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We Shall Remember Them

History Notes by M Bance

With a nephew in the British army my thoughts are never far from the fighting taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment, but the approach of 11th November will inevitably turn my thoughts outward to all those who have faced conflict, particularly during the Second World War.

It could be said that Brighton was lucky, it was not as badly bombed as, say, Portsmouth or London, but this would not really be my idea of luck. In fact, between 1939 and 1945, Brighton experienced 56 air raids; 381 high explosive bombs were dropped along with countless incendiary bombs; 198 people were killed and 357 seriously injured. The town’s ordeal started in July 1940 when Kemp Town and Whitehawk were bombed. Daytime raids continued throughout 1941 and into 1942, with some of the worst casualties occurring in the ‘tip and run’ raids when groups of German bombers suddenly appeared over the town, bombed and machine gunned the streets for a few minutes and then disappeared out to sea again. Of all the terrible incidents that occurred three attacks stand out; the first came on Saturday 14th September 1940 when twenty bombs fell on Kemp Town with one landing directly on the Odeon cinema in St George’s Road. Fifty-five people were killed in the cinema and surrounding area. The next was the bombing on 29th March 1943 of the Municipal Clinic in Sussex Street. The bomb hit the north wall of the fruit and vegetable market in Circus Street, crossed the road and exploded in the main entrance of the clinic. Then there was the 25th May 1943 when, at midday, 25 enemy planes flew over the town dropping bombs over a wide area and strafing pedestrians. In a raid that lasted five minutes 27 people were killed, 130 injured, 150 houses were made uninhabitable and between 500 and 600 people made homeless.

The path the aircraft followed that day took them over the Preston Road area and they caused widespread damage in Argyle Road, Elder Place and Rose Hill Terrace. The London Road viaduct near Preston Circus was also seriously damaged. The bomb in question did not explode on impact; it first struck the roof of Blunden’s Dairy in Campbell Street, passed through a garden wall, a house, workshop and mission hall before finally demolishing one pillar and two arches of the railway viaduct. Six hours after the explosion the balustrade on the south side collapsed leaving the railway tracks hanging 70 feet above the ground.

In the same raid, houses designed by Amon Henry Wilds in Park Crescent were hit and residents killed. A ‘bouncing bomb’ ricocheted off the Park Crescent Inn then travelled to the north side of the crescent where Nos. 24 and 25 took the full force of the explosion. Up until then nearby Roundhill had not suffered too badly; the nearest incident occurred on 20th September 1940 when the Franklin Arms in Lewes Road suffered a direct hit. The bomb destroyed the pub, the greengrocers next door and the wool shop next door to that. Another bomb struck terraced houses in Caledonian Road, demolishing three and causing extensive damage to others.

Over the courses of the war, 200 houses were destroyed, 894 seriously damaged and one of the worse hit areas was Preston village. On the 14th October 1940, a single bomb was dropped on houses in Scarborough Road killing several adults and a 10-year-old boy. Then around 11 p.m. on Sunday 9th March 1941, 11 bombs fell on Preston Road and Lauriston Road, causing damage to properties in North Road, Home Road and Cumberland Road. One of the bombs fractured the gas main in Preston Road and caused a large fire, another scored a direct hit on the butcher’s shop at No. 229. Other shops along the main road were also demolished and nearby St John’s church suffered severe blast damage. Incendiary bombs caused further fire damage in the area. Former Varndean Grammar School girl and resident of Edburton Avenue, Helen Roust, wrote about Preston Road in her diary on the 28th May 1943, ‘It is a very depressing area in the midst of bomb damage’.

These terrible things happened to people just like me, living in terraced houses just like mine, sending their children to the same schools as me, but during the war, the air-raid shelter in the playground would have been used for real. Preston Park was used by British and Canadian troops to prepare for the Normandy invasion; the Co-op in Fiveways had a gun emplacement on its roof; there was a medical clearing station by the Jolly Brewers; and concerns over the tall ‘dust-destructor’ chimney in Holllingdean, that burnt the town’s waste, would not have been about pollution, but the proximity of such an obvious landmark for enemy aircraft.

Posted in History on Nov 01, 2007