Bexhill played a prominent part in the defence of this country during the the period 1939-1945. The proximity of the enemy airfields in occupied France, Holland, Belgium and Germany itself led to the issuing during the war of 1,468 air raid warning alerts in the area. 51 air raids were directed at the town which resulted in the dropping of 328 high explosive bombs and over 1000 incendiary fire bombs.
In 1944, Bexhill was in, what became known as, ‘bomb alley’, several hundred flying bombs passing over the town directed at London, at least 48 were recorded in the 24 hours of 16 July alone. Many more were shot down off the coast with 16 actually landing and exploding within the borough boundary. 24 civilians and 1 soldier were killed by enemy air action during the war, 81 buildings were destroyed, 217 seriously damaged and 4,324 slightly damaged.
In September 1939, on the outbreak of war, Bexhill was host to over 700 school children evacuated from the London area including the boys of St. Joseph’s School Kidbrooke and the Roan School who shared the premises of the Secondary Schools in Turkey Road. With the fall of France, in June 1940, the London children left the town for a more secure place of refuge to be followed in July by over 1,100 local school children who were sent mainly to Bedfordshire and Hertfordshie. Although the evacuation was classed as ‘voluntary’ the schools in Bexhill did not reopen after the summer holidays. The independent schools had made their own arrangements for removal to safer havens and several of those who left did not return to the town after the war.
The adult members of the population who were retired or riot engaged in essential occupations were also encouraged to leave and only about 5000 people remained in the town during the winter of 1940. Several roads had very few of the dwellings actually occupied, of the 48 properties in Colebroke Road for example only about 10 had the owners residing in them. Many shops and other businesses in the town were closed down including three of the four cinemas. By the end of the year several of the evacuees had returned to the town and, as there were about 300 children then here who were receiving no education, it was decided to re-open some of the schools in January 1941. The Secondary Grammar Schools however did not re-open until 1943.
In 1940, with the threat of invasion Bexhill, was part of the Coastal Defence Restricted Access Area. Batteries each of 2 x 6 inch ex-Naval guns were sited along the sea-front. 301 Battery on the East Parade ,opposite the Sackville Hotel, and 221 Battery, at Herbrand Walk, Cooden. Each battery also had 2 x 90 mm searchlights facing out to sea. Other batteries of guns were established at St. Leonards and Normans Bay as well as many other places along the coast. The guns at first were manned by gunners of the Royal Artillery but members of the Home Guard eventually formed most of the gun crews for 301 Battery thus releasing the Royal Artillery gunners for posting to more active service.
Barbed wire was strung on the railings along- the edge of the promenade and other defensive measures on the beach or-seashore included barriers of scaffolding and wire which stretched from Galley Hill to Cooden to impede landing craft. The beach was mined and closed to the public until later in the war and minefields were also laid on the old Bexhill Golf Course at the bottom of Galley Hill as well as on Cooden Golf Course. Several of these mines exploded when foxes or dogs strayed through the wire barriers. Concrete anti-tank obstructions were erected along the more vulnerable potential landing places on the beach and a few still remain at the bottom of the cliff at Glyne Gap. Many pillboxes and other defensive strong points were built in strategic sites, the top of one of these can still be seen in the bushes slightly over the brow of Galley Hill and the base of another is exposed in the edge of the cliff a few yards to the east of the tunnel under the railway at Glyne Gap. Details of the original German plan for ‘Operation Sealion’ reveal that the coast from Bexhill to Pevensey was to be the target landing beaches for the 26th and 34th Divisions of General Von Runstedt’s 9th Army.
A secret six-man Auxiliary Unit was formed of volunteers in the district whose task was to stay behind in the event of a successful German invasion. 21 of these Patrols were established in Sussex with 28 Hide-outs. This was part of a country-wide network known as 202 and 203 Battalions of the Home Guard, units which in fact existed only on paper.
Most of the civilians left in Bexhill had full or part-time duties in the. Observer Corps, Fire Service, Air Raid Precautions and Rescue Services. Special Constabulary, Local Defence Volunteers. Fire Guard. Red Cross, Womens Land Army, Womens Voluntary Service or other services which already existed or were started as a result of the war.
The Observer Corps Post, first ;oacted at the Colonnade. was later re-sited at Sidley and, then, moved to the Cooden Golf Course,where it was manned 24 hours a day by relays of two observers. A continuous watch of the skies was maintained from the outbreak of the war until 6th May 1945. The Post was linked by direct line to Group HQ at Maidstone and on to RAF Sector Fighter Control.
The reports giving numbers, types. height and direction of hostile aircraft crossing the coast played an important part in directing the defending fighter aircraft to intercept the enemy. Other tasks carried out by the Corps included the reporting of aircraft shot down and of airman baling out from damaged planes. These reports assisted in the rescue of many pilots from the sea. In recognition of the valuable work carried out by the Corps during the Battle of Britain in which the local post played a full part, HM King George Vi awarded it the title of Royal Observer Corps.
The Local Defence Volunteers were formed on 18th May 1940 and later, renamed the Home Guard, became part of ‘K’ Battalion of the East Sussex Command, being redesignated the 24th Battalion of the Sussex Home Guard and then finally the 23rd (Hastings) Battalion wearing the Royal Sussex Regiment cap badge. The local units were “D” Company commanded by Major A.C. Ticehurst, M.C. and “E” Company under the command of Major H.W. Ford,M.C..
The Home Guard manned road-blocks at the approaches to the town and supplied patrols along the sea-front and out–lying areas at night thus releasing the military for training and other more arduous duties. Whilst most of the Home Guard were volunteers some able-bodied men were later compulsorily enrolled and the duties were taken very seriously at the time. A report in the Bexhill Observer in December 1942 states a Private in the Home Guard who appeared before the Magistrates for failing to attend parades had been sent to prison for a month!
Air defences were moved to Bexhill from south London in 1941 and anti-aircraft guns were a familiar- sight along South Cliff, on The Downs. at Buxton Drive recreation ground and many other places. In 1943 armoured cars of the R.A.F. Regiment patrolled the sea-front as a deterent against the low flying ‘tip-and-run’ raids, mainly by fighter-bombers. which regularly occured. In the summer of 1944 when the VI Flying Bomb attacks commenced a battery of 3.7inch AA guns was positioned on the West Parade. Much shrapnel from the exploding anti-aircraft shells together with some unexploded ones fell on the town as well as many spent cartridge and cannon shell cases from the aircraft overhead.
A Royal Air Force Chain Home Radar Station had been established at Wartling in 1939 and was operational throughout the Battle of Britain. From 1941 to 1944 it became a very successful Ground Control Interceptor Unit.
Many other service units were stationed in Bexhill and the surrounding district between 1939 and 1945. September. 1939 saw the establishment of an R.A.F. Initial Training Wing based at. the Metropole. Granville and other hotels in the town until the summer of 1940. During this period the Metropole Hotel was severely damaged by a fire which required the combined resources of the Bexhill. Hastings and Eastbourne Fire Brigades to extinguish.
British Troops stationed in the area during 1940/41 as part of the defence force against the anticipated invasion included the 56th Regiment R.A., 5th, 8th and 70th Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, 2nd Battalion Liverpool Scottish and 2/8th Lancashire Fusiliers.
The first Canadian soldiers to arrive here in July 1940 were the 7th Royal Canadian Artillery with their HQ at Lunsford House and were followed in 1941 by the 2nd Battalion of The Calgary Highlanders who made quite an impact on the life of the town. Among other Canadian troops who served here were the Le Regiment De La Chaudiere from the St Lawrence river area, Toronto Scottish and 5th Canadian Field Ambulance. In 1943 and until June 1944 men of No. 4 Army Commando were billeted here, mainly in private homes with local families. 10th Battalion Duke of Wellingtons Regiment and 435 Battery L.A.A. also occupied some of the empty schools and other premises in and around the town.
Service Units Stationed in Bexhill
|1939||Initial Training Wing R.A.F. – Metropole Hotel|
|1940||9 Aug||8th Royal Sussex – at Pebsham Farm|
|29 Aug||142 Field Regt R.A. – at Gotham Wood|
|4 Sep||56 Heavy Regt R.A.|
|26 Oct||70th Royal Sussex|
|6 Nov||5th Royal Sussex – Tel Cooden 421|
|2 Dec||302 Searchlight Section|
|Dec||7th (Anti-Tank) Royal Canadian Artillery -(1st Division) – Lunsford House|
|1941||2 Feb||375 Coast Def. Battery R.A. – Normans Bay – part of 552 Coast Regt (previously 385?) 552 Coast Regt at Broadaok Manor (formerly 14 Coast Artillery Group) – 4 Batteries at Cooden, Normans Bay, Pevensey and Eastbourne|
|2 Feb||2nd Liverpool Scottish|
|4 Mar||221 Coast Def. Battery R.A.- Herbrand Walk – part of 552 Coast Regt (previously 915?)|
|21 Mar||2nd Liverpool Scottish|
|24 May||347 Field Battery R.A.- at Lunsford Cross|
|29 May||56 Heavy Regt R.A.- at Hastings Road|
|1942||Jul/Oct||2nd Bn Calgary Highlanders – 2nd Canadian Div Regiment De La Chaudiere – 3rd Canadian Div Toronto Scottish 7th Royal Canadian Artillery A.A. (1st Div) RAF Wartling Grd Cntrl Interception Unit RADAR|
|5 Mar||70th Bn Royal Sussex Reg.t. (Cooden 2061)?|
|12 Dec||552 Coast Def. Regt. R.A. – Broadoak Manor|
|1943||R.A.F. Regt – Armoured Cars for A.A. defence against low flying raiders|
|5 Feb||5th Canadian Field Ambulance|
|29 May||10th Bn Duke of Wellington’s Regt. (D.W.R.)|
|10 Aug||435 L.A.A. Battery R.A.|
|1943/4||No 4 Commando (Army)|
|1944||No 10 Commando (French) No 45 Commando (Royal Marine)|
|16 Feb||2nd Bn East Surrey Regt (Worsham) 4th Bn Dorset Regt (Hastings Road) 7th Bn Hampshire Regt (Collington & Cooden)|
|13 Apr||96 Field Regt R.A. (Bexhill) 171 Field Regt R.A. (Cooden) REME Workshops|
|Jul||337 Bty 102 L.A.A. Regt R.A. – 3.7 AA Guns West Parade for V1 defence-Park Rd to S. Cliff|
Service Units Stationed in Bexhill 1939-1944 included:
|Royal Artillery||301 Coast Defence Battery|
|221 Coast Defence Battery|
|142 Field Regiment|
|56 Heavy Regiment|
|435 LAA Battery|
|337 LAA Battery|
|Royal Sussex Regiment|
|Liverpool Scottish Regiment|
|Duke of Wellington’s Regiment|
|East Surrey Regiment|
|No. 4 Commando|
|No. 10 Commando (French)|
|Royal Air Force Initial Training Wing|
|Royal Air Force Regiment|
|Canadian Army:||Calgary Highlanders|
|Le Regiment De La Chaudiere|
|Royal Canadian Artillery|
26th and 34th Divisions of the German 9th Army Group were allocated for the landings at Bexhill and Pevensey in “Operation Sealion”, 1940.
Canadians In Bexhill During World War II
The first Canadian Unit to be stationed in Bexhill was the 7th Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, 1st Division (Red Patch). The unit was stationed at Lunsford House [Lunsford Cross] from the summer 1940 through to 1942.
It is believed that this unit went to Italy, later, as part of the’ Canadian Army out there.
In early 1941, the Calgary Highlanders were stationed in the Bexhill area, mainly at Little Common. Falconbury, Lakefield and Seafield Schools were taken over, also St Johns and other buildings on Collington Avenue. The Highlanders manned gun posts and sea defences on Barnhorn Road and Cooden as well as Normans Bay and Bulverhythe.
The Calgary Highlanders stayed through 1942 and got involved in the recreational activities of Bexhill. From time to time shows were put on by the regiment at the De La Warr Pavilion but these shows were considered ‘risque’ by the Mayor and Council of Bexhill. One show that sticks in my memory was a re-enactment of the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. The regiment had quite a good dance band and played at dances at the De La Wan-, St Peter’s Church Hall, Drill Hall, All Saints in Sidley and doubtless many other places. As I remember, it was quite a good band, better than our local talent.
When the 7th A/T Regiment first came to Bexhill, the police Sargent (probably Bert Duly) went to the Orderly Room with a list of names of ‘undesirable women that the troops should not associate with’. Frank Springer was in the Orderly Room at the time and told me that he was able to sell copies of the list to soldiers. Somebody had to look after the troops comforts!
After the Calgary Highlanders moved on, the 3rd Canadian Division came to town. The Regiment de la Chaudiere was the main regiment in Bexhill and were stationed at schools on Hastings Road and in private billets around town. In the Ninfield to Hailsham area was the North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick.
At Bulverhythe, St Leonards and Hastings coastal defence was undertaken by the Princess Pat’s Canadian Light Infantry who were billeted in the sea front hotels. One of these near the White Rock was hit by a bomb and I think 80/90 soldiers were killed there. I also remember the funeral -the coffins were draped with flags on army trucks, cross wise and it was a big parade. I do not recall where they were buried. British forces included the 56th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery which manned two 16″ guns in front of the Sackville Hotel. They were stationed at Worthingholme in June 1940.
The RAF were stationed at the Granville Hotel – there did not seem many there, I think they must have been on classroom training. Also the RAF regiment was stationed at Little Common at a camp on Barnhorn Road (later Northeye HMP) – I think their duties were maintenance and defence of the radar units at Pevensey and Fairlight.
No.4 and No.10 Commando were stationed at Bexhill for a while and billeted in private homes. One of these units was made up with some Free French troops. These were involved in the Dieppe raid. After the raid they did not return to Bexhill. I think the units were decimated. When I say 4. did not return, I think the remnants came back for a few days and were then sent for reinforcements and refitting. The commando’s were at Bexhill Grammar School in Turkey Road.
Dances were held at the De La Warr Pavilion every Saturday night with either military bands (Calgary Highlanders, 56th Regiment, RA and later Hugh Packham Orchestra (including Bill Greed). Stanley Courtney was the MC as the Rotary Club were much involved. An army boxing tournament was held there too. Turkey Road school held dances each week (Spike Milligan of the Goon Show played there). Then there was the Home Guard Club at the Drill Hall that put on dances and occasionally concerts.
The RA had 8″ guns on the top of Galley Hill. There were ack-ack guns and pill boxes (sandbagged) in the recreation field off Buxton Drive.
There was a canteen for servicemen on the corner of Sea Road and Cantelupe Road run by the WVS [and known as ‘Forces Corner’]. Another canteen was the Church Army hall in Station Road. The WVS also ran a canteen van.
Prisoners of War from Herstmonceux did farm work and road repairs. They were also allowed to go to the movies on occasions and wore battledress with circles stitched on them.
Some of the first bombs to fall in Bexhill were on Longleys in Devonshire Road (a girl was killed -all that was found was one finger); Dalehurst Road – a customer Mrs Tidd was killed; Buxton Drive – girl killed and London Road, The Gaiety Cinema demolished, no casualties.
Bexhill beach had tank traps, barbed wire and was mined. The mines were later cleared by Russian prisoners who had been fighting with the Germans and were captured on the second front.
In the Home Guard the 23rd Sussex Battalion, Major Ticehurst was CO with a Captain Borrett (of Borrett’s Furniture store) and the CSM was named Domm.
Notes written by Mr C H Burton & Ex L/RDR F Springer 7th A/T Regt. Royal Canadian Artillery Undated