Anniversary of Eastbourne’s biggest Second World War rescue

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Last month marked the 75th anniversary of Eastbourne’s biggest rescue of the Second World War which saw four George Cross medals awarded and a Girl Guides Victoria Cross.

German bombers saw explosions in Cavendish Place and Tideswell Road which killed Peggy Harland, Myrtle Wilkinson and Stanley and Olive Giles.

Eastbourne Looking Back SUS-151110-142959001

Eastbourne Looking Back SUS-151110-142959001

Alan Cooper takes up the story.

“On Saturday September 28 1940, a young lady finished her morning’s work as a nursery hand at George Sapsford & Co Market Garden, Hankham, and was looking forward on this her half-day to visiting her friend in Eastbourne where she had gone to buy a new winter coat.

“Peggy Rosemary Harland was only 17 and lived at Peelings Cottages, Milton Street, Hankham, with her parents Mr and Mrs Asher Harland. Prior to starting work she had left Hankham Primary School at the age of 14.

“Her brother Robert, aged 21, was reported missing serving with the 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment in France on the 20 May 1940 and is now on the Dunkirk War Memorial.

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“Peggy was also going to visit and have tea with her friend Myrtle Wilkinson who, before marrying Karl Wilkinson, had lived at 5 Hankham Steet, Pevensey, with her parents William and Olive Reed who ran the post office in Hankham. Karl’s father owned Wilkinson Limited, Eastbourne Electrical Engineers, at 69 Cavendish Place.

“At 5.38pm on September 28 Eastbourne was attacked by two German bombers. The first was dealt with by two Spitfires but the second got through and dropped six bombs, one landing on the junction of 69/71 Cavendish Place and 127 Tideswell Road. This was the 20th raid on Eastbourne since the Second World War began. The bomb exploded directly on the three storey house where Peggy and Myrtle were having tea.

“Myrtle, aged 32, was killed outright but Peggy, having dropped into the cellar, was trapped by a steel girder on her ankles. Here she lay for 36 hours until Dr Roy Barron, the First Air Commander, and surgeon Dr Laurence Snowball from Princess Alice Hospital, reached her but found it impossible to extract her and had no alternative but to amputate her legs.

“The situation was acute with another bomb which had dropped but not exploded lying 200 yards away and the water mains had burst so pumping operations had to be put in place by the Fire Brigade.

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“Throughout all this Peggy was remarkable despite great pain and stress, the initial darkness and sense of despair. She remained a very brave young lady obviously stemming from her service in the 1st Stone Cross Company of the Girl Guides. “One of the doctors tending her at the time told an Eastbourne Gazette reporter, ‘She had more pluck than any person I have ever known’.

“Having been rescued eventually and brought out of the cellar, she was taken to Princess Alice Hospital where it was found she had also suffered a broken back and despite a great fight for life she died on the morning of September 30 and is now buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Westham.

“On her headstone her brother Robert is also remembered and also featured is the insignia of the Girl Guides Gold Cross for Fortitude, the highest award to the Guides for Gallantry. In 1941 Peggy was recommended for the award by Dame Alice Godman, the County Commissioner for Sussex, and in June 1941 the awards committee put forward a request that it be awarded posthumously.

“The medal had been instituted in March 1941 and Peggy was the third person to be recommended but the first posthumously. The citation read, ‘Gallantry in face of danger and great suffering before her death after an air raid’. On top of the medal with its green ribbon are the immortal words ‘For Gallantry’ and is thought of as the Guides Victoria Cross.

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“Two others also died before being rescued – Stanley and Olive Giles, aged 33 and 28 who were both air raid wardens but at the time off duty. Their funeral was on October 9 1940.

“Karl Wilkinson, aged 35, survived but was also injured and trapped in the cellar. He had seen the German bomber overhead and when the bomb hit lapsed into an unconscious state and woke up holding the hand of his aunt who was close by. He called out to the others who were trapped and they all replied except his wife.

“The water by now was rising in the cellar and up to their chins. Having his hands free, Karl was able to with a piece of masonry hit the turncock and turn the water off and by means of a tube the water was pumped out of the cellar. The rescue squad was able to break through the kitchen on the corner of the house and level with the cellar break intervening wall and get to the trapped people.

“Karl was able to give them valuable assistance as to the layout of the cellar. They had cut through 12 inch concrete and a matchwood refrigerator lined with cork and in very confined conditions. While the rescue was going on two bombs that had delayed action fuses went off injuring some of the rescue squad. The main problems were gas, cold and the water level.

“Many of the rescue squad were builders, or labourers some working for the corporation answering every air raid siren since the war had begun. Some were First World War veterans who had experience of such conditions. The rescue was recorded as the largest and most difficult rescue in Eastbourne during the Second World War.

“For the rescue no less than four men were awarded the George Medal: Alfred Ernest Blackmer, Edwin Humphrey May, Francis Charles Frederick Stevens, and Ernest Lawson Turney who had served in the Army Service Corps in World War One and medals are now on display at the Redoubt Museum, Eastbourne.

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“Alfred Blackmer, aged 35, was later called up for military service and had on his uniform the ribbon of the GM. The awards were London Gazetted in March 1941.

“Another person decorated was Chief Fire Officer Phillips was awarded the MBE. He had already been awarded the Military Medal in World War One for taking messages under fire when with the Royal West Kent Regiment.

“There were commendations to for Dr John Fenton, the Medical Officer of Health for Eastbourne, Dr Roy MacGregor Barron, Dr Laurence Snowball and the leader of the rescue quad Roland Victor Harvey, sub Officer Sidney Nelson Waymark of Eastbourne Fire Brigade, Police Constable R T Jeffrey, Senior Air Raid Warden H M Barnes and Air Raid Warden A J Barkham.

As well as four killed, 14 were injured.