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18 June 2014
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Sunderland shipyards
Ship on River Wear with barrage balloons, 1941

© The Sunderland Echo
Sunderland's shipyards during WW2

During World War II, Sunderland’s port, coalmine and shipyards made it a prime target for Hitler’s bombers. Disabling Sunderland’s shipyards would have been a particularly attractive prospect as the disruption to the area would have had knock-on effects across the United Kingdom.

Despite its ups and downs, Sunderland had long been hailed as the largest shipbuilding town in the world. The 169,001 tons built by Sunderland’s shipyards in 1938 is overshadowed by Clyde’s 286,420. However, according to J.W. Smith and T.S. Holden in ‘Where ships were born’, crucially the latter’s production was spread across a number of locations, whereas Sunderland’s was concentrated in one town.

Mrs Churchill
Mrs Churchill on a visit to Sunderland's shipyards, 1943
© The Sunderland Echo
Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II, the town experienced a boom in its shipbuilding business; Sunderland’s shipyards were crucial to the war effort. As the naval fleet and merchant vessels fell victim to the enemy’s submarine attacks, Sunderland played a crucial role in building new ships and repairing damaged ones. The strategic importance of the area meant that those who lived there were under constant threat of bombing.

In May 1943, Sunderland was the target of a series of heavy raids. In an article which appeared in the Sunderland Echo, the raid of 16th May 1943 was described as “one of the worst raids of the war”. A graphic picture of the danger and destruction is painted in the newspaper’s coverage:

“Showers of incendiary bombs as well as high explosives were dropped and these caused several fires, some of which burned furiously for a considerable time.”

Woman shipyard worker
Women were drafted in to work on Sunderland's shipyards
© The Sunderland Echo
There were considerable casualties and areas of the town and shipyards were damaged. In the wake of these attacks, attempts were made by those in authority to revive the morale of those living under the constant threat of death. In 1943, King George VI and in 1944, Mrs Churchill, visited the Sunderland works.

During the war, the traditionally male-dominated environment was home to a new type of worker: women. In order to keep the yards running at maximum capacity, women were called in to help.

The following photo gallery demonstrates the hardships suffered by the people of Sunderland during World War II on account of their shipyards, which made them a target for bombing raids.

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