VE Day 60 Years: Newcastle And Tyneside - A Shipbuilding Target

By Alastair Smith
Shows a black and white photograph of a large gun pointing out to sea. Beside it stands a soldier looking out to sea with binoculars.

Guarding the north east coast. A constant guard is kept over the North Sea by the lookout man of the 508th Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery.© IWM H5799

Newcastle has recently gone through a process of modernisation that has transformed it into a bustling European city of culture. Yet behind the new developments lie clues to city's role in World War Two and the impact of the last war is still visible in many places around the city.

As an area of heavy industry, the north east was involved in the production of ships and armaments for the war effort. Because of this German bombing targeted the area, although this was not as devastating as the Blitz in London and Coventry.

In the course of researching this article I discovered a bomb had destroyed the terrace in which I live. It was then rebuilt after the war. The difference between my house and the older sections of the terrace is clear to see and I decided to investigate the story further.

I first visited Tyne and Wear Archives Service at Discovery Museum to find out more. It was here that I learned 20 houses, including the original terrace, had been destroyed in a raid on Byker and Heaton on the night of April 25 1941.

Shows a black and white photo of a smoke-filled scene.

Air raid on Newcastle. © IWM ZZZ10354C

From an original Luftwaffe map I could see that the target was probably the railway, which runs alongside the streets which were hit.

In a visit to Newcastle Libraries Local Studies and Family History Centre at the I found a photograph of Guildford Place in Heaton, which had been the scene of heavy casualties during the raid.

Air raids on Newcastle during World War Two caused 141 deaths and injured 587 more, 47 of those deaths occurred on the raid on Byker and Heaton.

The website North East Diary 1939-1945 contains a comprehensive list of all events in the North East during the war and I discovered that my street was hit by a high explosive but Guildford Place had been hit by a parachute mine, which had killed 35 people.

Shows a photo of a scorch mark on a wooden church floor.

The scorch mark on the church floor - reminder of a bomb? Photo: Alastair Smith

Another story I had heard was that St Gabriel’s Church in Heaton had been hit by an incendiary bomb.

Although I could not find any record of this event, a bomb had landed near to the church, but this does not explain the scorch mark on the church floor which, I have been told, was left by the bomb.

After seeing another photograph at City Library I set out to find a series of tank blocks on Grandstand Road near Town Moor in Newcastle. The concrete blocks are still there, partially hidden by bluebells by a busy main road and are documented on the Defence of Britain Project website.

Shows a photo of concrete slabs strewn along a long grass verge by a road.

Tank Traps on Grandstand Road in Newcastle. Photo: Alastair Smith

Another of Newcastle’s architectural oddities, which is linked to the Second World War, is the Victoria Tunnel in Ouseburn which was used as an air raid shelter for 9000 local people.

The tunnel was originally constructed as an underground waggonway to take coal 2.4 kilometres (almost one and a half miles) from the Spital Tongues Colliery to Newcastle Quay.

One of the largest single losses of life in the North East happened in an air raid shelter in the nearby town of North Shields.

Shows a black and white photo of a bombed factory.

Wilkinson's lemonade factory was flattened. Courtesy North Tyneside Libraries.

On May 3 1941 103 people were killed as they sheltered in the basement of Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory. A direct hit caused the heavy machinery on the factory floor to collapse onto the shelter below.

A plaque was unveiled at Beacon Shopping Centre in North Shields as a memorial to those who died at Wilkinson’s.

The website Westall’s War tells the full story of the disaster as told by Robert Westall, author of The Machine Gunners, who lived in North Shields during the war.

Tyneside’s War, The Home Front 1939-1945 at the in Exhibition Park, Newcastle also focuses on what the war was like for those who lived on Tyneside.

Shows a photo of a domed building on the bank of a river.

The Military Vehicle Museum at Exhibtion Park. Photo: Alastair Smith

Because of the key industries in the area it was believed that Newcastle and North Tyneside was going to be a main target for enemy bombing and many children were evacuated to places like Archbold Hall in Wooler, Northumberland or to Cumbria.

Before war was declared 31,222 children were evacuated from Newcastle schools on September 1 1939 and 12,818 mothers and children under school age were evacuated the next day. A Soldier’s Story at Discovery Museum in Newcastle has more information about the home front and features a reconstruction of an Anderson air raid shelter, designed to be constructed in back gardens.

Shows a photo of an Anderson type air raid shelter with mother and child mannequins.

The reconstructed air raid shelter at Discovery. Courtesy Discovery Museum.

Throughout the war there were many visitors to Newcastle including Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and two separate visits by the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who visited residential areas in Byker and Heaton on 7th April 1943.

On their first visit the King and Queen had visited the shipyards in Newcastle and North Tyneside which were busy throughout the war.

The Story of the Tyne at Discovery Museum has more information about the shipyards at Wallsend, Walker and Elswick and for a modern view of the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend, a trip up the viewing tower at Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum is recommended.

Shows a black and white photograph of a female welder standing in a shipyard.

Study of a female welder at a north east shipyard, by Cecil Beaton. © IWM

In exploring the history of Newcastle and North Tyneside we can better understand how the area has developed and we can find clues, which tell us about our past.

Questions such as why my house is different to the rest of the street and why there are large concrete blocks by the side of the road are answered by researching the past and by visiting the many museums, archives and websites available.

Thanks to Imperial War Museum North for photos featured from the North at War exhibition.

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.

If you have memories of the North East during wartime and would like to contribute or comment on this trail, try Storymaker our free and easy-to-use web facility that enables members of the public, working with the support of journalists at the 24 Hour Museum, to get their stories online.

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.