For some five years, I rolled out of bed at 5.30 each morning to sling the newspapers outside Martin’s High Street store from pavement to shelf. How this began is still a mystery to me. I can’t remember. But I joined two other elderly volunteers, Arthur and Fred.
Fred was the original curmudgeon. I learned much about the style, wit and curl of the lip that curmudgeons need to be a successful grouser. But Fred was also a living historian of life in Lewes, from the time as a youth when he was charged with tending to the shire horses used by a local milk delivery firm, to his nimble antics installing television antennae on most of the roofs in the town.
But inside, like most curmudgeons, Fred was a softie. When I asked daft questions, he not only gave me an immediate answer but then followed it up with photos, news cuttings and his memorabilia to make sure he had made me understand the oral response to my enquiry.
I had been to a World War II exhibition in Glynde where the incomparable Dame Vera Lynn was appearing, and so Lewes at war was on my mind when I asked Fred if Lewes had suffered badly during that conflict.
His answer was as explosive as a Big Bertha bomb. Of course, he rattled. “North Street was demolished, and the bomb blast was so fierce, it blew my brother out of bed.” With a twinkle in his eye, he added: “And he was in Plumpton.”
Apocryphal or not, Fred backed up his tale by bringing a multitude of booklets, pamphlets and clippings to sink a battleship next day, proving his point that Lewes had indeed taken a battering from the Nazi war machine.
Many stories are told about the bombing of towns, villages and sometimes people along the coast of East Sussex. Eastbourne was especially hard hit. Raids claimed 1,100 people, 174 fatal, 443 severely injured, 489 slightly hurt and many more made homeless. But not much has been said about Lewes.
Fred set me straight.
The town did take the brunt of several attacks, mostly those intended for Newhaven. But the train station was also a key target as well as the Phoenix Iron Works and low-level bombing occurred on several occasions.
Wartime alters the way we live. Apart from diving into air raid shelters, the spread of information also becomes restricted. Does it heck. What happens, of course, is that rumours start and with each telling, gain credence which today would be dubbed ‘fake news’.
One favourite that was told, retold, and then retold again was that a Churchill tank was plastered into an alcove in Clayton Tunnel. Brave soldiers they were who dug the opening for this fierce piece of armour, because it is a known fact that ghosts inhabit that tunnel, screaming their way from a fatal and tragic railway crash in 1861
The tank was to be dug out of the wall, have its powerful guns trained on the invading enemy, blasting them to high heaven, thus saving the nation!
Another rumour going the rounds was that all sorts of army equipment were being hidden in duck ponds around the district which could be recovered in the event of armed guerrilla war against the enemy invaders.
Many believed that Dad’s Army, the slightly comical Home Guard, were the only force left to defend the country against a German landing. My grandfather, a veteran of World War I, told me that this worthy organisation, while excellent propaganda value, would have failed at every turn. His view was that it took so long to get the regulars out of the pubs, where they were regulars, that the invasion would have been over long before a bullet had been rammed into the breech of a rifle.
It was also a widely held belief that Rudolf Hess was captured in Sussex. Hess had mysteriously left Berlin, supposedly on a peace mission for Hitler, designed to strike a peace deal with Churchill. It’s well known that I am very taken with tales passed on in bars and pubs. Often they lead to something substantial for a storyteller. But even I wouldn’t have fallen for that one. Nonetheless, it does show the mood of the general public in wartime Britain, where any rumour was scooped up eagerly and quickly translated into fact.
Yet as is so often the case, there is a thread of truth in the story. A German light aircraft was forced down by RAF crews near the old racecourse. Not a fighter plane, the aircraft was found to be carrying mail for troops stationed in the occupied Channel Islands. As Hess was reported to have piloted himself in a twin-engine Messerschmitt, the story probably gained credibility because the man who started the tale claimed Hess had dinner with him and his family.
There were real stories of strafing of schools and the town’s streets, as well as bombers landing and German aircrew bailing out over the town.
One such attack took place when school children saw a morning matinee in the Odeon Cinema, located on Cliffe High Street, opposite St Thomas’s church.
Reminiscing about it later on in life, one of the pupils reported that the teacher was so upset that she needed a tot of whisky to steady her nerves. I can understand that. Working in Northern Ireland, I needed such ‘medicine’ every time a bomb went off. That usually meant a bottle a day!
The worst attacks were in the winter and spring of 1943. In the first raid, several bombs were dropped in the New Road, North Street, Brook Street and Saint Martin’s Lane area, causing considerable damage although the death toll only reached two with 11 seriously injured. During the second raid in May, three of the more massive bombs failed to detonate, and firebombs caused the damage.
Later that year, a bomber carrying 18 bombs was shot down in Barcombe. The crew were taken prisoner by a local farmer, handed over to the police and held in Lewes police station.
Bombs were dropped near the Needlemakers and in Grange Gardens. One exploded and the other buried itself so deep that bomb disposal units could do nothing to disarm it, so covered it in cement and left it alone.
According to diaries found in a house on The Avenue in Lewes, leaflets with parts of Hitler’s speeches were dropped from the air. The diary’s author, a Margery Barrett, daughter of Harvey’s chief brewer at the time, caustically commented in July 1940, ‘Hitler was supposed to invade today. He didn’t.’
Margery also tells of days out in Brighton but with significant changes to the seaside town. The piers were cut in half, presumably to make them useless as landing piers in an invasion. Another resident recalls anti-aircraft guns on the Downs above the town. Whether it is apocryphal or not, a belief existed that Cliffe Bridge was stuffed with explosives against the day a German vehicle might try to cross the Ouse.
Away from the conflict, the local populace was subject to rationing. Chocolate and sweets didn’t stop until the early fifties, nor did coal.
The meat was more available than other foodstuffs, and I can remember singing to my grandmother’s butcher ‘You are my sunshine’ with the reward of an extra sausage for being such an uninhibited songster. Sausages may have been less rationed, but they were made with 80 per cent sawdust, 10 per cent colouring, a little water and lurking somewhere, a touch of pork.
A typical weekly allowance was one egg, two ounces of tea and butter, eight ounces of sugar and four ounces of bacon. The war-driven invention of margarine supplemented the butter allowance by four ounces.
Perversely, restaurants weren’t rationed half as much, and dining out, if you could afford it, was still an option for the wealthy. Of course, dining out was based on the assumption that your favourite restaurant hadn’t been demolished by a spoilsport German pilot.
There were shortages, especially if crops suffered a lousy summer and potato stocks, not rationed, sometimes ran dry. The bread was also exempt. But after the war, experts found that the British diet was the healthiest the average Briton had experienced in many a year.
Rationing didn’t end when hostilities were finally over. The meat didn’t come off ration books until 1954.
But perhaps there is an abiding legacy from the last world war. People were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’, and gardens, parks and other waste spaces were used to grow crops.
Lewes is alive with allotments today as people still grow their vegetables, flowers and herbs while keeping hens for fresh eggs and geese for the golden sort.
But thank the almighty or at least the government, beer was never rationed. Lewes had already suffered a cut back in its 63 pubs of the mid-1800s.
I hate to think what might have happened to pubs if the beer had been restricted. Nowhere to write these stories for one thing.