What may well have been the loudest explosion ever heard in Britain occurred 70 years ago this weekend at about 5am on 22nd November 1944 near the foot of the cliffs below Newhaven Fort. A massive blast caused damage to many homes and buildings in the town and around the harbour. Windows were blown out as far inland as the town of Lewes, half a dozen miles away up the Ouse Valley. The blast was clearly heard in Dieppe, the recently liberated port some 70 miles distant on the coast of Normandy.
The explosion, first thought to be the result of German military action, was actually caused by an errant Allied barge loaded with 200 tons of ammunition. It was being towed up the English Channel when it encountered heavy weather and broke away from its tug. The barge drifted to the shore slightly to the west of the fort where it is believed to have struck a landmine.
In Newhaven itself, hundreds of residents were blown out of bed or had furniture, glass and ceilings showered down on them. Miraculously, among the hundreds of casualties there were very few serious ones with just seven people needing hospitalisation. There was one fatality, a naval rating killed when a wall collapsed on him.
Doubtless the fact that the incident took place in the early morning saved many lives because the streets were pretty much deserted as glass and debris flew everywhere. Altogether 1,760 properties sustained a degree of damage and 4,000 residents were affected.
At the time Keith Baker of the Sussex Royal British Legion was a youngster in the village of Rodmell, a few miles from the site of the explosion. He remembered waking up to the sound of roof tiles coming down and glass shattering.
By coincidence, the blast occurred very close to a large crater on the shingle beach at Newhaven caused by a German V1 flying bomb that had flown straight into the cliff face earlier that same year on 30th July.
Luckily the cliff and beach absorbed most of the impact; just three people suffered injuries and there was minor damage to 24 houses. The fort itself was unscathed.