Life in a 'Front Line' Town


The information provided here is taken from my book, Hastings at War and is intended only to offer a glimpse of how a 'front line' town suffered during World War Two.  The book contains much more detailed information, personal memories and over 80 photographs.

1938-1939

The prospect of a protracted and costly war, which would come to affect Hastings deeply, could not have been anticipated as the political situation in Europe slowly worsened throughout the late 1930s.  As early as 1935 Hastings had established an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Committee, brought about by a letter from the Home Office, dated 6 July 1935.

By December 1937 it was decided that the north-west stand of the Bathing Pool should be converted into the Central Distribution Station of the ARP, which would house all the necessary equipment.  

On Saturday 29 January 1938, Hastings got its first taste of what was to come when the RAF launched two mock attacks on Hastings and St Leonards.  The first was a bombing raid and the second was a gas attack.  The attack was designed to test the communication and abilities of the Special Constabulary, the ARP wardens, St John Ambulance Brigade, British Red Cross and 5th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment.  The mock attack seemed to have passed with only limited success.  The official report into the exercise noted 'that as a whole the exercise was successful, but the lack of trained personnel was a handicap...'

By 1 October 1938, over 47,000 gasmasks had been distributed in the town to local residents.  At Hastings Grammar School, the boys spent the beginning of the Michaelmas term not in lessons, but rather digging trenches to be used for air-raid protection.  M. Desmond Paine, a pupil at the school recalls, 'We began by digging trenches on the sacred prefect's lawn and with railway sleepers built shelters.  Until the beaches were wired and mined, we spent many afternoons filling sandbags for the local defences.'

The town's first blackout passed off successfully on Saturday 8 July 1939 as part of a wider test across Sussex and Kent.  The public had been asked to extinguish lights from 11pm until 4am and, with a few exceptions, the town fell into the darkness of the county at the allotted time.

On 1 September 1939, despite the upbeat atmosphere in Hastings, the inevitable outbreak of war was signalled when Hitler's armies marched into Poland.  Just before 11.30am the same day, the first influx of 300 evacuees arrived at Hastings train station.  That evening a further 350 patients arrived who had been removed from London hospitals.

On 3 September 1939 came the news which everybody feared.  At 11.15am wirelesses across the nation broadcast Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's solemn news to a quiet, expectant country: Hitler had not replied to the ultimatum to withdraw his troops from Poland, and therefore, a state of war existed between Germany and England.  Brenda Glazier was attending Sunday School at the time and, with the rest of the Sunday School, was told to go home: 'I rushed up the hill and I ran indoors and said, "Mummy, I've got to put my gasmask on because there is now war", and I was very scared.'

1940

From 8 January 1940 Hastings residents were limited as to how much bacon, butter and sugar they could purchase from their local shops.  Other items which were added to the list in 1940 were tea, cream, meat and petrol.  

Day-to-day life in the town changed constantly as more and more regulations came into force.  Church bells were ordered to remain silent, to be used only in the event of enemy parachutists or airborne troops landing in the town.  Overnight the town suffered the consequences of war further when, on Friday 21 June, it lost its identity with the removal of all signposts, posters, bus signage and so on bearing the town's name.  The seriousness of the situation was further compounded when Hastings became part of a strip of land approximately 20 miles wide extending from the east coast of England through to Portland, known as a Defence Area, which essentially banned all non-residents.  Road blocks were installed at all entry points to the town and were strictly guarded by the military.

The final evidence that Hastings was in grave danger came with the re-evacuation of the London children who had made Hastings their home for 9 months.  It could only be a matter of time until Hastings' own vulnerable were removed to safer areas.

Just five days before the first enemy attack on Hastings, some 3,000 school children were evacuated to 'safe' reception areas in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.  All Hastings schools were closed with immediate effect.

At around 7.15am on Friday 26 July 1940, a lone German bomber dropped 11 HE (High Explosive) bombs on the West Hill and Cricket Ground areas of Hastings, killing one and seriously injuring two.  One of the bombs exploded in front of 10 and 11 Gladstone Terrace, bringing the fronts of the two houses down along with number 22 opposite.  Beryl Latimer was asleep in number 10 Gladstone Terrace when the bomb detonated and recalls: 'My father had left for work at the Gas Works in Bulverhythe and my mother was in the kitchen cleaning the fire grate.  My sister Hazel and I were still in bed, fortunately sharing a back bedroom.  The bomb exploded at the front of the building, exposing the back rooms, so we were left with our bed sloping towards the front and had a problem getting out of it.  Mother was buried under the bricks from the chimney breast.  The Civil Defence arrived and took at least a couple of hours to get her out, and when they did, she was badly shocked and covered in soot...'  Bombings such as this continued apace throughout 1940, producing recollections and memories ranging from horrifying to humorous.

1941

Although 1941 would be a year in which the loss of life in Hastings as a result of enemy action would be avoided, the anticipation of peace was sadly without foundation.  Enemy raiders began visiting the town more often at night, making their presence more terrifyingly known.  Increasingly they were unleashing the incendiary bomb on the town, its purpose twofold: firstly to cause maximum damage and destruction, and secondly to illuminate blacked out areas for subsequent attacks with the more damaging HE bombs.

Residents were encouraged to form fire-watching parties to protect their own and neighbouring properties.  The advice given was that all premises must be easy to enter and that a rake, sand, water and a ladder be to hand so that fire-bombs could be dealt with quickly.

For Hastings residents rationing was accepted as a necessity of war, and had to be made the best of, meals being made of anything which could be found.  Additions to the food rationing scheme were made in March 1941, with cheese, marmalade and jams now included.  Later in 1941 tinned fish, meat and vegetables joined the list of rationed goods.

Although there had been a lull in the bombings since the end of January, members of the public were able to obtain a Morrison shelter free of charge, if their income did not exceed 350 per year.  Due to the high number of night raids in 1941, many people took to sleeping in the shelters each night, regardless of the air-raid sirens.

1942

The blanket removal of all scrap metal, railings and gates from around the town, to be melted down for munitions, swung into operation in early 1942.  All metal found on private property was also to be included, unless its removal would prove to be dangerous.

A divisive change of tactic occurred in March 1942 when fighter-bombers were modified to carry bombs.  This resulted in what were termed tip-and-run raids whereby, as the name suggests, the German fighter-bomber would tip his bomb load and run back to France.  The first tip-and-run raid in Hastings occurred on 17 May when four Messerschmitt 109s circled the town, machine-gunning the streets in the West Hill area.  Twenty-eight year-old Constance Ethel Torrance was killed when a bullet penetrated the window of her house, 60 St George's Road.

At 4.20pm on Thursday 24 September 1942 came the worst attack seen so far in terms of lives lost.  Seven fighter-bombers, with an escort of fighters, swept in low over the rooftops and dropped large bombs at Warrior Square, Quarry Hill, the West Hill and De Cham Road, whilst showering the town with cannon-fire.  Twenty-three people were killed and 43 were injured.  Among the dead were blind residents Dorothy Dean and Edith Mary Waite in the National Institute for the Blind Home at Quarry Hill, which suffered a direct hit.  The residents were being led to an air-raid shelter when a wing of the building bore the full brunt of the bomb.

Gordon Dengate remembers going with Dengate furniture removers to one of the houses adjoining those flattened in Warrior Square soon after the incident of 24 September: 'We got called to Warrior Square and a bomb had fallen, and it was amazing how it had happened. it looked as if somebody had just taken a couple of houses out and there was just a gap there.  We had to go in the next house up and get the furniture out and the police or Air Raid Warden said to us that the staircase was alright, but whatever we did, not to lean on the wall, what was now the outer wall.  I remember that on one of the landings on this outside wall was a big mirror, a massive great mirror, and it was still hanging there and it wasn't broken and yet the whole other side of the wall had gone.'

1943

Death and destruction came to Hastings on 11 March 1943, in the heaviest and worst raid it would see throughout the war.  Between 3.32pm and 3.36pm., 20 Focke-Wulf 190s crossed the channel at Fairlight then came in line abreast at 'zero feet' (rooftop height), while a further eight Focke-Wulf 190s patrolled just off shore.  This spectacular scene must have frightened residents immensely, as a salvo of 25 powerful High Explosive bombs were dropped randomly over the town.

The devastation inflicted upon the town was unprecedented, with 38 people losing their lives, 39 seriously injured and 51 slightly injured.  Eileen Parish recalls witnessing this attack: 'My friend Mrs Levett in Perth Road was bombed.  She was sitting by the fire when it happened and was burnt all down one side. She later told me that when the firemen were hosing the house, she was trying to catch the water in her mouth because she was so terribly thirsty.  She was trapped in the house and it took them a long time to dig her out.  She was very badly burned, but was a tough old bird...'

Two months after the 11 March 1943 attacks, disaster was to strike once more with the second worst raid on the town.  At 12.59pm on Sunday 23 May, 10 Focke-Wulf 190s swept in at rooftop height, machine-gunning the town at the same as releasing 25 bombs, which scored direct hits on five public houses and two hotels filled with diners.  Twenty-five people were killed in this Hastings raid, 30 seriously injured and 55 slightly injured.  The High Street in the Old Town suffered particularly badly, with many of the deaths occurring at the Swan Hotel, which was packed with lunchtime customers.  For John Bristow, who was in town with a friend when the attack occurred the events still remain crystal clear in his mind: '..There was a god-almighty explosion and we went into the passage by The Havelock pub and we dived onto the ground and lay there looking out before a bomb hit what was the old Royal Oak Hotel.  Along by Woolworth's there was a car going by and it was sent up into the air by the bomb and over and over.  While we lay there, there was another terrific explosion down the side of Plummer's and I'll never forget seeing a huge lump of yellow coloured masonry coming over and land on the tram wires...'

Minor attacks on the town continued throughout the year, but after a very successful attack, from the enemy's point of view, on Eastbourne on 6 June 1943, the highly orchestrated tip-and-run raids inexplicably ceased.

1944

Raids in 1944 began at 2.30am on 5 January, when a single HE bomb was dropped on Filsham Road, the house of 72 year-old Hastings surgeon, Mr Ligat, who had just returned from a midnight emergency operation at the Royal East Sussex Hospital.  Having garaged his car, he was about to enter the house when the bomb exploded on open ground next to his house, the blast blowing off his right arm.

Three years and eight months after the first bombing raid on Hastings, a significant milestone was reached, although it was not known at the time, when the final HE bomb landed in the town at 11.50pm on Monday 27 March 1944.  The bomb seriously injured one person when it exploded in Filsham Road.  Although this was the final HE bomb dropped, the town did not entirely escape attack after the flying bomb made a brief but deadly appearance.

The first doodlebug to land in Hastings was at 12.47am on 16 June 1944 when it came down at Glyne Gap causing minor damage but no casualties.  The raid alert was sounded and lasted for over 12 hours, until noon that day.

On the occasions when a doodlebug succeeded in getting to the coast past the A.A. guns, then Allied aircraft would either shoot down the robot, or, using a tactic which required great skill, fly alongside it and, once safely over open countryside, tip the aircraft's wing beneath that of the doodlebug's wing, thus sending it to an early and safe demise.

Jack Hilder had been on active service with the RAF and had never seen a doodlebug before.  On 16 July he was on leave in the Victoria Inn on Battle Road when someone shouted that a doodlebug was coming over.  Jack raced upstairs to watch the rocket heading towards the pub, before an allied aircraft flew alongside it and, misguidedly tipping his wing too soon, sent the bomb crashing down into Old Church Road.  Three people were killed and 12 were seriously injured.

In all 5,000 houses were damaged, four people lost their lives and 120 people were injured in just 12 weeks by the doodlebugs which came down in the borough.

After successes in Europe beginning with D-Day in June 1944, restrictions in the town were gradually lifted.  Total blackout was lifted to half-lighting on Sunday 17 September, although at this stage street lighting was still not employed.

The final air-raid alert sounded in the town at 7.15pm on Thursday 9 November 1944 and lasted for 25 minutes.  Thereafter the town rejoiced in its silence.

1945

After almost six of the most momentous years to have been experienced in the borough, the news that victory had been secured was received over the wireless at 3pm by the Prime Minister, and hostilities in Europe were finally over.  Churchill announced to an expectant country: 'German armed forces surrendered unconditionally on May 7th.  Hostilities in Europe ended officially at midnight, May 8th 1945.'  The Town Council listened intently to the Prime Minster's broadcast and within an hour, at 4pm the mayor, Alderman A. Blackman, spoke to a huge, relieved and joyous crowd from the balcony of the Town Hall, greeted by cheers and applause.

Celebratory flags soon appeared on the town's hotels, pubs, shops, public buildings and private homes.  Firemen worked to run flags through the town centre and over the Memorial in time for the dozens of street parties held all around.  

More good news arrived on Friday 11 May, when the lighting restriction was lifted throughout the country, officially ending the blackout.  Right across the borough, people were able to take down heavy curtains, chip off black paint and peel back the anti-glass-splinter tape from the windows.  This was soon followed by the announcement of Japanese surrender and the end to total war.

'On it's war record, the Premier Cinque Port has full reason for pride and in looking back over the past years in the front line can feel that is has been steadfast, courageous and worthy of its historic past.' - Hastings & St Leonards Observer, 12 May 1945

 

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