Some lucky escapes
Air raid, Saturday 24th September, 1940
Early on this Saturday, my sister and I began to realise that our eagerly anticipated visit to the little Odeon Cinema was becoming a non-starter. Mother would not go out without her hat! Father had been on ARP duty throughout the previous night and was having a well-earned and well-needed sleep. “I’m not disturbing your father to get my hat” said Mother, “we’ll have to wait for him to wake up”. We waited and waited but Father slept on. By now we had missed the start of the cinema programme so Mother suggested an alternative: shopping at Mr Mepham’s, the butcher, in Upper Bedford Street with a walk home via Queen’s Park. Then the air raid siren sounded!
As the wail of the siren died away, we heard the horrible, unmistakable sound of exploding bombs, too close for comfort, and immediately scuttled for the shelter of the hallway where there were no windows. The noise and terrific vibrations of the explosions meant that it was very near at hand and Father immediately went back on duty to cope with the nearest incident: extensive damage to Rock Street and the Mews behind, with many severe and fatal casualties.
Direct hit on The Odeon
News began to filter through as to the extent of the damage and we discovered that the little Odeon had suffered a direct hit. So too had the butcher’s shop in Upper Bedford Street and Mr Mepham had been killed. Our caretaker’s wife and children had been in the Odeon cinema – Mrs Miles had extensive leg injuries and her nine year old daughter, June, had severe thigh injuries but little seven-year-old Philip was found later in the hospital with bad finger injuries.
Girls’ school bombed
I was working in the Borough Treasurer’s section of the Public Assistance Department in the Public Office in Princes Street. This was a department responsible for the rest centres and emergency feeding of bombed-out victims and so we were often some of the first to know where the disasters had struck. We also had a special warning system which sounded to warn us of enemy planes approaching and this often went off before the public siren.
The 25th of May, 1943 at midday was warm and sunny and I was working by the east-facing window and enjoying the fresh air when the peace was shattered by the unmistakeable sound of a bad air raid. As I made my way down to the strong room shelter, I was stopped by one of the senior officers with whom I fire-watched. He advised me to go home.
My journey on the bus from Castle Square through Kemp Town soon revealed the severity of the raid in which considerable damage had been done, turning the once sunny morning into a dusty dullness. The nearer I got to my home in Sussex Square, the more worried I became. There was a huge house down in Chesham Road and as I looked up St Mark’s Street, saw that the gate lodge of St Mary’s Hall Girls’ School had taken a direct hit. The lodge-keeper was one of my father’s air raid wardens and I found out later that he had been killed.
Part of my job in the Borough Treasurer’s Department was to visit five Brighton schools each week so that parents of children evacuated to Yorkshire could pay for their keep without risking a visit to Brighton and threats from raids.
On 29 March 1943 I was at Lewes Road School. It was holiday time and so I was the sole occupant of the huge, empty building. As I sat in that cold little ground floor room with my back to the enormous windows looking onto Pevensey Road, I realised that if the building were hit in an air raid, no one would know there was anyone inside.
The raid came suddenly with a rush of horrific noise, the screaming and explosion of dropping bombs, and the deafening sound of very low flying aircraft, spattering the road outside with cannon fire. I crouched, arms over head, pressed closely to the skirting board between the two windows. At last came the blessed relief of silence and the feeling of gratitude for escape. As I got shakily to my feet, I was surprised to see a rather pale face staring back at me from the huge heavy framed, old-fashioned mirror under which I had unknowingly been crouching. I may have been safe from the window glass but that mirror would have killed me if it fell from the wall!
That was the morning the Brighton Clinic was hit and the damage I saw on my way back to the office in Prince’s Street included the complete destruction of the motorcycle shop by the little red church near the Astoria cinema.