When I give guided tours for local school groups, I often ask them when was the last time England was invaded by a foreign country. Invariably the answer given is “The Second World War”! Actually the last time our fair country was invaded was in 1066 and the venue for the invasion was Sussex.
Being on the south coast us Sussex folk have often been on the front line of invasion threats. There were Viking raids along the south coast in the 9th and 11th centuries, the French harassed us during the 13th century and there was even a landing at Seaford in 1545 although this was repulsed by Sir Nicholas Pelham. Later on we were ready for the Spanish Armada with a series of warning beacons; but they just sailed past us on 25th July 1588 and didn’t bother to stop.
The next threat came, again from the French, during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th century. Residents who lived within 15 miles of the Sussex coast were instructed how to evacuate the area by wagon.
“As soon as the alarm is given, pack your blankets and a change of cloathes (sic) for yourself and your children in the coverlid of your bed. Carry also what meal and meat and potatoes (not exceeding one peck) you may have in the house at the time, but on no account will any article of furniture or heavy baggage be allowed in carts. One hour only will be allowed for preparation.”
During the Great War there was a worry that the country would be invaded by the Germans who rapidly crossed Belgium but were stopped in France.
The Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 (affectionately known as DORA) gave police and councils swingeing powers and soon after Arthur James Jack, of Seaford Council, issued the following instruction: “Upon receiving notice to quit the district, all your household must take what food they can conveniently carry and proceed on foot by way of Blatchington Village over the Downs to Firle (all other roads will be stopped for military purposes). Any foodstuffs not removed must be destroyed before leaving and water taps left running. No wheeled transport, private or public will be available except for the sick and infirm as it will all be taken over by the Military Authority. Any bicycles in your possession must be removed or destroyed.”
One Seaford resident was not impressed - she was a spinster living with her young maid and the two of them decided that if the town was invaded by the enemy they would stay put. She said: “I had rather be shot on my own doorstep than be shot in the back running away to Firle.”
Over in Brighton, the Mayor, Alderman Sir John Otter, issued instructions in January 1915 that were relevant to the residents of all coastal towns under attack from the air or sea:
“Inhabitants of houses should go to the cellars or lower rooms. If the house is on a seafront, where they are exposed to direct fire from the sea, the inhabitants should leave by the back door and seek shelter elsewhere. Gathering into crowds or watching the bombardment from an exposed position may lead to unnecessary loss of life. If an aircraft is seen or heard overhead, crowds should disperse and all persons should, if possible, take shelter. Unexploded shells or bombs should not be touched as they may burst if moved.”
In the Second World War the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison MP, issued instructions on what the public should do in the event of an invasion. More comprehensive directions were given to Air Raid Wardens. Wardens were told how to cope if the Germans landed: “If you see an enemy tank, or a few enemy soldiers, do not assume that the enemy are in control of the area.”
The public are advised that they should “do their shopping and send their children to school. Do not try to live somewhere else - stand firm and carry on!” Instructions and information should only be believed if it is given by a known Police Officer or Air Raid warden.
Official information would also be posted at town halls, police stations, post offices and schools. Residents are given instructions on how to disable their car, motorbicycle or bicycle so that the enemy could not use them. (You disable a bike by removing the chain and the nuts for the rear wheel.)
They were also told to burn maps and bury their valuables in the garden making sure there was no sign of digging.
In an information leaflet, Morrison bleakly reports: “The aim for all must be to drive the Germans out of the country. This is the first and foremost job of the Fighting Services and military necessity must override everything - even sometimes the calls of humanity.”
Thankfully, mainland Britain was not invaded. Sussex and its bicycles remain free!