I HAVE now written over 300 of these articles and so I am always seeking out new sources of information about Seaford history.
Last week I went to the National Army Museum at Chelsea and the to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth to discover more about the military history of the town. The National Army Museum is a fascinating collection of uniforms and weapons particularly relating from the Napoleonic Wars onwards. The archives hold a few letters and photographs of the military camps in the Seaford during the Great War. The Imperial War Museum has extensive archives including millions of photographs and thousands of tape-recorded oral histories. One of these was a recording made in February 1975 of Annie Howell who lived in Seaford in the Second World War.
Annie is clear in speech but maybe a bit hazy in her memory, for instance at one time she says that she was machine-gunned by a doodlebug. As doodlebugs were unmanned missiles this is not correct. She recalls staying in Seaford with her sister-in-law when an enemy aircraft came out of the sky machine-gunning the streets. “I never screamed” she said “but I thought ‘this is your lot’ – I never heard the plane but it dive-bombed down at us. It never caught us but got a honeymoon couple in a field” Unfortunately I have been unable to find a reference to this incident from other sources.
Annie talks about her friend Mrs Scott whose nephew operated the searchlight which had been set up at the Heritage Marine Hospital at Tide Mills ( the nursing staff and children having by then been evacuated back to Chailey. ) Apparently he was on duty one day when a rowing boat came ashore containing men dressed as Dutchmen. They maintained that their ship had been sunk in the channel but were captured as spies by the army. Apparently the wooden clogs that one of the spies had bean wearing were given to Mrs Scott. (I wonder what happened to them?) She said that spies and any other suspicious people, including those with foreign sounding names were detained at the Bay Hotel in Pelham Road, Seaford.
Mrs Howell goes on to talk about the sea defences along the seafront which included a huge naval gun in the garden of Sir Alfred Cope (the Chairman of Seaford Urban District Council) He lived in a large house called St Rumons on Marine Parade. Apparently on one occasion a dog-walker noticed a man making sketches of the seafront near the house and he was also arrested as a spy. There were sea defences and soldiers in Seaford Bay but surprisingly parts the beach was still accessible despite the tank-traps and barbed wire. Mrs Howell remembers using the beach but having to quickly abandon the seafront when the air-raid siren sounded. People then had to rush to the Salts recreation ground for safety. She also remembers soldiers based at the Martello Tower, people with Italian names having their windows smashed and gun emplacements on Seaford Head.
Seaford Head was an important observation post and special roads were laid to accommodate tanks. On 15th March 1941 there was a exercise by the Royal Tank Regiment on Seaford Head. A number of Mark II (Matilda) tanks drew up onto the cliff edge to (according to official records) “engage in operations against an imaginary invading force”.
That invading force was of course the Germans who had planned to invade England as part of “Operation Sealion” The section of the army responsible for armaments to deter the Nazis was IV Corps. In 1940 the Corps had evacuated from Norway and were deployed under the command of Lieutenant General Francis Poitier Nosworthy (1887-1971) and photos at the Imperial War Museum show him at Seaford observing the exercise. In order to get the tanks to the top of the cliff concrete ‘tank roads’ were built and these are still in place today near to the South Barn car-park.
The Imperial War Museum also has information about local tank defences a few weeks later in July. A series of photographs taken by Lieutenant Puttnam purport to show tanks driving through Alfriston to be loaded onto railway low-loaders at Seaford Station. The only problem is that the tanks are going in the wrong direction and the photos of ‘Seaford Station’ are of a different venue.
It appears that both official and unofficial sources are sometimes not too accurate.