World War Two in Sussex
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On 8 May 1945 England awoke to the first full day of peace in over five years. A ceasefire agreement had been signed in the early hours of 7 May. The Allies had won the war in Europe.
Encouraged by Churchill to ‘allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing’, people took to the streets to celebrate. Decorations ware strung between houses, bonfires were lit, and communities held improvised street parties.
But it wasn’t a joyous day for everyone. War still raged in Asia, and despite the peace agreement many families still awaited news of relatives fighting abroad.
Too close for comfort
Britain had been at war since September 1939 and Sussex had been at the frontline of UK defences. The threat of invasion had been very real. Operation Sea Lion, a major Nazi invasion plan, had identified Camber Sands, Winchelsea, Bexhill and Cuckmere Haven as vulnerable points to breach our defences.
The beaches were no-go areas for most people. Barbed wire defences stood between the sea and the promenades, and heavy artillery lined our seafronts. The Home Guard were prepared for invasion too. They had been trained in unarmed combat and booby trap techniques. In the event of a breach of our coastline, it would be their job to ambush the invading forces.
Newhaven's secret tunnels
Deep under South Heighton the navy built a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms. This secret underground maze housed HMS Forward, a major military communications station.
Until recently, not much was known about HMS Forward. But from here the Navy monitored maritime activity on, and beneath, the English Channel between Dungeness and Selsey Bill. HMS Forward also played a major role in the Dieppe raids of August 1942 and the D-Day landings. Nightly torpedo raids on enemy-controlled harbours and reconnaissance missions to the French coast were also planned here.
Devastating air raids
Sussex towns and villages suffered heavily from enemy bombing raids, especially in 1940 and 1944. Hundreds of civilians were killed, thousands hospitalised and many lost their homes. Especially scary were the daylight ‘tip and run’ attacks, when enemy aircraft would fly in low dropping bombs and machine gunning people in the streets.
Robin J Brooks gives a fascinating description of the terror experienced by an air raid survivor in “Sussex Airfields in the Second World War”
‘Generally people who had experienced a raid… would suffer a belated shock. Subsequent air raids would bring a feeling of nausea and the occasional uncontrollable shaking of the body. A parched feeling in the throat at the sound of the whistling bombs as they fell and the urge to get outside into the open despite the obvious dangers’
Sussex’s most devastating air attack took place in East Grinstead on 9 July 1943. A lone German aircraft spotted a convoy of army trucks in the High Street and dropped eight bombs on the town. Among the buildings hit was the Whitehall Cinema, which was full at the time. The roof collapsed killing many of the audience. In total 108 people died and 235 were injured.
Troops and the Dieppe Raid
Although many civilians were evacuated from Sussex, the population increased as the military were barracked throughout the county. Troops from around the world, including Canada, America and Poland served in the region. A young Spike Milligan served in both Bexhill and Hailsham and records his experiences in ‘Adolf Hitler: my part in His Downfall’. He describes a visit to Eastbourne:
‘The town had been evacuated. The great wedding-cake hotels were boarded up or occupied by the services’.
In August 1942, troops left Newhaven to take part in the Dieppe Raid. Of the 5,000 troops, the majority were from the Canadian Army but also included British Commandos and a small number of US rangers. They were tasked with capturing the French port of Dieppe for 24 hours, after which they would withdraw. Only 1,400 soldiers survived, most of them returning to Newhaven port in the aftermath of the ill-fated raid.
In the run up to D-Day the army presence increased. Soldiers were camped at Firle Place, Stanmer Park, Ditchling, Plumpton, Seaford, Lewes and Eastbourne. Tanks were concealed in nearby woodland and residents were reminded to keep quiet about all the activity. Eyewitness accounts of the day describe a ‘strange silence’ after the troops departed by sea and air for Normandy on 6 June 1944.
In total 7,000 vessels landed more than 170,000 Allied troops in France, many having left from the Sussex coast.
A most important decision
The East Sussex town of Seaford was the last home of Sir James M Stagg, chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord (the code name for the Battle of Normandy, commonly known as D-Day), the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied western Europe during World War Two.
Group Captain James Stagg of the Royal Air Force met with General Eisenhower on the evening of 4 June 1944. Eisenhower had planned for the invasion to commence on 5 June, but bad weather forced a delay. Stagg and his meteorological team predicted that the weather would improve sufficiently for the invasion to go ahead in the early hours of the following day. Eisenhower took Stagg’s advice and the invasion commenced on 6 June 1944. D-Day is recognised as being central to the successful ending of WW2.
Following D-Day Captain Stagg was appointed as an Officer of the US Legion, before being elected as President of the Royal Meteorological Society. He was knighted in 1954. Sir Stagg retired in 1960 and died in 1975.
For further information, please visit the St Margarets Community website.
People's War archive
Were you or someone you know in the armed forces, a nurse, evacuee or factory worker?
We helped people to share and archive the personal, often overlooked stories of those who fought and lived through the war. You can read these stories on the BBC website:
Download our resource pack containing materials from events in our libraries. These include posters and recipes, as well as poems by schoolchildren who met war veterans in Crowborough.
Books for further research
Click on the title to find out which libraries hold these books and reserve them online to collect at your local library.
- The war in East Sussex published by the Sussex Express and County Herald
Looks at the war from the eyes of residents of the county. Detailed descriptions of bombings and casualties by area.
- Barracks to bunkers by Peter Longstaff-Tyrrell
Description of military activity in the county, including a detailed Doodlebug Diary.
- Sussex airfields in the Second World War by Robin J Brooks
Detailed descriptions of airfields across the county.
- Coastal blitz by David Rowland
Descriptions of air-raids in Brighton, Peacehaven, Newhaven and Seaford. Includes eye-witness accounts.
- The Secret Sussex resistance, 1940-1944 by Stewart Angell
Detailed description of Home Guard Auxiliary Units in both East and west Sussex. Includes details of training, weapons and uniforms.
- Sussex wartime relics and memorials by Martin F Mace
Pictures of pillboxes, coastal batteries and other defensive structures throughout the county. Also has details of monuments to the dead, air raid shelters and other fascinating WWII structures.
- Adolf Hitler: my part in his downfall by Spike Milligan
First part of the comedian’s often funny, often poignant, description of the second world war. Includes details of the time he spent stationed in Bexhill-on-Sea.
For help finding out what your relatives did in wartime, try our advice on researching your family history.
WWII resources at the Record Office
There is a wealth of original Second World War material at East Sussex Record Office, including:
- reports of air raid incidents
- registers of unexploded bombs
- call registers of the county control room in Lewes.
Visit WWII sites in East Sussex
There are still remnants of WWII defences in East Sussex including pillboxes and observation posts. Many are in seafront positions, including a heavy machine gun post at Cuckmere Haven. A number of pillboxes can still be seen at Barcombe and Pevensey Castle.
You can find out more about wartime Sussex at the following museums: