Sussex

East Grinstead bombing: WWII air raid dead remembered

Composite of London Road before and after bombing, plus newspaper headline of the time
Image caption The raid stunned the people of East Grinstead and led to the biggest wartime loss of life in Sussex

Nearly four years into World War II the quiet Sussex town of East Grinstead had largely escaped the direct consequences of the conflict.

But on 9 July 1943 a lone German bomber pilot, separated from his comrades, spotted a convoy of army trucks along the High Street and dropped eight bombs, causing the largest single wartime loss of life in Sussex.

The bombs that fell on East Grinstead killed 108 people and seriously injured 235 more.

As people gathered on Tuesday for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing, some travelling from overseas to be there, memories remained vivid but not easily shared.

The impact on East Grinstead - a town with a peacetime population of barely 8,000 - was huge.

Image caption Canadian troops billeted in the town were drafted in to help with the rescue effort.

Many of the victims were children, watching a matinee performance of Hopalong Cassidy at the Whitehall Cinema in London Road.

Witnesses said that after discharging the bombs, the pilot turned back and sent machine-gun fire along the street and approach to the railway station, adding to the toll of dead and injured.

Canadian troops billeted in the town were drafted in to help with the rescue effort.

Many people had some sort of link to a victim or their families, yet it was an event that was rarely talked about.

Simon Kerr, the town's tourism promotion manager, said: "It's almost like, don't mention the war. It's always very hard to get [families] to talk about it."

Mr Kerr's mother was a child in the town when the bomber struck. "All she would say was that she remembers walking through the alleyway [alongside the cinema] when they were pulling children out," he said.

"She said they just looked like dolls, and that's all she would ever say."

He said it was only 10 years ago that a commemorative plaque was erected in the town.

Image caption The memorial at East Court features the name of all those killed in the bombing

"The whole town was so completely shell-shocked. So many [casualties] were children.

"It has been difficult for the town to come to terms with. There was a mass burial, a mass grave.

"Even today some people are talking about it for the first time," he added.

Ahead of the anniversary, Patricia Lorange, 92, wrote a letter to the town council containing her recollections of the air raid.

She wrote that she did not hear a siren "but I did hear the loud noise of a plane diving very close".

"I looked out of the window, which was immediately filled by a German plane with its black and white cross.

"The pilot's face in profile seemed close enough for me to reach out and touch him before I left the window to throw myself on the floor, yelling, 'It's Jerry…'"

She continued: "I saw the bombs leave his plane and start their rapid curving flight towards the cinema, then heard the awful noise, the sound of more explosions and then machine-gun fire."

The 70th anniversary was marked with a wreath-laying and short service at the town's war memorial followed by a brief ceremony outside the former cinema in London Road.

As the church bells tolled, those attending observed a minute's silence.

For some who were there when the bombs fell on East Grinstead, the silence has lasted a lot longer.

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Media captionThe town marked the anniversary of the tragedy with a wreath laying and a minute's silence

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