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The East Grinstead Front

by churton

Contributed by 
People in story: 
nora churton
Location of story: 
East Grinstead
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 November 2003

I had no idea why we had neither a Morrison nor Anderson shelter. My father thought he had a better idea and decided to make a dugout in the style of the First World War vintage. Digging took a couple of days. He found what he considered to be a load- bearing beam, placed it across the trench then covered it over with a sheet of redundant lino and piled the excavated earth on top. Two days later, following a prolonged downpour, the beam snapped and the roof fell in. All we had now to rely on for our protection was the cupboard under the stairs. And it was there we spent our nights during the blitz sleeping on mattresses so tightly packed together we were unable to move once ensconced without disturbing the whole family. There we were unable to sleep anyway, for the sounds of anti-aircraft fire and planes droning towards London; holding our breath as the whistle of a descending bomb warned of what we imagined might be a direct hit.

Our most serious attack came in July 1943. I was in a teashop along the London-road when a lone raider released eight high explosive bombs over the town. Four exploded in the High Street, scoring direct hits on Tudor buildings. The rest fell on a cinema only a short distance from the teashop, causing well over a hundred fatalities – many of them children. With every explosion the teashop seemed to lift into the air and then fell down again. I ran outside to see flames billowing into the street, glass crunched underfoot and people lay around some injured while others were getting to their feet after being blown over by blast. The raider banked, turned and sprayed the road and pavements with machine gun fire, while soldiers and civilians who a minute or so ago were taking tea in the teashop, rushed into the cinema in an attempt to rescue survivors. It was there where most casualties occurred. Probably through shock, fear and panic it was some minutes before my thoughts turned to home. To the rear of the cinema and only 150 yards away where four high bombs had caused such devastation lived my parents, sister and young brothers. Dazed and trembling I stumbled along London-road and into the High Street where just this single raider had also unleashed part of its lethal cargo, causing several fatalities and demolishing a stationer’s shop. Leaving the High Street, I continued my trek home, praying the house was still standing and my family safe. As I approached I could see my mother walking towards me. The whole family had survived; but alas, many other families had not. In those days East Grinstead was a small country town with a relevant population. Everybody, it seemed had lost a relative, friend, school pal or acquaintance

Local papers carried reports and pictures but only scant reference was made in the national press. One report was a single paragraph in a London evening edition. ‘A lone raider dropped bombs on a southeast town yesterday and there were casualties.

Almost a year to the day, however, our town again came under attack; this time by a flying bomb. At seven one morning I awakened to what we had come to recognise as the distinctive grinding throttle sound of a V1 approaching. As it began passing overhead its noise was accompanied by machine gun fire from a Spitfire. Suddenly the noise ceased, except for screams from one of our neighbours who had emerged from her garden shelter. ‘Its coming down, its coming down!’

Before I could get out of bed and under it, there was a terrific explosion. Bricks came flying through the window; much of the ceiling came crashing down and I could not see across the room for white powdered dust. Everywhere was covered with grit and chunks of plaster. Pictures lay broken on the floor while others were askew, still hanging from their hooks. I went downstairs and my younger brother appeared in the kitchen, blood dripping onto his pyjamas. I could see that his chin had almost been severed. My father, a member of the Home Guard First Aid team dressed the wound, sat him in a push chair and my mother wheeled him a mile and a half to hospital.

As the years passed, the wound moved further under his chin. When it was time for him to do his national service it was hardly visible at all. This was the second time, more or less, within a year our house had escaped a direct hit but this time it had suffered much greater damage. The flying bomb had exploded where the cinema once stood. Fatalities however were lighter numbering three unlucky men on their way to work.

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