve Squadron 607. As the threat from Nazi Germany grew, a full time Squadron 103 was added at the base in 1937.

“Another family memory is that footballer Raich Carter was one of the pall-bearers at the funeral,” said Trevor.

Raich Carter in uniform.

“Carter was one of the best footballers produced by Sunderland AFC. He scored 118 goals in 245 games for the club as an old-fashioned inside-forward. Raich Carter captained the club to league and cup success while also playing 13 times for England. He was a county cricketer for both Durham and Derbyshire.

“Shortly after the war started Carter found himself out of work when the football club paid him off with half a week’s wages. He somewhat controversially joined the fire service, partly because he needed a job but also so he could still play football. There was of course no normal league competition but many football games were played as wartime entertainment.”

After two years, Raich Carter eventually joined the RAF as a fitness instructor and was posted to Usworth airfield, He was stationed there until 1943, when he moved his family to Derbyshire.

The move took place because his house had been destroyed in one of the many bombing raids on Sunderland.

Trevor added: “St Margaret’s RC church in Castletown has been identified from the photographs as the location of the burials. A number of RAF personnel were laid to rest at the church cemetery during the Second World War. The funeral took place in winter and there are two coffins with Union Jacks laid over them.

“The Union Jacks indicate that the servicemen were British. One photo shows a possible third coffin. The placing of the Union Jack is important because there are German, Polish, Australian, Canadian and New Zealander aircrew also buried in the cemetery.

“It is almost certain that for non-British nationals the flags of their own country would have been used at any service held.”

Trevor added: “Using the available information and the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website it is very probable that the candidates for the aircrew being laid to rest are Flight Sgt Ian Donald McDonald (age 21, family living in Uganda) and Pupil Observer Sgt Frank Wickenden (age 27 from Somerset). They were both RAF Volunteer Reserve and their death occurred on February 19, 1943. A third crew member who died in the crash and is also buried in Castletown is Sgt Alistair Dunlop, who was a New Zealander. His was presumably the third coffin which is just visible in one of the photographs.”

The RAF Voluntary Reserve was formed in 1936 to train supplementary aircrew in case of wartime need. When war with Hitler’s Germany broke out in 1939, joining the Reserve was the main means of entry into the service. Once trained pre-war personnel returned to their ordinary employment until there was a place available in an operational unit.

Trevor added: “At the time of the death of these men in 1943, the RAF was in the process of transferring these reservists fully into the Royal Air Force.

“The servicemen were part of 62 Operational Training Unit. Their deaths were as a result of an unfortunate mid-air collision at 5,000 feet in their Avro Anson reconnaissance trainer. This happened three miles north-east of Usworth and involved another Anson aeroplane from the airfield. In total five were killed.”