THE 75th anniversary of one of our region’s most tragic incidents of the Second World War has passed without a peep.

On June 22, 1940, off the mouth of the Tees, a newly-built French warship was sunk by a German mine. Forty-three French sailors perished, along with 18 – possibly 23 – local men who had helped to build it.

Not a word appears to have been reported in the newspapers of the day, and the death notices placed by the families of the dead men did not hint that they had been involved in a military disaster.

The Teesside men who died were all civilians – they were all shipbuilders – and so their names are not recorded on any official war memorial.

Now a group of interested people is trying to right this wrong, but the known details are confused and sometimes contradictory: can you help?

The Northern Echo: AT WORK: Edward Bitter, of Peterlee, at Smith's Dock in August 1966, with Manchester Progress taking shape behind him
AT WORK: Edward Bitter, of Peterlee, at Smith's Dock in August 1966, with Manchester Progress taking shape behind him

La Bastiaise was one of four Flower-class corvettes ordered by the French navy from the Smith’s Dock Company on Teesside in 1939. But as the vessel neared completion, so France veered towards defeat.

On June 22, 1940, in the same railway carriage in which beaten Germany had agreed an armistice with victorious France at the end of the First World War, an armistice was agreed between beaten France and victorious Germany, and the French, including their navy, fell under the control of Adolf Hitler.

Those Frenchmen who disagreed with their country’s capitulation formed the Free French forces, and, on the day the armistice was signed, it was members of the Free French navy who were on Teesside testing out La Bastiaise. They were all young men in smart uniforms and white caps with red tufted pompoms on top.

The Northern Echo: WORKING SHIPYARD: Smith's Dock, in March 1967. The yard closed in 1987
WORKING SHIPYARD: Smith's Dock, in March 1967. The yard closed in 1987

Joining them to test La Bastiaise were 25 members of Smith’s Dock design team, plus some sub-contractors from Morpeth who had been involved in the project.

The night before the trial run, there had been a German air raid over the North-East coast, sending most of the population into their underground bunkers for three hours. The Northern Echo reported that “incendiary bombs were dropped on the cliffs but they rolled into the a North-East coast resort, 36 wooden bungalows near the beach were badly damaged. Miss M Jarvis, a holidaymaker, was sleeping in one of the bungalows. She received foot injuries and was taken to hospital”.

The reports were compiled under wartime restrictions which prevented any information that might have been useful to the enemy from being published. Therefore, the Echo said only that in “a North-East town a baby was born in a public shelter during the raid...three people died from shock”– the shock of hearing the bombs falling above them rather than of the sight of the birth.

There is no hint in the report that these were anything other than incendiary bombs.

But they were.

Perhaps, with hindsight, someone might have questioned why the Germans were targeting beach huts and seafront chalets.

Because really the Germans had more deadly intent: they were dropping mines into the shallow coastal waters.

But these were not floating mines like the ones you see in the movies, covered in spikes and bobbing about in the waves. These were “magnetic mines” which sank out of sight to the seabed. When a metal ship passed above it, the ship altered the natural magnetic field of the seabed, triggering the mine.

When La Bastiaise passed above it, the men in the steelworks at Warrenby – where the remains of SSI are today – saw it blown out of the water.

There was a rescue operation, and a few lucky souls were plucked from the water. The French commandant, Georges Lacombe, was one of them, and he and his surviving crew were found accommodation in the Zetland Hotel in Saltburn, before being taken home where Monsieur Lacombe died of his injuries.

The French authorities believe 43 of the sailors perished in the incident, and it is believed that of the 25 Smith’s Dock employees on board, only six made it alive to the shore. However, because of the uncertainty surrounding which civilians were on board, the shipyard may have lost as many as 22 men, which would take the total deaths on La Bastiaise to 65.

In the days after, cryptic death notices appeared in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette stating that the deceased had died “suddenly at sea”.

There was just one funeral, of Alex Henderson, an engineer of South Bank who was laid to rest in Eston Cemetery. Mr Henderson, 64, is known to have survived the explosion and was seen alive in the water by one of the survivors before the rescuers could arrive. His body was washed up on the shore the following day.

Presumably, then, the other bodies were never recovered (the wreck of La Bastiaise was discovered in 2004 lying in about 40ft of water), and a memorial service for those men was held in South Bank parish church on July 7.

But not a word was reported. What the Free French navy was up to was just too sensitive to allow the Germans even a sniff of.

Since 2008, the Friends of Smith’s Dock Park War Memorial have been fund-raising and hope to have a monument ready for next year’s anniversary.

“We want the memorial to be for all of them, but we don’t want to get it wrong,” says Liz Chambers, chairman of the Friends.

So if you have any information on La Bastiaise or the men who died, Liz would love to hear from you. Either contact her through Memories (details at the top of the page), or direct: or 01642 294349 or 07708-020128.

The men believed to have died were (not all spellings are exact): Johan Gustof Andersson, of South Bank, RM Balls, JM Broad, Charles Edwin Crowell, John William Dobson, Frank English, Robert E Fenwick, William Gent, V Hansson, Charles William Hall of Stokesley, Alec Henderson, 64, of South Bank, S Hickling, Thomas Hunter, 58, the Tees Pilot of Middlesbrough, FA Morton, Thomas Alfred Moremon, Herbert Pateman of Middlesbrough, Louis Stanley Powell of Normanby, William Pringle, 58, of Saltburn, Harry Rackshaw of Middlesbrough, Howard William Townshend of Eaglescliffe, W Young.

EXACTLY 150 years ago, the Richmond and Ripon Chronicle reported that an “exciting scene between a clergyman and his parishioners” had taken place at Evenwood, near Bishop Auckland. And it really must have been a very exciting incident.

The Northern Echo: RANDOLPH COLLIERY: The Evenwood pit was owned by William Randolph Innes Hopkins
RANDOLPH COLLIERY: The Evenwood pit was owned by William Randolph Innes Hopkins

Rapid growth of population in the colliery district had caused the Church of England to carve a new parish out of Auckland St Andrew, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had granted the vicar, the Rev C Palmer, part of Evenwood village green on which to build a church with a churchyard.

“Some of the parishioners disputed the legality of disposing of the ground, and on its being rumoured that formal possession of the green would be taken on Thursday for the purpose of building a charge, the villagers gathered in considerable numbers about the middle of the day,” said the paper, which is now part of the Echo’s sister paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times. “Amongst the company were some of the principal inhabitants, who expressed their determination to prevent, by every possible means, any attempt to deprive them of their place of recreation by turning it into a graveyard.”

The vicar and his party arrived shortly after midday and sparked a six hour stand-off with a group of “dissentients” who were determined to “prevent the consummation of the undertaking”.

At 6pm, after an afternoon of antagonism, the architect, Jonathan Ross, arrived from Darlington, with the church plans. Mr Ross was just beginning the biggest project of his life in Nunthorpe, building the Grey Towers mansion for coalowner William Randolph Innes Hopkins, and Mr Hopkins’ biggest pit was the one that bore his middle name, Randolph, at Evenwood.

The Northern Echo: EDGE OF THE GREEN: St Paul's Church, Evenwood, is screened from the village green by trees
EDGE OF THE GREEN: St Paul's Church, Evenwood, is screened from the village green by trees

On the ground on the green, Mr Ross laid out four stobs – pieces of wood – to represent the four corners of the proposed church.

“As soon as he attempted to drive in the first one, Mr Matthew Bowman stepped forward and said, ‘We don’t intend to allow that’, and suiting the action to the word, he kicked the piece of wood and broke it to pieces, and following Mr Ross to the other three corners, made all the stobs disappear by the same process,” said the report.

The Northern Echo: ST PAUL'S CHURCH: The first plans were by Darlington architect John Ross
ST PAUL'S CHURCH: The first plans were by Darlington architect John Ross

The vicar called on the policeman, Superintendent Henderson, to take Mr Bowman into custody, and Supt Henderson said that a better course of action would be for a summons to be taken out against the stob-kicker so that he could be tried for wilful damage.

A deputation of the leading villagers then descended on the Bishop of Durham, in Auckland Castle.

The Northern Echo:
COALOWNER: William Randolph Innes Hopkins (1827-1920), of Grey Towers, Nunthorpe, whose architect tried to build a church on Evenwood green

The article concluded: “His Lordship promised them to go to Evenwood to see the place, and to do all he could to amicably and peaceably settle the dispute, and here the matter now rests.”

St Paul’s Church at Evenwood was completed, at a cost £2,780, within two years. But it stands on the very edge of the very large village green, in a small, tree-lined plot without a graveyard – it looks as if the bishop was able to compromise with the angry villagers.