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How the Hand of God delivered a devastating blow to Beamish community
A mining community devastated by a wartime bombing raid has commemorated its 70th anniversary. Gavin Havery spoke to those who survived Hitler’s bombs.
IN the early hours of May 1, 1942, the Luftwaffe flew over the region loaded with explosives designed to destroy Durham Cathedral.
But, before the bombers reached their target, mist from the River Wear gathered around the peninsula, and hid the Norman structure.
The Cuthbert Shroud, as it has become known, has been seen by some as the Hand of God protecting a world famous shrine from destruction.
But it would prove devastating for the community of Beamish, near Stanley, which was on the receiving end of the three 1,000lb bombs that fell from the sky.
One damaged houses and shops in Station Road; a second, fused with a six-hour delay, exploded on the colliery railway embankment; but the third lay undiscovered after plunging through the roof of a nearby building, the rear quarters of a shop, becoming buried in the foundations.
It was on an 18-hour time delay and duly exploded that evening, destroying surrounding houses, causing the eight deaths, seriously wounding seven others and leaving a further 28 casualties.
Jim Healy, who was 18 and had his RAF call up papers in his pocket, had been to the cinema with his girlfriend, 17-year-old Gwen Hannant.
The explosion killed her outright and left him trapped beneath rubble.
Mr Healy, now 88 and living in Delves Lane, near Consett, said: ‘‘I was standing close to her and finished up with broken legs and was rescued by two men from Craghead who I was familiar with.
‘‘It is important to remember what happened because it was a milestone in my own life, but also in the region’s history.’’ THE dead included three children, Sylvia Spence, ten, eight-year-old Irene Seymour and Clive Lawson, the nine-year-old adopted son of local MP Jack Lawson, later to become Labour peer Lord Lawson of Beamish.
Special Constables Sam Edgell, 63, and Robert Reay, 61, were also killed.
The other victims were Matilda Seymour, the 77-year-old grandmother of Irene, and Sylvia’s mother, 45-year-old Elizabeth Ann Spence.
Little was reported of the tragedy at the time due to the wartime blackout on bad news, but the story of the raid was researched by local historian Jack Hair, who published a book, The Bombs at Beamish.
He said: ‘‘At 9pm an explosion erupted into the evening sky and across the road in the direction of the direction of the bus stop.
‘‘Trees were uprooted. Stones, glass and people were hurled into the air.
‘‘Villagers rushed from their homes to the scene only to be greeted by a cloud of dust and smoke temporarily hiding the horrendous scene.
‘‘After what seemed like an eternity, the dust finally settled and they could not believe their eyes.
‘‘Twisted mangled bodies lay all around, and the injured lay among the dead, too stunned to even cry out.’’ The book has been republished and was available at a ceremony held at the memorial in the village on Saturday at 11am, to mark the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, before commemorations were held at Beamish Museum later in the day.
It was attended by 83-year-old Joyce Nichol, of Craghead, Stanley, who was 13 at the time and has not been back to the village since the tragedy.
She was standing at the stop with her mother and her sister and woke up after the explosion in Chester-le-Street Hospital after suffering a serious head injury and losing the marriage finger of her left hand. Her mother and sister were killed in the blast.
Syd Wears, who was nine at the time also attended the service and chatted with Mrs Nichol.
He also suffered a serious head wound during the blast, and said it was so strong the laces were blown out of his shoes and the buttons were blown off his jacket.
Hazel Rainbow, 70, of East Stanley, was a four-month-old babe in arms and survived the delayed blast with her mother, Charlotte Thompson, whose head was badly cut.
Mrs Rainbow, said: ‘‘We were in it and we both survived so I feel very lucky, but it was very unfortunate for the people who were killed.
‘‘It is something that happened that need not have. It should always be remembered.’’