Seaham Part 7
What follows is an extract from the first chapter of “Above Us The Stars”, the true story of a Seaham family in the Second World War.
15TH AUGUST 1940…
The dust had already begun to settle when seventeen-year-old Jack Clyde arrived at what was left of Ilchester Street. Amid the sound of broken glass being removed from the shattered window frames of the terraced houses that still stood, the gurgle of water streaming from broken pipes and the sobbing of women stood crowded around, there was the constant clang-scrape of metal shovels hitting brick and roof slates.
Every now and then the air wardens and the men assisting would pause, listening intently, to make sure they could still hear the baby crying. They came upon his young mother first, her body crushed and broken in her shroud of plaster dust.
Moving wooden beams, negotiating the remnants of the family’s furniture and possessions, and lifting brick after fractured brick, eventually the rescuers found little Michael Johnson, still in the arms of his dead grandmother. She was still sat in her chair; unable to reach the air raid shelter before the first bomb hit, she had used her body to shield the infant from the blast. She had been killed outright by a piece of shrapnel which had pierced her lungs. Dusty and still bawling, baby Michael had barely a scratch. …
Baby Michael’s mother, Mary, and his grandmother, Sarah Shaw, were not the only ones to perish that day. The small mining community of Dawdon, on the southern fringes of the County Durham mining town of Seaham Harbour, was hit hard. Houses were destroyed in Ilchester Street, Stavordale Street and Fenwick Row. Twelve dead, forty-one injured, 230 houses damaged and 119 poor souls made homeless. Among those killed were whole families, including the Rochesters. Thomas Rochester was a deputy at the local colliery. He died with his wife, Eleanor, and teenage daughters, Eileen and Joyce, when their house took a direct hit.
The entire bombing raid had been witnessed by the passengers on a stationary train, just a few hundred yards away. The force of the explosions had blown out the train windows and showered it with splinters. One of those on board, a chap by the name of Harrison, described in an interview with a local newspaper how he had seen an enemy aircraft, believed to be one of those responsible for the raid, come from the north, pursued by British fighter aircraft. It seemed to be crippled and was flying very low. It unloaded its bombs in the sea and they exploded with a deafening crash. Three RAF Hurricanes then came up from the south and gave the German two or three bursts of fire and he plunged into the sea. The plane rested on the water for about five minutes and then sank. The lifeboat was sent out but no survivors were found.
A Mrs Dyson, who lived opposite one of the houses which had suffered a direct hit, described the terrible noise of the explosions. She, her husband and two children had managed to get to an air raid shelter in their neighbours’ backyard. She explained breathlessly to waiting reporters:
“Two of our windows and part of the front door were blown in. The knocker, doorknob, key and nameplate from the house opposite came flying through our front window, while the curtains from the same house were blown into our passage.”
The feeling of shock hung heavy in the air, palpable. War had finally reached Seaham Harbour, on a sunny August afternoon. For young Jack and his friends, this was their first experience of the realities of a conflict which was to have an unimaginable impact on them, their families and the town they called home.
15 August 1940. Black Thursday. The significance of that date is all but forgotten, but it marked some of the heaviest fighting and most intense bombing of the entire Battle of Britain. When we think of the Battle of Britain today, our understanding perhaps influenced by the black and white films of the 1950s, or the glossy Hollywood epics of the 1960s, we tend to imagine Spitfires and Messerschmitts locked in aerial combat and dogfights above the green fields of Kent; in fact, the Battle of Britain was fought down the entire length of the English coast.
Mid-morning, a force of 122 Heinkel and Junkers bombers, escorted by the fighter aircraft (mainly Messerschmitts), left their bases in German-occupied Norway and Denmark, and headed for the northeast coast of England. Their target? The shipyards, coal mines and steel furnaces so essential to the British war effort. The raiders were intercepted by RAF Hurricanes from RAF Usworth (now the site of the aircraft museum, in the shadow of the huge Nissan car factory), RAF Middleton St George (now Teesside Airport) and the various RAF stations that peppered the North Yorkshire countryside. The German force was decimated by the RAF, losing some twenty-eight aircraft, most shot down over the North Sea. Although the RAF lost no aircraft that day, there were numerous civilian casualties scattered around this little corner of County Durham, with twelve dead in Seaham, another nine in the neighbouring village of Easington Colliery, two in Hawthorn, four in Sunderland and single deaths in several other villages.
Newspaper reporting restrictions prevented individual towns and streets from being identified, so as not to pass vital information to the enemy as to the success or otherwise of the raids. Due to government propaganda rules, the casualty lists never made headlines, but were usually mentioned further down in the body of the newspaper article. Instead, emphasis was placed on Luftwaffe losses; the Sunderland Echo headline the day after the raid was simply:
“MORE RAIDERS SHOT DOWN DURING THE NIGHT
Enemy raiders… attacked areas on the North East Coast, where one was seen in a beam of searchlights to fall to destruction… GERMANS LOST 169 PLANES… OUT OF ALL PROPORTION TO DAMAGE.”
The funerals for the Dawdon victims were held the following Monday, their remains being interred in the nearby Princess Road Cemetery. The officiating vicar, the Reverend James Duncan, had himself narrowly escaped injury when his parish church of St Hild and St Helen was hit in the raid. At the behest of his housemaid, he had sought refuge at the very last moment in the understairs cupboard. In his inimitable fashion, he later described to a journalist that as the bombs exploded all around him, his life had not in fact flashed before him, and that he had experienced greater thrills and deeper depressions watching his beloved Sunderland football club play at Roker Park. At the memorial service held in his church on Sunday 25 August, some ten days after the raid, Reverend Duncan paid tribute to the victims and those they had left behind:
“God gave us memory that we might have roses in December. We walk in the garden and we gather fragrant flowers of proud remembrance.”
Having viewed the damage, Jack walked back along Princess Road, mulling over the day’s events with his best friend, Jimmy Thornton. He paused only once, at the cemetery and his mother Lydia’s grave, twisting her rose-gold wedding band around his right ring finger as he always did, subconsciously, whenever anxious or upset, as he struggled to deal with what he had just witnessed.
Jack and Jimmy crossed the metal bridge over the railway line, skirted the wagon works and the Londonderry Yard with its row of ambulance drivers’ cottages, made their way past St John’s Church and headed home, to Caroline Street. Jack hesitated momentarily on the freshly scrubbed front step of Number 7, and called after his friend:
“Jimmy, I’ve made my mind up. I’m joining the RAF.”
(C) Copyright Jane Gulliford Lowes 2020
- Diary of An Air Raid – Rev. James Duncan October 1940
- Sunderland Echo Archives, 16th August 1940.
ABOVE US THE STARS
Thus begins the first chapter of “Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story”.
Over 55,000 young Bomber Command airmen made the ultimate sacrifice; thousands more of their comrades survived one of the bloodiest and most controversial campaigns of the Second World War, but never spoke about their experiences after the end of hostilities.
Above Us The Stars tells the story of one of those men, 20-year-old wireless operator Jack Clyde, who was my great uncle. Through contemporary documents, Jack’s own notes, Squadron records, family testimony, interviews with Bomber Command veterans and German civilians, I have pieced together not only the story of Jack and his 10 Squadron bomber crew, but also that of the family he left behind in Seaham Harbour.
Why did so many men like Jack remain silent? Why were they unwilling or unable to tell their stories? How did the families of the “Bomber Boys” cope? How did these young men deal with the death and destruction they wrought upon German civilians, and the loss of so many of their comrades?
In this book I explore the answers to these questions and more, and cast a new perspective on the RAF bombing campaign in this vivid account of wartime in North East England, and of the experiences of the “Silent Heroes” of Bomber Command.
Illustrated with original photographs, this factual account provides an intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of a Halifax bomber crew, and the horrors faced both by the airmen and German civilians “on the ground”.
The impact of the war – rationing, air raids, separation, grief and hope – upon the Clyde family (Jack’s sister Lydia, her husband Jim Groark, father John and little brother George) and their friends and neighbours in Seaham Harbour is described in heartbreaking detail.
Interviews with family members and citizens are interwoven with a detailed analysis of contemporaneous historical sources, and of 10 Squadron’s operations from the commencement of the Battle of the Ruhr in the late Spring of 1943, until the end of hostilities.
With only a 20% chance of surviving their first five of thirty scheduled raids, Jack and his crew – Reg, Bill, Freddie, Ken, Roy and George – faced not only the steepest of odds but also their own mounting fears and trauma.
NOW AVAILABLE TO PRE-ORDER
Above Us The Stars is now available for pre-order (estimated publication date September 2020). You can pre-purchase a copy now by clicking here or by navigating to the store page on the main menu. You can find details of my other books there too. All copies purchased directly from me will be personally signed prior to dispatch. If you’re in Seaham, I’ll deliver the book to you for free, or you can come an collect it. (Just click Seaham on the delivery options when prompted).
The book will be available to purchase from all major book retailers (Waterstones etc) from the end of September. An ebook version will also be available for kindle, kobo, and apple ibooks.
Alternatively, please complete the form below to ask to reserve your copy, and I’ll be in touch to arrange payment and delivery as soon as we receive the books from the publisher.
If you’re interested in Seaham’s history, you may also enjoy my first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017). This book tells the story of Seaham’s troubled past, and follows the story of domestic servant Sarah Marshall as she leaves behind poverty, industrial unrest and political upheaval for a new life in Queensland in 1886.
You can read more about me and my work here and here, and you can find the first 6 parts of my blog on Seaham, its people and its history, on the Home page (scroll down that page and click on the cross at the bottom to reveal more posts).