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HASTINGS IN WWII

Not only did Hastings Old Town suffer during World War II, but also Hastings Town Centre suffered badly from the bombing and blast damage.

Click for larger image 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.

Click for larger image 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.


Click for larger imageThere 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 Rock–a-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