Couple tells of wartime bombing raids in Eastbourne

In 1976 two Swiss students interviewed Robert and Hilda Johnson with a cassette recorder at 67 Whitley Road, one of the houses destroyed on Sunday July 7 1940 in Eastbourne's first bombing raid.

Sunday, 29th April 2018, 12:53 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:34 am
Firefighters in Whitley Road SUS-180417-113133001

This is the transcript of the interview with Robert, who was 52 at the time of the raid and worked as a gardener, and Hilda, who was a 42-year-old housewife.

Do you mind if we ask you some questions about the war? Do you remember the bombing?

Mrs Johnson, “I ought to. I was nearly killed. It was July 7 1940 and the day before, the police came round for the men to go on the beach to fill up sandbags to block up the roads. They were expecting an invasion. I was going to help when I’d finished my work. Well, about 11am, I’d practically finished when, well, there was no warning, no siren or anything.

Eastbourne during the Second World War (Copy photograph by Jon Rigby) SUS-180417-114525001

“No warning at all. I’d come in here to get the duster and just then there was a terrific noise. Bang and a noise. And I thought, ‘What’s happened?’. I thought it was shelling from the sea because they’d done that the week before. So I got under the table and when it quietened down, I went to have a look. There was a big hole in the ceiling. They’d dropped a stick of nine bombs. And three of them were delayed action. But we didn’t know about delayed action at the time.

“There was this big hole in the ceiling and another in the party wall. There was no one next door. It had gone right through. But I didn’t know it was a bomb at the time. There was a raging fire in the road where one had blown a gas main. There were ARP men trying to get the fire out. I called one of them because I knew him.

“And he came in. Well, he didn’t come through the door because it was jammed. He said, ‘Are you all right, Mrs Johnson?’ and I said, ‘Yes, but there’s a bomb in here’. He said, ‘No, I don’t think so. That’s just the debris’. Anyway, he came round the back and climbed over the debris. He said, ‘You know, I think you’re right’.

“But we didn’t know about delayed action at the time. We thought so long as it hasn’t gone off, it wouldn’t. He said, ‘I’ll have to report this’. So he went and I still stopped there. Then my neighbour came back and we were all in here. Well, if it had gone off then, we’d all have been blown to bits.

Eastbourne during the Second World War (Copy photograph by Jon Rigby) SUS-180417-114548001

“Anyway, the ARP man came back with a policeman and two army officers. They got into next door through the hole in the wall. They said, ‘Yes, there’s a bomb in there. Get out as quick as you can. It can go off any minute’. I got out and they put us in the church across the road. And then they put us into houses at the other end.

“It was 11am when that bomb came through. And it went off at 2pm. And that was that. It took down both these houses, right down to the ground.”

Mr Johnson, “It was a 500-pounder. It blew everything up. I was out and when I came back, they’d put a barrier across Whitley Road and I wasn’t allowed through. I didn’t know whether my son or my wife was alive till 5pm because they wouldn’t allow me round here. And another bomb fell on Birchfields. That was a shop on the corner of Clarence Road.

Mrs Johnson, “ But it’s not a shop now. It’s a house, a rounded house.

Eastbourne during the Second World War (Copy photograph by Jon Rigby) SUS-180417-114536001

Mr Johnson, “This house is new. They rebuilt it. It was bombed right down to the ground. This house is new, and next-door as well. And the funny thing is that this house was down and next door was down. But our old shed was still there. And it’s still there now. Isn’t that funny?

Did the government pay you compensation?

Mr Johnson, “After the war, yes. The government rebuilt the house. We were out of it for 10 years. It was bombed in 1940 and it was rebuilt in 1949. Nearly ten years.”

The above was submitted by Michael Ockenden of Eastbourne Local History Society. For details contact Diana Guthrie at [email protected] or telephone Eastbourne 419181.