Posted: 10 November 2011 23:14
By sheer coincidence my Remembrance piece follows on from last year's post based on some of the stories behind those who lie in Hastings Cemetery. This year I look at some tragic flying bomb incidents of July 1944.
My research this year has branched out into the V1 flying bomb campaign and it has been bringing all sorts of stories to light; two incidents in particular tied in with graves I visited at Hastings last year and so I decided to continue with this theme.
Flicking though my copy of Hastings & St Leonards in the Front Line published in 1945 by local newspaper The Hastings & St Leonards Observer, it seems that flying bombs caused four fatalities and somewhere in the region of 120 casualties in and around Hastings.
If these statistics are correct (and the booklet conflicts with official documents in many respects), then all the fatalities resulted from two seperate incidents. A tragic link between these fatalities is that both incidents were caused by flying bombs crashing to earth after being engaged by the defences.
On 16 July 1944, six houses in Old Church Road, Hastings, were destroyed when a flying bomb was brought down by an Allied fighter aircraft.
Three people were killed as a result and 47 injured, 12 of them seriously.
One of those killed was Home Guard Henry Colbran; his neighbours two doors down were husband and wife Frederick and Martha Thompsett. All three were laid to rest in Hastings Cemetery, the Thompsetts' in the wartime burial plot that I visited last year as seen at right.
An official report states that the flying bomb landed just 12 feet from the nearest house, but also damaged about 50 other houses up to 500 yards away. All services were cut off and 60 telephone wires brought down.
This report unusually omits mention of casualties and states that the bomb was shot down by a fighter.
However, Hastings at War 1939-45 (2005) by Nathan Dylan Goodwin cites an eyewitness account of the fighter pilot using his wing to tip the bomb and upset its gyro-stabilisation mechanism, bringing it down with tragic consequences.
With a lingering touch of wartime propaganda and completely disregarding the immense efforts of those who served under Anti-Aircraft Command, Hastings & St Leonards in the Front Line states:
Townspeople...took great delight in watching the bave and brilliant work of the fighter pilots, and there was tremendous satisfaction every time a robot was seen to explode in the air, or a distant roar and earth tremor announced that yet another had been brought down in "open country."
To those who lived in the rural area, it seemed that the country was far from "open," for the damaged robots seemed to have the most uncanny knack of falling near cottages or farm buildings.
Four days after the first fatal incident, another bomb crashed down on a farmhouse after being shot down by a 40mm Bofors gun of the RAF Regiment.
The regiment had been rushed into the line at Battle at short notice, only to be relocated to the Fairlight area.
The Squadron war diary for that fateful day records events:
Bofors gun engaged PAC Pilotless Aircraft targets from 07:00 hours - one brought down, 150 yards from Squadron HQ by No.3 Gun of our No.1 Flight - claim submitted to Gun Operations Room 08:00 hours. Convinced this PAC was "our" kill. No casualties suffered by Squadron personnel. Flying Bomb landed on farmhouse killing an elderly woman. Several HQ personnel dashed to house immediately smoke from FB had cleared to offer any assistance possible.
Hastings at War 1939-45 records Ethel Barnes as the last fatality due to enemy action in Hastings during World War Two.
To the casual observer, the above war diary extract may seem a bit cold and detatched from the gravity of the situation as one might perhaps view it today; namely, an innocent life being lost.
However, this was total war and thousands of innocent civilians had already died on the Home Front from aerial attack. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the gunners did feel responsible for the incident; but I have no doubt that the officers of the regiment would have put things into context. If that flying bomb had landed in the densely-packed streets of London (or even in central Hastings), how many more lives might have been lost?
The following day, the same regiment shot down two flying bombs without causing any casualties, potentially saving many lives. I believe that what these gunners and pilots were doing was fully justified for the greater good.
It's easy to forget that engaging flying bombs was a dangerous business; a fighter pilot scoring a hit risked flying into the explosion and more than one brave man was lost as a result. Pilots also ran the risk of being shot at by the gunners if they flew over the coast whilst pursuing flying bombs.
For the gunners on the ground, dangers also existed; film footage of daylight attacks shows flying bombs impacting on the ground in the vicinity of gun positions. War diary entries mention the hazards of falling debris from shell and bomb explosions, while some bombs came to ground in front of gun batteries.
Just days after the Fairlight incident, "no-fire" zones were established over the built-up areas of Bexhill, Hastings and other south coast towns. No light anti-aircraft round was to be fired at flying bombs entering these zones to protect these urban districts, presumably because LAA rounds were more likely to just "wing" a flying bomb rather than cause a relatively harmless airburst. Fairlight CHL radar station was also designated as a no-fire zone to protect the equipment that formed part of the early warning system. Hastings became a "safe lane" for friendly aircraft to cross the coastal gun belt without being engaged.
However, these zones might not have altered the incidents in which lives were lost; both impact sites fall outside of the no-fire areas and the bomb that crashed down at Fairlight would still have been engaged under the new rules.
These incidents illustrate the desperate dilemma the defenders found themselves in; should lives be risked in the coastal towns in order to prevent (possibly greater) destruction and loss of lives further inland? It can never be known how events might have been altered by the various changes to the rules of engagement. Indeed, both incidents occurred after the 'move to the coast' had begun on 14th July; this had been undertaken in order to engage as many bombs over the Channel as possible and prevent the gunners from having to hold fire if fighters were in the area.
Either way it seems that lives were at risk wherever and however flying bombs were engaged; war is a horrible activity that pays no respect to the innocent. Perhaps the only consolation of the two incidents in question is that the tragic losses in both cases were not much higher.
A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.
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Hibbs, Peter In Remembrance (2019) Available at: http://www.pillbox.org.uk/blog/216691/ Accessed: 15 July 2019
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