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Survivor remembers North Shields Blitz tragedy

By Peter Harris
BBC Look North

Millie says the memory of walking over dead bodies haunted her for a long time

The first German bombs fell on the north-east of England 70 years ago.

By the end of World War II almost 7,000 civilians in the region had been killed or maimed by bombing raids.

Cold statistics rarely do a tale of desperate human suffering justice - but the story of North Shields might just be different.

In a single night, still within living memory, 41 children died together in a basement on Tyneside.

Now read that line to yourself again.

And again.

To most of us, the events of the Blitz are now so distant they might never have happened at all - until you meet those who were actually there. Those who witnessed it remember every second as if it was yesterday.

Millie Matthews is one of those people. Now in her 80s, she was 13 in 1941.

There was screaming, there was shouting, people just wanted to get out
Millie Matthews

When the sirens sounded just after 11pm on the night of 3 May, Millie and around 200 others crammed into the Wilkinson's shelter, beneath the town's lemonade factory.

Crashing down

It was Saturday night and music from an accordion filled the shelter.

They couldn't hear the bombs falling; they didn't hear the direct hit that crashed through the factory at quarter to 12.

This rare footage shows people amid the rubble after a raid on Newcastle

And when the bomb exploded on the floor above them it sent heavy machinery crashing down on the people cowering below.

Ninety six people died there and then; others died later from their injuries.

Yet the thing Millie remembers most in the seconds after the impact seems unusual. She remembers silence.

Millie said: "It was very, very quiet and then everybody realised what was happening. There was screaming, there was shouting, people just wanted to get out."

Most of the dead were buried together, their graves side by side in long rows in Preston cemetery. Many contain the remains of families - mothers, fathers, children, buried together.

Even now, there are fresh flowers placed on some.

Family impact

The North Shields tragedy was the biggest single loss of life in the region from World War II bombing but its suffering was far from unique.

Imagine, for instance, the impact on South Shields as German bombers laid waste to the market place in a 90-minute blitz the same year. Sixty eight died.

Bomb damage in North Shields, April 1941

Imagine the impact on a single family - the Andersons of Wallsend - who lost nine family members in two separate raids on the shipyard town.

And on it went: 141 died in Newcastle, 36 in Wallsend, 220 in the county borough of Tynemouth, 38 in Jarrow.

In all, nearly 7,000 civilians were killed or injured as a result of the bombing of the North East.

But those are just statistics - they say nothing of the orphaned children who are still with us, and whose lives were shattered, and they say nothing of the sheer grief of small North East towns.

But somehow no words can ever say enough, unless you dwell on that one hideous fact: 41 children died in one night in a basement on Tyneside.




SEE ALSO
When the blitz came to Wearside
20 May 10 |  History
In pictures: The Wearside Blitz
21 May 10 |  People & Places
In pictures: Tyneside in the Blitz
24 May 10 |  History
'I was standing on dead bodies'
21 May 10 |  History
Old film shows air raid damage
24 May 10 |  History

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