The Rescuers in Eastbourne

Lizzie Williams

With the anniversary of VE Day this week, we wanted to look at the stories of people from Eastbourne during the Second World War.  As we found out in our last blog post, Eastbourne suffered almost 100 air raids during the War. You can still see the marks of these bombing raids around Eastbourne – the Eastbourne Library replaced the impressive Technical Institute after it was bombed, and the surviving church tower of St John’s in Meads, which remarkably remained intact when the rest of the church was bombed.

More importantly though, life changed for the people who lived in Eastbourne. Young men went off to fight in foreign fields, and many other, including those who’d already fought in previous wars, joined up to protect their homeland in the Home Guard or Civil Defence. Local women and girls also took up new jobs in the Land Army, volunteering with the Red Cross and many other roles across society.

Eastbourne itself was made into an exclusion zone. My Grandmother, who was pregnant during the War, was one of many residents who sought safety away from the coast. British and Commonwealth soldiers were billeted to the town, and precautions were taken to protect Eastbourne from an invading army. Guns were installed around town at key points, the beach was covered in barbed wire, and part of the pier was removed so that it could not be used as a landing point for an invading army.

In our collection, there is an impressive album of photos that were taken around Eastbourne that show the devastation that the bombs caused. Below I’ve chosen a few that show some of the people who were involved with the rescue efforts that went on.

These first few photos show the ‘bomb squad’. These young men worked tirelessly to remove and diffuse undetonated bombs.

The first of these photos show the bomb being uncovered on Thursday evening.
The next, taken Friday morning, shows they had uncovered enough of the bomb to remove it from the hole.
The next shows the bomb once it had been removed, they often used cars to tow the bombs from the hole. Now the bomb was ready to be worked on. However, due to damage sustained to this bomb the locking ring would not move and therefore the fuse could not be removed so the bomb had to be taken away while it was still live!
The last photo in this group shows the whole of this bomb squad, except the sergeant.

There are many stories of tremendous acts of bravery from these rescue groups. On the 28th September 1940, bombs were dropped on the corner of Cavendish Place and Tideswell Road. The rescue attempt took 36 hours. The group worked through the night to free people from the cellars of damaged buildings. They were hampered by a burst water main, gas leaking from a damaged pipe, an unexploded bomb nearby, a 12-ft concrete wall they had to cut through, extensive tunnelling work that they had to do to get to the wounded, and all of this under black-out conditions. They managed to rescue three people. Eastbourne’s Chief Fire Officer S. A. Philips, who co-ordinated the rescue, was awarded an MBE for his efforts. Francis Charles Frederick Stevens, a bricklayer by trade, Alfred Ernest Blackmer, a bricklayer’s labourer, Edwin Humphrey May, who was called up for military service later that year, and Ernest Lawson Turney, a motor mechanic, were all awarded the George Cross for volunteering to help with the rescue.

And don’t think that the pets of Eastbourne were forgotten about either. Eastbourne’s own RSPCA officer, Inspector Teddy Winn, was often at wreckages helping injured animals. This photo shows the rescue of a dog from one such site. Although the photo is not labelled, we know that Teddy later spoke of rescuing a dog from a site in Jevington Gardens. The dog was trapped under concrete and Teddy was indebted to the Canadian soldier who helped him in the rescue by digging for five hours with just his hands. After the War, on Boxing Day 1946, Teddy recued a dog from Beachy Head by being lowered down the treacherous cliff face to a ledge that the dog was stuck on. Teddy was awarded the RSPCA’s highest honour, the Margaret Wheatley Cross for his actions.

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