Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of a wartime bombing raid that devastated a North- East mining community. 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 intent on destruction.

But before the bombers reached their target, Durham Cathedral, mist from the River Wear gathered around the peninsula, and hid the Norman shrine.

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The Cuthbert Shroud, as it as become known, has been seen by some as the Hand of God protecting a world famous place of worship 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, exploding 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, killing eight people, 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 the 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 nineyear- 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, 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 because of 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.

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.

Hazel Rainbow, 70, of East Stanley, was four-months-old and survived one of the delayed blasts 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.”