The following has been taken from the book, “The Story of Bexhill”, by L .J. Bartley.
An account of Bexhill during the second world war must be prefaced by a reference to the air raid precautions undertaken at the Munich crisis in September 1938 when an order to distribute gas-masks was received while the Town Council was in session. In consequence 21,000 respirators were assembled and issued in two days, while trenches were dug as temporary air raid shelters.
When war came a year later, civil defence precautions had been greatly advanced, including the reinforcement of the Colonnade with 100,000 sandbags, as one of the 42 public air raid shelters in the borough.
Between August 1940 and the end of hostilities in Europe in May 1945, Bexhill had 51 air raids by piloted planes and 328 high explosive and some thousands of incendiary bombs fell in the town. Twenty-one civilians and one soldier were killed, 74 buildings destroyed, 189 seriously damaged and 2,735 slightly damaged. Among buildings hit were the Town Hall, De La Warr Pavilion, Central Station, Sackville and Metropole Hotels and the Beulah Baptist Church which was saved through the efforts of fire fighters led by the minister. A tip-and-run raid in May 1942 wrecked some business premises in the centre of the town, including the offices and local printing works of the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, and also St. Barnabas’ Vicarage.
Later in the war, when Bexhill was in ‘bomb alley’, some 485 flying bombs passed over the town during one period of 24 hours. Several which fell in the borough damaged St. Augustine’s Church, the Old Town convalescent home and the Bell Hotel. Early in this crisis Bexhill became a key point in the coastal gunnery defences when the anti-aircraft belt was moved from the southern outskirts of London. This operation was completed in three days and the Chief Signals Officer of Anti-Aircraft Command, Brigadier G. C. Wickins, who was responsible for all the communications, afterwards became a distinguished resident of the town.
In conjunction with the air raid warden service a fire watch was early organised which later became the Fire Guard under the direction of the National Fire Service into which all volunteer brigades such as that at Bexhill were co-ordinated.
The first recruits to the Local Defence Volunteers (the L.D.V.) in 1940 formed the nucleus of ‘K’ Battalion in the East Sussex Command, later becoming the 24th Battalion of the Sussex Home Guard which, in the closing stages of the war, was absorbed into the 23rd (Hastings) Battalion.
At the outbreak of the war Bexhill was a reception centre for more than 700 London schoolchildren, but after the fall of France in 1940 the town became an evacuation area and more than 1,100 local children went to Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, while most of the independent schools left the town, some never to return.
The departure of non-essential civilians left many empty properties, and over five years the rate revenue of the borough was supported by government grants amounting to £315,000.
The Report Centre, from which the Civil Defence Services were controlled, moved from the Town Hall, after it had suffered bomb damage, to Garth Place (now St. Francis’ School) where the Town Council also met until the end of the war. The work of the Town Clerk (Mr. Edward Smith) as Sub-Controller of the borough’s Civil Defence under the East Sussex organisation was acknowledged 1946 by the presentation to him of an illuminated address on behalf of the townspeople. The civic lead in the town’s war effort had from the first been outstanding under the influence of the Mayor (Alderman W. N. Cuthbert) who served from 1936-42. Mr. Smith also played a leading part in the formation of the Borough’s Development Committee which produced a comprehensive plan for post-war Bexhill, the effect of which was largely lost when planning responsibilities were transferred to the East Sussex County Council after the war. The borough civil defence organisation did not cease to exist until the East Sussex stand-down in 1968.
A notable contribution to the war effort was that of the Bexhill Centre of the Women’s Voluntary Service (now prefixed by the title `Royal’). Formed in March 1939 the members assisted with billeting evacuees, the large-scale evacuation the town, and welfare work for the thousands of troops stationed in the borough until the invasion of Normandy. Among these were Canadian and Free French units, and nothing reflected more credit on Bexhill than the way in which they were all welcomed and so much done for their welfare and entertainment, a voluntary effort in which immense work was done by the Rotary Club, although itself depleted in numbers.
The two Red Cross detachments which had managed hospitals in the first world war again expanded rapidly and undertook nursing work among evacuees, especially at the maternity hospital which occupied the convalescent home at Cooden. Later a supply depot provided comforts and many essential articles on a vast scale. The unity and exemplary work of those who remained in Bexhill during the worst years of the war gave the town its own ‘finest hour’ and when V.E. Day came the news was received with a deep sense of thankfulness, one the first acts being a united service in Egerton Park. Later street teas for children and welcome home parties for returning Servicemen were organised, but the final act of World War II for the town was the unveiling of plaques on the memorials commemorating those who had given their lives on active service.
Many years later a facet of the war which had been quite unknown to the public was disclosed with some details of a resistance organisation formed against a possible German invasion in 1940, and it must be remembered that the town was within the coastal area of the Nazis’ Operation ‘Sea-Lion’. There were 21 patrols in Sussex operating from 28 hideouts, and one of the local volunteers was a future mayor of the borough, Mr. E. T. Johnson.