The Air Raid Disaster

A memory of those lost and a tribute to the heroism and resilience of a local community.

Shortly before midnight on Saturday 3 May 1941 a lone German nuisance raider dropped 4 bombs on the Tyneside town of North Shields.  Tragically,  the fourth bomb scored a direct hit on Wilkinson’s lemonade factory. The Public Air Raid Shelter in the building’s basement was completely destroyed. Of the 192 people present,  107 people were killed. Entire families were wiped out.  It was the scene of the heaviest casualties in North East England during the entire War.

 

Saturday May 3rd 1941 – Night: 609 – Blackout: 21.14hrs – Air Raid Alert: 23.12hrs – Conditions: Dry, overcast

 

A Public Air Raid Shelter in the East End of North Shields.

North Shields, a town on the north bank of the River Tyne some 8 miles from Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1941 the town was an important fishing port and home to strategically important shipbuilding/repair yards.

The east end of town, situated above the busy Fish Quay was a working class area, populated by hard working families employed in the fishing, shipbuilding and engineering trades.

This part of town is almost unrecognisable today. Although the street layout is largely the same, the cramped terraces of Victorian housing, pubs, shops, small industrial units, schools and businesses have long since gone.

Dissected from the more prosperous Tynemouth by the railway line to the north, the area was hemmed by the wide vein of the Tyne to the south. To the west lay the main streets of North Shields.

The main public air raid shelter serving the east-end of North Shields was situated in the basement of the W.A. Wilkinson’s lemonade factory, situated on the corner of King Street and George Street.

The basement of this Victorian building was designated as an air raid shelter in 1940. The Borough Surveyor had sought and obtained permission from W.A. Wilkinson Ltd  for the use of the basement as a public air raid shelter. £95.00 was to be spent on the conversion of the basement and a further £9.00 for protection against blast and splinter. The Borough agreed to pay Wilkinson’s a nominal rent of 5 shillings per annum. The Home Office approved the Shelter with a maximum occupancy of 188. The shelter was separated into 3 rooms or bays. Despite its potentially dangerous location beneath a factory with heavy equipment, glass and chemicals in the work rooms above, the shelter was popular with the locals, many of whom would regularly use it during raids because of its comfort, cleanliness and impromptu musical entertainments.

There are no known photographs of the Wilkinson’s factory, however the basement shelter is remembered as a 3 bay basement, with one bay leading to another. Access was via a door on King Street and down some wooden steps. Each bay had double bunks along each wall. Refreshments were available. The last bay was a designated smoking area for the men and had an exit door to George Street.

The shelter warden was  Mrs Ellen Lee. A popular local lady, nicknamed Nelly, she stood for no nonsense and ran the shelter well, with an eye to the comfort and safety of its users. Shortly after the air raid sirens sounded, Mrs Lee began counting the number of people entering the shelter. They were mainly local folk living in the nearby streets and their friends with two or three strangers. By 23.50, 192 people were in the shelter. It was nearly full.


Silence…then the screams started…

Leaving the Police Box on Washington Terrace at 11.45pm, Special Constable Matthew Layzell, with Special Constabulary Inspector,  Joseph Stuart, arrived minutes later at the junction with Tynemouth Road.

They turned right, up Tynemouth Road in the direction of the town centre.

Layzell heard the rumble of a lone bomber. This would be an opportunist, nuisance raider hoping to hit a strategic target. The plane might be a Heinkel He-111 or, more likely, based on payload and range, it was a Junkers 88.

Looking up he saw nothing, not even the familiar barrage balloon – the cloud cover was too low to make out the plane. But he knew that somewhere nearby was going to get it.

Moments later the explosion sounded. Running quickly up the road directed by the noise they turned into King Street.

Joseph Stuart was 51 years old at the time and was one of 4 Special Constabulary Inspectors in the Tynemouth Borough Area. Inspector Stuart was first at the scene at Wilkinson’s with Special Constable Matthew Layzell.

Inspector Stuart kept a diary throughout the war years. This is his succinct entry for that evening:

Bomber got KO on shelter in North Shields. Many killed and worked all night through to rescue people.

 

Mrs Ellen Lee

Mrs Ellen Lee
Shelter Warden at Wilkinson’s

Special Constabulary Inspector: J W Stuart

Special Constabulary Inspector
J W Stuart

Matthew Layzell: Special Constable

Special Constable
Matthew Layzell

Barrage Balloon above Washington Tce, North Shields.

Barrage Balloon
Washington Terrace
North Shields.

His worst fears were correct. Where the Wilkinson’s factory had stood, there remained now the mangled outlines of broken walls, iron girders and bricks. Smoke and dust clouds drew him to the scene.

The silence was now broken by shouts and screams.

He knew he was looking at a disaster. It was a Saturday night. The basement shelter would be full of people from the neighbouring houses and pubs.

He remembered being first at the scene.

It was completely still, silent. There was a mist. We were first at the scene and I knew immediately that many people had been killed in the Shelter. The ARP people came very quickly. I was detailed to check on the surrounding houses. The ARP worked through the night trying to rescue survivors. Many of the men were traumatised by what they saw and were off work for weeks.

 

Minutes later Air Raid Precautions workers arrived and cordoned off the area. Workers moved over the debris shining torches into the gaps  shouting for survivors.

 

 

 

For many of these men it would be the start of their grimmest working day. George Newstead, Clarence Burdiss  and Norman Darling Black worked for 15 hours trying to rescue the injured at constant risk to their own lives from falling masonry and debris. They were part of a wider workforce of local men, working desperately to save members of their own community, relations and family. For many, their lives would never be the same.

 

Inside the Shelter…

It was just like any other raid. The sirens went and locals either stayed at home or went quickly off to the shelter at Wilkinson’s. Towards midnight, people still out and about were being directed away from the now full shelter.

Although it was an old Victorian building Wilkinson’s was a popular place to go. Many domestic shelters were cramped, cold and damp whereas the factory’s basement rooms were heavily reinforced, warm and comfortable. The atmosphere was good too, almost like a party.

Millie Matthews, 14 in 1941, remembered:

People were friendly and there was an accordionist. People could forget the trouble of that particular time.

Inside was the usual hubbub of activity. Friends and family settling into their favourite spaces. Mothers getting their children into the bunk beds and ready for sleep. Several of the men moved through into the last bay of the shelter, the designated smoking section, no doubt for a chat to while away the time.

At midnight, the single High Explosive bomb struck.

The catastrophe was almost instant. Survivors heard a distant thump and then the roof collapsed. The bottling machinery and debris from the upper floors crashed into the cellar, crushing or trapping the occupants. A few people near the exit were able to get out, while a handful of others like 19 year old Stanley Hull had an astounding escape. He recalled:

I heard a dull thud, a big gust, and the dirt and dust fell. I saw a gap. Went for it and went out and just walked home and told my mother and father.

 

Grim Discoveries…

The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue and demolition squads arrived quickly but were faced with a nightmare operation. Three cellar bays had been completely destroyed and there was the constant risk of more wreckage collapsing. In the following hours the scale of the tragedy became apparent as the casualties mounted – and the dead outnumbered the living.

Whole families had been lost.

Robert William Sutherst recalled that his mother and cousin were killed and his brother (Thomas Martin Sutherst) lost part of his leg. His sister, Alice Emmerson Sutherst was buried underneath layers of rubble, yet emerged virtually unscathed following her ordeal. Alice was discovered two days later by the pet dog of Mr Thomas Marshall, the local chimney sweep, whilst both were out on a walking exercise. Robert’s father was given compassionate leave from the army and identified the bodies.

Ronald Curran was saved by the stubbornness of his mother. When the air raid warnings sounded relatives asked her to go to Wilkinson’s with them – almost a family outing – but she refused. He remembered her saying: “If we die we’ll die in our own home”. Obstinately she took shelter with Ronald in a cupboard under the stairs. The next day he found out that his grandmother, aunt and cousins, Veronica and Maureen were all dead.

 

The Final Toll
Injured survivors were taken to Kettlewell School and then on to Tynemouth Jubilee Hospital and Preston Hospital in the town.

Immediately after the bombing a temporary mortuary in Church Way was opened. As bodies were recovered they were taken there for identification, a grim procedure that lasted for five days.

A special burial plot was identified at Tynemouth Cemetery

Of the 192 people in the shelter that night; 107 men, women and children lost their lives.