Eastbourne- the most bombed town on the South coast
Eastbourne is mid-way between Brighton and Hastings, and during WW2 was initially of great strategic importance to the German high command.
Sunday July 7th 1940 was the date of the first bomb falling. This was after the Dunkirk evacuation. Incredible to appreciate that 300,000 troops were taken away from the Belgian port over a few days, it’s easy to forget that 100,000 of these men were French.
When Hitler was planning Operation Sealion, the proposed invasion of England, Eastbourne was important because the German 26th Infantry division were planning on landing at Pevensey Bay adjacent to the east, and 6th mountain division were planned for Cuckmere Haven, just beyond Beachy Head to the west. Eastbourne, a major town right in the middle, had to be softened.
The children were evacuated in the summer of 1940 as the bombing intensified, but the remaining civilian population were incensed. The only air raid warning was in Dover, over forty miles to the east. German bombers dropped their loads with impunity, landing back at their French coastal base before the Eastbourne sirens had sounded. The warning was not to be local to Eastbourne until 1944, one year before the end of WW2.
Civilian public air raid shelters were built, and now only one remains. That is an electricity sub-station, with over 33,000 volts going through the transformer, which is why the electricity company will not allow me to have a look. Not even a little peek. There are two privet hedges, some forty feet apart, one hiding the steps to the entrance, the other hiding the ventilation shaft.
The shelter was built to accommodate between eighty and a hundred civilians, concrete inside to protect from any blasts. Later on, air raid sirens would be activated, and it was up to you if you wanted to remain where you were, or get down there. The local air raid wardens would have ridden on their bikes up and down the street, blowing their whistles, as a warning to take cover.
The atmosphere was pretty claustrophobic downstairs, with unwashed bodies competing against the smell of fear. It was well known that despite the thickness of the construction, a direct hit would result in many fatalities.
The 1940 bombing occurred over a three month period, intense at times, and anyone under the now age of 75 cannot comprehend what this must have been like to civilians more used to accommodating seasonal visitors to this seaside resort. The summer season of 1940 had even commenced until the bombs started, with the pier theatre until April having daily shows.
Despite the Battle of Britain over the British skies in the late summer and autumn of 1940, German planes continued to drop their loads on Eastbourne, hence its title of the most bombed town on the south coast. The statistics for WW2 are horrendous.
There were 112 air raids involving actual bombing. Of the heavy bombs that fell, of those over 1,000 kgs there were 671. Afterward the war, there were 90 unexploded bombs. 28 oil incendiaries of 50kg calibre. 4,000 Thermite incendiaries of 2kg calibre.
There were 1,106 civilian casualties. 174 fatalities. 443 seriously injured, 489 slightly hurt. A total of 475 houses were completely destroyed. 1,000 buildings were seriously damaged. And 10,000 slightly damaged. That meant a huge rebuilding programme after hostilities ceased.
The other air raid shelters have been dismantled, only one remains, and that is easily passed by without knowing what lies beneath. Stand looking at the war memorial on the roundabout, with your back to the sea, and Pearl Court on your left. Look at those two privet hedges. Look down the steep concrete stairs. And try to imagine the horror of running down those steps, a bombing raid imminent, carrying your possessions in a bag, maybe some sandwiches, your gas mask, certainly no bananas because there were none in the shops.
Sitting on an uncomfortable bench, shoulder to shoulder with a complete stranger who was just as frightened as you, not knowing how long you were going to be there before the all clear sounded. There might have been a toilet that had hopefully been emptied since the last raid, you might be lucky to find some Izal paper still on a roll, but more likely cut up newspaper. And if you couldn’t contain yourself any longer, you knew that everyone else in the shelter would hear you.
No wonder a lot of people took their chances elsewhere. Because you just knew that at some stage some idiot would start singing ‘we’ll meet again’.
Harry Pope is Eastbourne’s only licensed sight-seeing guide www.harrythewalker.com
He also gives history talks www.harrythetalker.com (very reasonable prices)