Separated from their families - evacuees on Queen's Road, Brighton. Courtesy Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton & Hove.
During the Second World War Brighton, Hove and towns along the South Coast were particularly vulnerable to attack by German bombers and would have been in the front line in the event of invasion. Once hostilities began, air raid precautions and coastal defences were quickly implemented.
The people of Kemptown were hit hard in the war with Brighton’s worst loss of life from a single bombing raid.
During the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, dogfights between RAF fighters and the aircraft of the German Luftwaffe became a common sight across the Sussex skies. Many of the RAF fighters would have been based at nearby Tangmere airfield near Chichester.
On Saturday September 14 1940 a German Dornier bomber had been separated from the rest of its squadron and was being chased by a Spitfire fighter plane. The German pilot dropped his entire payload in a bid to gain more speed over his pursuer and 20 100-pound bombs fell on the Edward Street and Upper Rock Gardens area, two of which hit the busy Odeon Cinema. A total of 52 people, including many children, were killed.
London Road viaduct after the bombing - the track was left hanging in the air. Courtesy Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton & Hove.
The German bombing campaign struck Brighton many times. On May 25 1943 a squadron on 24 Focke Wulfe 190 fighter-bombers targeted the town.
David Rowland, local historian and author of a book on the events, ‘Out of the Blue’, was there to witness the raid:
“It was the biggest raid regarding damage done. The raid at Kemptown was the worst for casualties,” said David.
“I got machine gunned by one of those aircraft,” he recounted. “It [the bullets] crossed within a few yards of us and we ran across the road. The bullets hit the road.”
London Road Viaduct - built in 1846, bombed in 1943, still going strong. © Graham Spicer / 24 Hour Museum
The London Road Viaduct was hit and badly damaged in the raid. A bomb bounced off the road and then went in and out of a house’s windows, slid across a floor before exploding at the bottom of one of the viaduct’s supporting piers.
The explosion destroyed the pier and two arches, leaving the railway line hanging in the air. It was quickly patched up and trains were able to cross again within a week of the raid.
Around 11 tons of explosives were dropped in total and the raid killed 24 people and injured 130. It also made more than 150 homes uninhabitable and set the Black Rock Gasworks on fire.
During the whole war there were 198 air raid deaths in the Brighton area, with a further 357 people seriously injured and 433 slightly injured from the bombing.
Children still went to school despite the threat of air-raids. All were drilled in how to use their gas masks. Courtesy Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton & Hove.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, in their Exploring Brighton Exhibition, show what life was like for local people during the bombing raids, and the experiences of children who were evacuated from the city to avoid them.
Those who stayed behind had to get used to the sound of air raid sirens and retreating to shelters during the raids. Whitehawk Primary School’s playground is the site of one such air raid shelter that has now been partly restored. Tours are running throughout the Brighton Festival in May 2005 where visitors can experience what it was like for children during the Blitz.
Betty Vince was one of those children. Learn more about ordinary people’s experiences with her memories of wartime in Whitehawk.
Brighton History Centre has a substantial collection of photographs from wartime Brighton, as archivist Kevin Bacon explained: “One of the parts is the air raid shelters collection which can be found on the Virtual Brighton website.”
St Cutham's Church in Whitehawk was bombed in 1943. Courtesy Brighton History Centre, Royal Pavilion, Libraries, Museums and Brighton and Hove City Council.
“We do have a much larger collection that isn’t online yet,” he added. “One of the things we’re doing is a digitisation project so a lot more will be on the web soon. There’s a small selection in the history centre itself but the best way to view them is to put in a request in advance by phone or mail.”
As the RAF fought for control of the skies in the Battle of Britain, Germany prepared for invasion. ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion plan, would include landing the German 9th Army between Brighton and Beachy Head. Its 9th division would come ashore at Seaford with the aim of capturing Newhaven Port. In anticipation of this, the area was well defended and Newhaven Fort, originally built in 1860 after fears of French invasion plans, was re-mobilised.
The Newhaven Fort Home Front exhibition tells the story of those days, when bombing, machine gunning and incendiary attacks became almost daily events. The RAF’s success in thwarting the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, and Bomber Command's less well remembered Battle of the Barges, meant that the feared invasion never came.
Newhaven also played a large part in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid where 6,000 mainly Canadian troops were to capture the French port of Dieppe. Their objective was to hold it for 24-hours then withdraw, in a major reconnaissance mission. Only 2,210 men returned from the raid.
Newhaven Fort would have been in the front line if the Germans had invaded. © 24 Hour Museum.
The whole coastline was heavily defended with barbed wire and concrete barriers lining the beaches. Duke’s Mound in Kemptown was the site of two anti-aircraft guns. Gun crews there reputedly had standing orders to destroy Brighton’s Palace and West Piers in the event of invasion to stop the German navy using them as landing stages.
Both piers were closed during the war and gaps cut into them to further prevent them being used by the enemy. The Palace (now Brighton) Pier also suffered bomb damage.
Several naval bases were set up in the area using existing buildings. Roedean School for Girls was requisitioned to house HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s Torpedo and Mine Training School and the then newly built King Alfred Centre on Hove’s seafront became HMS King Alfred. It was used as a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer-training centre.
Shoreham Harbour was used as a combined operations landing craft base when HMS Lizard was opened in July 1942 to act as a training and re-supply depot.
More Brighton and Hove WW2 resources from the 24 Hour Museum:
Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.
If you have memories of Brighton and East Sussex during wartime and would like to contribute or comment on this trail, try Storymaker our free and easy-to-use web facility that enables members of the public, working with the support of journalists at the 24 Hour Museum, to get their stories online.
Visit the BBC WW2 People’s War website to read personal stories contributed by people from Brighton, Hove and Sussex.