The War In and Over Sussex

My mother’s memories
Like many children born during or just after the War, my mother used to regale us with stories about what it was like on the ‘Home Front’ with Dad continuously away. She lived from day-to-day and, without knowing it, participated in history being made. My mother was a font of information and would describe the hardships, the humour, and the major events. She played her part in keeping the ‘home fires burning’ and made many friends. Up until the day she died (31 December 1996), she just saw the war years as being ‘normal’ – nothing special – we all had to do it. She was very English and stoic.

She told me stories about the Battle of Britain being fought out in the skies above Sussex; seeing the vapour trails; of the aircraft that came to grief around Hove (where she was then living); of the raids by German aircraft; of hiding young Robert in the Anderson shelter. She was once strafed by a Messerschmitt when she was on the way to work at Oaklands Dairy on her bike. She told me about bombs and incendiaries up the street, around the corner, and one day next door.

Mum gave me her personal perspective on the evacuation from Dunkirk; V1s and V2s. She told me of Monty’s visit to Hove to speak to the troops just before D-Day; about rationing, and about the firm friendships she made with other women in similar circumstances.

Books about the aerial war
As far as I am concerned, the definitive books on the aerial war over Sussex during the Second World War are the series produced by Pat Burgess and Andy Saunders. They have produced three books – Battle Over Sussex 1940; Blitz Over Sussex 1941-42 and Bombers Over Sussex 1943-45.

Burgess and Saunders have obsessively researched the available archives ‘from a wide range of sources’ to ‘draw up a jigsaw type picture of aerial events in and over Sussex during the War’. They have been able to compile a complete listing of the losses to aircraft in the county, including crew names, serial numbers of aircraft and combat data. Of course some incidents are better described than others, but they believe that they have been successful in identifying every aircraft crash in Sussex off airfields.

Their books have been illustrated with many photographs obtained both from official and private sources. They even arranged to have some aircraft ‘recovered’ during the 1970s and 1980s and they supervised the digging up of wreckage in various parts of the county.

The impact of the war on Sussex
The war over Sussex did not take on the drama of the blitz on London and the major industrial cities of the Midlands and the north. However, to the residents of all the towns and villages in Sussex it was just as stressful and the outcome as uncertain as anywhere else in Britain. In fact, given the ‘frontline’ position of Sussex, it can be argued that the threat of invasion had a greater impact on the residents than in other parts.

Between July 1940 and May 1945, 11,486 high explosive bombs were dropped; 89,675 incendiaries were unleashed on the population; some 341 other projectiles/bombs; 77 parachute mines/bombs and 1,405 antipersonnel bombs dropped. 907 V1 flying bombs (Doodlebugs) crashed to earth but fortunately only 4 V2s. This onslaught resulted in 1,015 people being killed and 3,895 injured.

During the Battle of Britain 310 people were killed. Allied aircraft losses are listed as 180 with 61 crew killed compared with 180 enemy aircraft and 143 killed and 147 taken prisoner. This does not include the aircrew that crashed off the coast of Sussex.

For the whole war, a total of 152 enemy aircraft were downed resulting in 220 aircrew killed and 152 taken prisoner. To achieve this the Allied efforts seem out of all proportion – 715 aircraft downed and 533 aircrew killed with 1,055 being safe.

There is a slight discrepancy in the figure, but it is also claimed that a total of 935 aircraft were downed and crashed in Sussed during the war – 666 UK; 102 US and 167 German. I suspect that this includes aircraft that ditched in the sea of the coast, whereas the earlier figures are for ‘land crashed’.

One should not forget also that a large number of unexploded bombs needed to be disarmed and disposed of by the UXB Teams – a truly heroic band of specialists. I must also mention the Home Guard. My grandfather Scott from Hove, a veteran of the First World War, served his time willingly and like them all made a valuable contribution to the home defence. They captured a significant number of the surviving enemy aircrew.

Comments about this page

  • My grandad, Percy Collins, had a greengrocers shop in Rifflebutt Rd. I remember my mum, Audrey Collins, telling me that when she was a child she was playing in the street when a German plane flew low down the steet where she was playing with all guns blazing, a man appeared and pushed her to safety.

    By Paul Vincent (28/03/2005)
  • World War II began in September, when I was 16 (I’d be 17 the following November). I’d been working since I was 14 at the Southdown works (now long gone) in Victoria Road, Portslade. This is a place that Tony Walls probably knows well. I came out of the building at 5:30 to get on the bus home. A twin-engined Dornier came out of the clouds and flew along the railway tracks, parallel with Victoria Road, and the gunner sprayed the tracks with machine gun fire. No one was hit so far as I know and little damage was done, but it was scary, especially to a 16-year old. I now live near Paramus, New Jersey, but often visit England and drive along Victoria Road occasionally. Further correspondence is welcome.

    By Robert (Bob) Green (04/07/2005)
  • I was working for M. Freeman and was loading scrap iron into a boat in Portslade basin, I was in the hold with a mate of mine, his name was Ron Berry and he lived in Hanover Street. We were both trimming the load towards the outer sides of the ship. With the noise that the old scrap was making we did not hear if the siren was going or not. It seemed very quiet so we started to climb out of the hold onto the deck. While hanging onto the top of the hold looking like `Mr Chad` we saw a Jerry that flew over our heads. The gunners on top of Caffyns garage gave a burst of fire at it but it was gone, and I think that it was the one that hit the clinic in Sussex Street. The rest of the works were all sitting in the cafe, they said they had not heard the siren either, but heard the roar of the plane going over.

    By Albert Roberts (06/02/2006)
  • I grew up during World War ll in Brighton/Hove.  My father was an ARP Warden but unfortunately he passed away in 1941 through an illness  He was going to join the Air Force.  It was a very hard time for my mother running a business in Brighton, having four small daughters to look after.  I remember the air raids, rationing, air raid shelters: not much of a childhood.  I left school at 14 and went to work at the Palmeira Store as a relief cashier (hated it).  My children can’t believe I left school at such an early age.  I tell them I was no different than other children.  We survived and are no worse off for it.

    By Anita (28/01/2008)
  • I lived in Lansdowne Street; Palmeria Stores was on the corner of our Street. My best friend was called Mardia Bishop, she had a great personality, I often wonder where she is today, I am now 72 yrs. and still have fond memories of the War years. My Mum was a Secretary in the Air Ministry and worked in the Royal Albion Hotel, she worked for the Canadian. Australian and New Zealand Air Force personnel. After the War we moved back to London, but I spent all the school holidays in Lansdowne Street with my aunt, May Averill.

    By Jean Wilson (04/11/2011)
  • Interesting stories. Does anyone remember the day, I think it was in 1940 but I am not sure, when several aeroplanes circled for some time over Brighton, being shot at by all and sundry? From my memory it was all small arms fire, not really likely to score a lethal hit. After a while they flew away, the story got round that they were Free French or some other nationality fleeing from the Germans.

    By Michael Hooper (30/05/2012)
  • I am looking to contact Terry Walls regarding three books he mentioned in his information “Books about the aerial war”. I would like to purchase one or all three as a matter of interest. We had a bomber land behind a row of pine trees off Chalky Lane in Mile Oak. I was not born at that time, but the stories from the now men who knew of it, and actually went on the wreck… I know we have not found out any details for our Mile Oak Revisited books…..and would like to see if maybe details are in one of the books Terry notes. If Terry contacts MBAH web I am happy for my email address to be given to him for further contact, if that is possible. Thank you for all the good you do.

    By Bonny Cother (05/12/2012)
  • During the war parties of school-age children went to the country to farms to pick fruit and veg. I was in the GLB (Girls Life Brigade) and we were camping in a field next to Chailey School when during the night we were all woken by V1s (buzz bombs) flying low over the site. There were maybe 12 tents – circular – where we were sleeping with our feet towards the centre pole – I think there were about 12 of us to a tent. I think it was 1943 or 44 and I was in charge of our tent. I would have been about 13-14. The noise was horrific and as each missile flew above us we waited for the engine to stop warning us that it was about to crash. We’d been told that if you counted to 10 when the engine stopped, and if you reached 10 then it was not going to hit you! It seemed that Hitler had done his sums wrong on that night because instead of crashing on London, these weapons were all flying over Chailey. As each engine stopped we shouted the numbers 1 to 10 loudly defying them to hit us and we were very lucky. None came very near to us but it was quite scary. In between we sang all the songs we knew till the next one arrived. Vera Lynn had nothing on us except the most popular songs were her songs that night. In the morning we were congratulated by the Captain in charge for keeping the others from being scared. Afterwards we found out that a farmhouse outside Lewes had been destroyed and two cottages in Nutley were also hit but I think the rest landed in fields.

    By Stevie Hobbs (20/12/2012)
  • If you are still looking to contact me Bonny my email address is

    By Terry Walls (24/10/2013)
  • My mother Sybil Coles (nee Alldridge) was born in 1919 and lived in Brighton until 1955 and told me many stories about the war years in Brighton.  This one I think was the most tragic:
    She married Bill Coles aged 21 on 18/08/1939 at Brighton Registry Office. They lived in rented rooms. She went into labour with my brother Ramon on 14/01/1940, the midwife had tied her feet to the corners of the bed and told her to pull on the head rest if she had a contraction. There was an air raid at the time and she remembered bombs falling out of planes that she could see out of the window.  The next morning she was told by the midwife the whole street opposite had been bombed to the ground and nothing was left. A month after my brother was born Bill was called up to serve overseas, it was the start of the war and, although unaware of it at the time, he would not return until Ramon was 6 years old.  For the majority of the war he did not have any leave and fought on the front line in every campaign and was ‘missing believed killed’ in North Africa but turned up at the door in 1945 covered in mud straight from the trenches. My mother had no idea he was still alive. He later had the task of helping to clear the German concentration camps.  My mother said he went away a happy lovely young boy and came back a hard drinking, terse and bitter man.  He would never discuss his war experiences.
    My mother was living at 33 St Michaels Place, Brighton.  My mother thought her husband was dead, Brighton was full of serviceman of all nationalities and she got a job at the Silver Lady Canteen. Servicemen would leave their watches promising to come back and pay and to retrieve their watches but many never returned. She had an affair with a Canadian airman and my sister Stella was born 07/11/1941.  One day she was in the town shopping and the German planes were machine gunning the streets. The Co-op manager ran out, grabbed her and the pram with the children in and pulled them inside to the floor just as the shop window came in.
    In April 1942 my mother had her right leg in plaster, Stella would not stop screaming and my mother took her to the doctors three separate times, and on the last time he said to her ‘haven’t you been a mother long enough to know these little childish ailments?’.  My mother knew something was drastically wrong and attempted to walk with both children to the hospital, a taxi driver stopped and took her the rest of the way and waited outside with no charge. The nursing sister refused to look at her without a doctor’s note and my mother in her words threw her into the arms of a young doctor and pleaded for him to examine her. She was told by the doctor that my sister had TB and meningitis and was admitted immediately. But she died in hospital by the following morning, aged 5 months old, on 18/04/1942 at Brighton Municipal Hospital, Elm Grove. My mother had married under the age of 21 with the consent of the Old Bailey and had fallen out with all her family and had no-one to turn to. She did not want my sister to be buried in a pauper’s grave. She went from door to door along streets near to where she lived to borrow the money for the funeral, writing a list of every name and address and the amount borrowed.  This was only for the burial not the ground or memorial stone.  It took several months to pay everyone back.  On the day of the funeral my mother was on her own with my sister in a tiny white coffin and two pall bearers, the burial to take place in Brighton and Hove Cemetery on the hill.  German planes came over and dived as if to machine gun about 40 feet above and then went back up and went into the town and started machine gunning there. My mother was in a total state of shock because of the death of my sister. Twenty one years later I was 15 and had started work and told my mother I would give her the money. She wrote to the funeral directors and the owner remembered it well and only asked for the money it would have cost at the time and he would pay the rest, and the money I gave my mother paid for the stone.  If anyone reads this account and happens to visit Brighton and Hove Cemetery and goes to the childrens’ graves on the hill, this is the story of Stella Coles.

    By Sharon Nuttall (22/10/2016)
  • Dear Sharon, that is a desperately sad story. My thoughts are with you for having to live with this. Best wishes, James.

    By James Wright (19/02/2017)
  • I have an interest in any German aircraft that crashed in and around Seaford in WW2, particularly in Seaford Bay.  One aircraft that I am particularly interested in is one that we saw as children in the sea at the top of the Causeway in Seaford. I believe this particular aircraft was a Dornier. We were allowed to go and see the aircraft from a room in a building that stands on the corner of the Causeway and the Esplanade.

    Does anyone have any idea what the aircraft was and the year that it was in the sea off of Seaford in WW2?. 

    I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can give any information on this, dates, aircraft, books etc.

    My thanks to you. Bill.

    By Bill Purcell (12/05/2018)
  • I am researching John Henry reeves who was the Chief Fire Officer of Seaford during WW2.
    He was awarded a National Fire Brigade Bronze 10 year medal & 5 year bar in Apr 1923, then a 20 year Silver medal in Dec 1929 with subsequent 5 year bars Nov 1935 and Jun 1939.
    Does any one have any further info that may assist me.
    Thanks Peter From Australia

    By Peter Epps (01/09/2020)

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