Not only did Hastings Old Town suffer during
World War II, but also Hastings Town Centre suffered badly
from the bombing and blast damage.
The Town's first air raid was at 7:15am on the 26 July 1940, when
a single aircraft dropped 11 explosive bombs, several of which fell
on the Cricket Ground, now Priory Meadow Shopping Centre. One would
not have thought that this would have been regarded as a very strategic
target but the German High Command apparently had access to some
very old maps because the claim was made that there had been a successful
raid on Hastings Harbour! Later more damage was done to the Cricket
Ground when the railings surrounding it were taken as scrap to help
the war effort. The first lone raid presaged four years of aerial
onslaught with the month of September 1940 being particularly disastrous
as far as the Town Centre was concerned. On the 14th, Linton Crescent,
then on the 26th, two raids which resulted in a total of forty high
explosive bombs being dropped in Queens Road, Nelson Road, Milward
Road, and St Mary's Terrace. Three people were killed and there
was widespread destruction.
On the 30th September, a bomb hit the coping of the Plaza Cinema,
today Yates Bar, and exploded in mid air. It was the most devastating
incident of the war in the Memorial area. People had been watching
the aerial battle raging overhead and eight people were killed outright,
and another six died later from their injuries. Many others received
injuries of varying degrees of severity.
Amongst those who had been standing at the Memorial
and who was killed was Norman Kemp. He had been home on compassionate
leave from the RAF to attend the funeral of his brother, who had
been killed in the previous raid, when his Queens Road shop had
received a direct hit. The blast from the bomb caused an extensive
damage to properties in the town centre and the explosion blew out
all four dials of the Memorial clock. The bombing continued. At
the beginning of October more bombs were dropped in this area, one
of them a direct hit on the Bedford public house in Queens Road
and another destroying the WVS headquarters in Havelock Road. In
the latter incident there were three fatalities, one of them a young
girl whose body was found in the ruins of a Havelock Road office
several days later.
was also widespread devastation in Middle Street, Castle Street and
on the sea front. In one of the more bizarre incidents, a bomb hit
the roof of the Queens Hotel but bounced from there to the Albany
Hotel before exploding killing Canadian soldiers. The Albany was completely
destroyed, on the site are now flats and a Debenhams department store.
The unmanned flying bombs, or doodelbugs, flew right over Hastings
as it was on the direct flight path and its been calculated
that 50% of all those launched against England passed over the
Town. Not many were brought down in Hastings but the final piece
of town damage was caused in June 1944 when a doodlebug went
into the sea off Carlisle Parade. The blast caused damage to
shops and offices in White Rock and the town centre and staff
were kept busy all morning sweeping away broken glass.
The bombing produced heroes as well as victims. One of the former
was a nurse named Dorothy Gardner, working at the Royal East
Sussex Hospital. The hospital had been damaged in 1940. A bomb
dropped in White Rock Gardens had sent debris crashing through
the roof of the children's ward. Fortunately, no one was injured
but the following year another bomb fell on the hospital. A
woman patient would certainly been killed had Dorothy Gardner
not flung herself across the woman's bed, shielding her with
her own body. Dorothy Gardner received severe head injuries
but was awarded the George Medal for her courage.
There were also incidents that in retrospect after the danger
was over brought smiles to people's faces. For example Edith
Skilton, was working at her desk in the Borough Engineers town
centre offices when she saw a Messerschmitt 109 flying past
so low that she could even see the pilot was smiling. She called
out to her boss, who was not impressed and replied to her "
Nonsense girl you wouldn't know an ME109 if it hit you ",
whereupon the plane returned to machine-gun the building.
Even though the two World wars had dramatic effect over the
whole of Hastings and its people the town did survive and today
the lives lost are still remembered.
HASTINGS OLD TOWN IN WWII
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 did bring
a change to Hastings Old Town. It brought an end to redevelopment
and large areas were left empty. Barbed wire, gun emplacements
and tank traps appeared along the seafront, as well as oil
pipes for a flame defence system. Access to the beach was
forbidden except to fishermen who had special permits to use
a guarded gateway at Rocka-Nore. But even though they benefited
from high food prices their work was dangerous and three boats
were lost in mine explosions.
As a result of the bombing raids and the possibility
of a German landing in the area, many residents were evacuated.
By September 1940 the town's population was reduced from 65,000
to 22,000 and large number of troops were stationed in the
Old Town. The St Clements caves were used as an air raid shelter,
hospital and school and housed 300 to 400 people. Later another
shelter was tunnelled into the hill at Torfield. In March
1943 the recently widowed Duchess of Kent visited residents
In May 1940 Hastings fishermen rescued over
100 Belgian refugees, from a tug under the cliffs at Fairlight,
along with 13 million francs in wages for Belgian railway
employees. Less than a month later 12 Hastings boats were
called to Dover to assist in evacuation of the British Troops
at Dunkirk. In the event they were held on standby and only
the lifeboat, Cyril and Lilian Bishop was sent to France.
In the summer of 1940 locals watched as the Battle of Britain
was fought in the skies above South East England. On the 25
August a German plane crashed into the sea close by and a
lone survivor was brought ashore by the Hastings lifeboat.
But the worst, and most devastating raid,
on The Old Town occurred at lunchtime on the 23rd May 1943,
on the Swan Hotel. The hotel, Swan Terrace and Reeves shops
were destroyed and sixteen people died.
In 1944 the danger of the new unmanned flying
bomb, or doodlebug, appeared over the South coast. Because
of this an anti aircraft gun was placed on the West Hill.
Amongst the staff manning this battery was the Prime Minister's
daughter, Mary Churchill. And on the 12 May Winston Churchill
paid a visit to Hastings to inspect the D-Day troops as Lord
warden of the Cinque Ports. A trip to Hastings Castle and
the West hill guns was included in his itinerary