Film star Anthony Quayle featured in memorable war movies from Ice Cold in Alex and the Battle of the River plate to The Eagle Has landed, the Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia.

But his actual wartime exploits saw him serve as a key figure in a “secret army” being readied in Northumberland in case Germany had invaded during the Second World War.

The then Captain Quayle was intelligence officer for the Northumberland and Scottish Borders hand-picked patrol units, most of whose members were drawn from the Home Guard.

If an invasion had taken place, they would have gone underground and later re-emerged as a resistance army of snipers, trained in unarmed combat, explosives and sabotage.

The actor’s involvement is recounted in a new book which focuses on how the war impacted on people in the North East.

Neil Storey and partner Fiona Kay, who live in Cramlington in Northumberland, have carried out extensive research in the region’s archives, and have also gathered material from newspapers and first-hand accounts of the time, and family stories.

An air raid helmet store in Newcastle.
An air raid helmet store in Newcastle.

The actor later operated with partisans in Albania as part of his role with the Special Operations Executive, which dealt in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.

“Looking back on his time in Northumberland, Quayle recalled how impressed he was by the commitment and skills demonstrated by the patrols,” said Neil, a social historian specialising in the effect of war on British society.

“He maintained the men of the Northumberland patrols demonstrated some of the finest fieldcraft skills he had ever seen.”

The units were trained in locations near Alnwick and Belford. They included characters such as the Alnwick’s one-armed mole catcher Peter Robson, who was an excellent marksman.

Bob Hall ran the patrols which operated out of concealed bunkers near Bedlington, Chevington, Stobswood, Ellington and Cramlington. He would recall later: “I recruited them on unusual grounds. I liked to hear of troublemakers, rabble rousers, and fighters – or chaps who wanted excitement.”

Although Quayle gets an honourable mention, Neil and Fiona’s book is largely about the so-called “ordinary” folk of Tyneside.

“Ordinary” though is not a word that can be applied to Mrs Estella Miller, of Brock Street in Byker in Newcastle, who was 80 when the Second World War began.

A mother of 22 children, she had served as a nurse in the Zulu wars and the Boer War – during which she was caught up in the sieges of Ladysmith and Mafeking – as well as the First World War.

She volunteered for service at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle which had to decline because of her failing eyesight, so she devoted herself to knitting items for soldiers.

Mrs Mary Janet Climpson, from Newcastle, had also served in France in the First World War with the Salvation Army, and returned there in 1939 with the British Expeditionary Force.

Mrs Climpson, aged 56, was the first woman to be killed while serving alongside the BEF when in 1940 the military convoy of which she was travelling was attacked by German aircraft.

Many women worked in Tyneside industries and in the Women’s Land Army. There were 1,250 WLA members in Northumberland and 865 in County Durham.

Pupils from Whickham View School in Newcastle digging for victory.
Pupils from Whickham View School in Newcastle digging for victory.

The WLA ran mobile rat-catching units, and Wynifred Allon – in peacetime a Whitley Bay florist – and Newcastle clerk Audrey Lambert were part of one such team who would bag up to 200 rats a day.

One group at Cornhill in Northumberland killed more than 1,000 rats in three days on a local farm.

Neil says: “There is so much material in the archives and the stories of people need to be told and shared. It is about the Geordie spirit.

“Newcastle was the first British city to fill its entire quota for its Territorial Army units months before the outbreak of war.

“At the moment the Second World War is only narrowly hanging on in the national schools curriculum. Those of us who grew up in the last quarter of the 20th century are the last generation to have had the chance of really knowing those who lived through the war years.”

But the authors are anxious that what was undertaken is not forgotten, such as the sacrifices of the Merchant Navy.

In a 1944 visit to South Shields, First Lord of the Admiralty Albert Alexander said: “More sons of South Shields have paid the supreme sacrifice under the Red Ensign than from any other town in the country.”

An early consequence of war was the evacuation, by early September 1939, of 50,000 children from Newcastle and Gateshead to safer areas in Northumberland, County Durham, Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

Evacuee youngsters leaving South Shields in 1941.
Evacuee youngsters leaving South Shields in 1941.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Fiona’s mother Dorothy, who was one of the evacuees.

The situation was somewhat reversed later in the war when 800 mothers and children were evacuated from London to Newcastle to escape the V1 and V2 flying bombs falling on the capital.

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At the start of the war, Newcastle’s city engineers estimated that enough air raid shelters were needed to accommodate 220,000 people.

In June 1940, the first civilian deaths occurred when an RAF aircraft, returning from a raid, hit a barrage balloon and fell on a house in Ashington, killing a couple and their daughter.

In an attack by German bombers in April 1941, a parachute mine killed 35 people in Guildford Place in Heaton in Newcastle, including six members of the Angus family and four from the Hagon family.

Air raid aftermath in Guildford Place, Heaton, Newcastle.
Air raid aftermath in Guildford Place, Heaton, Newcastle.

At nearby Cheltenham Terrace, four members of the Robson family lost their lives.

In the same month, incendiary bombs fell on and around gas holders in Tynemouth. With gas hissing from holes in the holders it was feared that a major explosion could take place.

Newcastle and Gateshead Gas company foreman Joseph Callaghan climbed up the 60ft holders and began sealing the holes until he was overcome by fumes.

Yard manager George Duncan was dealing with the incendiaries while his 20-year-old daughter Lorna, in only a dressing gown, scaled one of the holders carrying a bucket of clay to plug the holes.

“Tynesiders are modest folk and what may seem to us to be remarkable achievements were shrugged off as something they had to do and they simply got on with it,” says Neil.

Newcastle and Tyneside in the Second World War: the People’s Story, is £11.99 from Tyne Bridge Publishing.