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Air Raids by John Lee

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project John Lee, from the 'Writing Together' group, reminisced about his time in the messenger service. This is his story:

In December 1939 an underground report centre was established in the grounds of Grays Museum, this was the nerve centre for all civil defence operations, a hub of activity at the outbreak of war. It was here that A.R.P. messengers, drawn from the boy scouts, boys brigade and civilian population provided a service throughout the town, relaying information to the various civil defence groups.

West Hartlepool was one of the first industrial towns in the country to experience the horror of German bombs, and for Mr Lee, his first taste of enemy action.  In 1940 four bombs were dropped.  Two people were killed, and sixty- three injured.  Over two hundred properties were destroyed or damaged.  Four bombs fell at Gunners Vale Farm at Elwick.  Buildings were demolished, but the farmer and seven others survived after taking refuge in a home made shelter.  Mr Lee’s sister found her shop in Musgrave Street had taken a direct hit.

It was in this first raid that an air raid warden was killed by enemy action.  This brave man was Mr John Punton of William Street.

The raids continued and grew in intensity.  Mr Lee was witness to the fire at Tin Boxes Ltd which suffered a direct hit.  Devastation spread across the town.  The work of civil defence went on regardless.  The attitude of the people, brave and unbending.  A report in the Northern Daily Mail read:

“The quiet demeanour and cool efficiency of hundreds of A.R.P. workers, paid and unpaid men and women, not to mention all the boy messengers, was an unfailing support to public morale.”

Mr Lee recalls a particularly tragic time when three women and six children died in a bombed out cellar, despite the efforts of the demolition squads who laboured night and day to save them.

Throughout the war Mr Lee divided his time between the steel works, and the messenger service.  A harsh environment existed in the steelworks.  The working conditions were intolerably hot and dusty due to the blackout requirements imposed by the government.  The atmosphere was laden with dust and fumes making visibility very difficult and a safety hazard.

In 1941 the house in which the grandparents of Mr Lee were sheltering was bombed.  The family of seven had taken cover in a bedplace under the stairs. They were extracted from the ruins within twenty minutes.  When Mr Lee arrived Grandad was sitting in an armchair in the middle of the road giving all his worldly goods away. He was obviously suffering from shock!

Thankfully the last record of air raids was made on March 22nd 1943.  Ever vigilant, the work of the Civil Defence continued, until at last we could all sleep safe in our beds.

The bravery of those engaged in the defence of our country has not been forgotten.

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