War on the Banks of the Tyne

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Wreckage from the crashed Aircraft was spread right down the valley.

The Evacuees’ Story

Imagine that you are a child happily living at home, when suddenly your parents are asked to pack a suitcase for you, take you to the local station, and put you on a train to an unknown destination surrounded by other children you don’t know.  As the train pulls out your mother tearfully waves you goodbye.  That was the bewildering fate of many hundreds of children from Newcastle and the east coast.

Imagine the culture shock of Joan Davies and June Dixon from Pendower School in Benwell, billeted at the remote farm of Sewingshields and attending Grindon School on the moors near the Roman Wall. They returned home after a month but many returned to Newcastle after only a few days.

Certificate issued to Mrs Lee of Bridge St., Haltwhistle in thanks for taking in evacuees.


Ernie Bainbridge remembers being evacuated at the onset of the war with his younger brother...

“At first we were at Bardon Mill then four or five months after that ....we were re- evacuated to Haltwhistle and it was with Mrs. Lindsley, 4 Teasdale Court and there  were another two evacuees there. We were a bit surprised that there were four of us and we slept in a very small room.” Ernie Bainbridge

Schools were responsible for more than lessons....

“All schools in the reception districts MUST ORGANISE EVENING RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES FOR ALL EVACUATED CHILDREN.... Such centres will generally run from 6.0 p.m. to 8.0 or 8.30 p.m.... Hot drinks in winter should be provided before the pupils leave for their billets.”  

From Evacuation of School Children and Air Raid Precautions

Ernie Bainbridge aged 12 (on the left) and his brother Roslyn aged  ten.

By the end of October, 161 had returned home from Haltwhistle, 41 from Melkridge and 116 from Greenhead.

By the end of January 1940 there were only 143 left in Haltwhistle and 30 in Greenhead.

War was declared on Sept 3rd 1939.

By the end of the second week in September Haltwhistle had welcomed 398 evacuees, Melkridge 58 and Greenhead 120.

The war comes to Haltwhistle

Ernie Bainbridge remembers.

“As the war went on we started getting air raids. We never got any bombs in Haltwhistle but we could hear the bombs being dropped. It happened particularly when the German raiders went up to Glasgow on the Clyde. They came right up the River Tyne... Mrs. Lindsley had us all crouched under the table – there were no air raid shelters.”

From his home at Ulpham near Haltwhistle, Alan Davidson remembers watching the raids on Tyneside.

“We used to sit on the wall at the back of the house and we could see Tyneside being bombed at night. Given that it was thirty miles away, all we could see were the flashes of bombs – obviously we couldn’t see the bombs hitting – and the searchlights and the flak exploding, presumably among the German aircraft.”

Alan Davidson and his brother at Kellah

From Featherstone School Headteacher’s log book

“Oct 17th   1939

Air raid warning:- received at 1.45 p.m. All the children were assembled in the large room, the younger ones being placed in the care of one of the elder ones. The head teacher read a story to them. No playtime took place, and the children were kept in the school until 3.40 when the All Clear Signal was received. The raid in progress was later ascertained to have been over Edinburgh.

Oct 30th   1939

Air raid warning:- The preliminary warning was received at 8 o’clock this morning but was followed by the “All Clear” at 8.40 a.m. In consequence the bus was late.”

Featherstone School Log book. ( Northumberland County Archive CES125/1/3 page 17 and 18)

One night Ernie Bainbridge remembers hearing a loud explosion. He was convinced that a bomb had been dropped on Haltwhistle but……..

The following day, we heard that one of the German bombers had crashed just north of The Twice Brewed close to what is now the Steel Rigg car park.

Off we went on our bicycles to have a look. Sure enough, on a hillside, there was the remains of what had been an aircraft. I remember seeing the pieces of uniform and a body before the RAP men chased us away. One of the German crew had ginger hair which took me by surprise thinking Germans did not have hair this colour.

Eventually, the aircraft was brought down through Haltwhistle on what was called a Queen Mary trailer used by the RAP (Royal Airforce Police).     

They parked in Haltwhistle market place for a while. Many local people came along to see. I remember one of the RAP chaps saying that they had better get moving, otherwise very little would be left to examine.”  

Ernie Bainbridge

The Aircraft was a Dornier 217E-4, number U5+KP from Kampfgeschwader 2 returning from a bombing raid on Edinburgh on the night of 24/25 March 1943. It was reported to have crashed at 0020 hrs, the cause of the crash being given as “other causes” in the absence of any evidence, although a Beaufighter of 219 squadron from Scorton did report an inconclusive engagement with an enemy bomber off Hartlepool at around the same time that night.  All four of the crew were killed: three of them are buried at Dalston Road Cemetery in Carlisle.

The impact crater today – the three separate depressions may indicate where the main fuselage and the two engines plummeted into the ground.

Good times as well as bad

Some of the evacuees found that life in the Tyne Valley gave them a wonderful freedom to roam and explore.

Ernie Bainbridge, along with three other evacuees, went to investigate the Alston Arches. The South Tyne was in flood, with the water crashing against the piers of the bridge.  Just above the waterline was a very narrow ledge.  Despite his friends trying to dissuade him, the most adventurous of the gang, Julius, decided to test it out.

With many soldiers training in the area around Featherstone Park, and Haltwhistle full of soldiers from Canada, Poland and the USA, resourceful children often found discarded armaments and an exciting use for them.

 “We used to find live ammunition all over the place. I had a live hand grenade until my mother found it. We literally found hundreds of rounds, live rounds, of .303 and 9 mm Sten gun ammunition. We all had pockets full of it, until my mother found it, again.” Alan Davidson

“The other thing that was found was a hand grenade detonator it looks like a miniature steel pineapple. A grenade will go off, depending on the detonator, in either 3 seconds or 6 seconds, which gives you enough time to throw it at someone you don’t like, but not enough time for him to throw it back. But this was just a detonator, and if you held it in your hand it would go off and blow your hand off at least.

“One of the kids was wandering around with this in his pocket; it doesn’t bear thinking about. Anyway, we had a meeting of all those concerned and we decided to see if we could make it go off.  We got a hammer and put a broom handle on it to extend it, and we put the detonator on a stretch of concrete.  The idea was that we’d all stand back at a safe distance and this fellow (one of the group) would lie on his stomach and reach across and hit the thing with the hammer.

“When it went off, it made a hole in the concrete...but the bits of concrete had to go somewhere and it looked like he’d developed spots because he had tiny little bits of concrete which had hit him. He was lucky that it didn’t cost him his eyes.  It worked, but we didn’t do it again!” Alan Davidson

As the war in Europe turned into an allied retreat, the threat of invasion and bombardment became more immediate. At Featherstone school:-

April 4th 1940  A bale of Reserve Stock arrived from Messrs Grant & Armstrong. This is to be held in readiness, unopened until the second evacuation takes place, if ever.

May 14th  Tuesday: School reopened today instead of Wednesday. Government ordered re-opening in reception areas for today. Instructions were contained in the wireless message on Saturday.

The evacuation of allied soldiers from Dunkirk took place between 27th  May and the early hours of 4th  June 1940.

July 8th &9th   School closed for evacuation purposes.

From Featherstone School Log Book

Preparing for invasion

“Within seconds, because of the spray, he slipped and into the river he went.  The fast flow carried him out into the middle.  By now he was screaming with terror.  We just froze.  Miraculously, the current brought him back towards the river bank further down beyond the bridge.  We all raced through the safe arched pathway, and forming a chain, I was able to reach out and grab his arm.”   Julius took his soaking clothes off and put on another boy’s overcoat.

On the way back there was a long queue outside the Gem Cinema.  “Julius was more concerned about passing all these people knowing he was naked under his the overcoat, forgetting how near death he had been.” Ernie Bainbridge

Featherstone Bridge across the South Tyne - a favourite place for local children to play