Sunderland Stories: Sunderland and The Blitz

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They came over the North Sea, fast and fairly low on a clear warm night. On June 21, 1940, the first alarm was given. The Second World War had arrived in Tyne & Wear.

The Germans started their operation called The Blitz, the strategic bombing of the United Kingdom. Before the people of Sunderland could get out of bed and get into a shelter, the German bombers were here and dropped three bombs near the beach. The air raids continued for the next three years, during the night and sometimes throughout the day, with up to 20 bombs being dropped within a two-minute period.

Sunderland was one of the most bombed cities in the Second World War due to its huge shipyard industry. The damage was so severe that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the city in April 1943 to see the destruction for themselves. The main purpose of the air raids was to put Sunderland’s port out of action and destroy the local railways, but the Nazis never achieved their goal. The German attempts to obliterate North Dock, Hudson Dock or the Queen Alexandra Bridge failed and the bombs hit homes instead. The Luftwaffe even owned a precise map of this area, presumably produced by a local spy who worked for the Nazis, which showed the intended main targets. This map, which can be seen at the Local Studies Centre at Sunderland City Library and Arts Centre, is proof for the prestige of Sunderland in the industrial world at that time. Ships were built from 1346 onwards in Sunderland. Between 1939 and 1945 Wearside launched 245 merchant ships, which was a quarter of the merchant tonnage produced in the UK at that time. Over the years the competition from overseas caused a downturn to the industry and the last shipyard closed in 1988. However during wartime the shipyards produced mainly cargo ships to keep the supplies open and replace those lost at sea, according to the Local Studies Centre. The production made Sunderland a main target for the Germans, which is why it was attacked so many times.

The bombing was not concentrated on one particular area and different parts of Sunderland tended to get bombed each time. The cityscape was different of course, because large parts that are built up nowadays were just green fields back then. But streets, churches and residential areas were bombed alike, leaving hundreds of people homeless and making everyday life very difficult. The local railway station was attacked in 1941 by two high explosive bombs. Fawcett Street and the nearby areas were bombed more than once. The famous Victoria Hall, which was located close to Mowbray Park, was completely destroyed by a parachute mine, a type of bomb that explodes as soon as it touches ground and therefore causes widespread damage. The raid lasted for six hours, leaving ten people dead, 130 injured and only the shell of the building itself standing. The Winter Gardens were damaged beyond repair by the same mine as Victoria Hall. It took years to rebuild the site, with the new glass palace opening in 2001. When St. George’s square was targeted 18 people died.

The last bomb fell on May 23, 1943. May was considered one of the worst months for the bombings as 160 people were killed, with up to 130 bombs dropped each day. According to Martin Routledge from Sunderland Museums and Heritage, a total of 1,013 houses were destroyed, 2,700 more were badly damaged and another 32,000 were damaged in some way, leaving Sunderland behind in ashes and with 267 dead citizens.

Former bombing sites have since been transformed into the built-up areas with shops, flats and offices that we see today. The most prominent buildings of Sunderland stand on bombed places, such as the new and modern railway station, built because the old buildings were destroyed. The former Empress Hotel and a covered market were located where the central shopping precinct and market square is where we go shopping today. The Nazis never achieved what they wanted, because the local port was never out of action, but nonetheless Sunderland learned the cruelty of war the hard way.

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