Our contributor John Barr has vivid memories of the winter of 1953, when he was caught up in the disastrous East Coast floods. Sixty-five years on, he looks back at those dramatic days, recalls how he survived, and reflects on the lessons he learned.
There was no forewarning of the trauma to come when, as a rookie RAF national serviceman, I was posted to a ‘secret’ underground communications centre at Trimley Heath, Suffolk, writes John Barr. My accommodation was in barracks on the beachfront at nearby Felixstowe.
On the last Saturday evening of January 1953, a bunch of us ‘erks’ joked our way up Langer Road to the dance hall at the beach end of Felixstowe Pier, projecting from the Landguard Peninsula by the estuary of the River Orwell. The evening passed quickly, what with dancing, drinking, and maybe chatting up a few local ladies.
We spilled out into the cold night around 11pm. amid rumours that a major storm had developed. Certainly a fierce wind was driving rain and seawater across the car park and roadway, but we thought it was all a bit of a lark and even offered to carry girls across the puddles.
Walking down back to barracks we avoided the worst of the waters, but began to wonder about the safety of the cluster of prefabs alongside Langer Road. However, our main concern as we battled against high winds was to make the barracks before curfew.
When we reached our barracks there was a real sense of pending disaster. Seawater swept through the gates, surrounding the barracks and other buildings on the pebbled beach. My ground-floor bed was already under water and I had to seek temporary shelter on an upper floor.
We were not given any duties for the night and tried to rest, not knowing the cause or consequences of what we believed to be a local problem. In fact it was the night of the East Coast Floods that resulted in the death of 307 people. Destruction spread from the Thames Estuary for many miles around East Anglia.
Towns and villages from Kent to Lincolnshire suffered as a storm surge, driven by hurricane-force north-westerly winds whipped up the waters of the North Sea into massive tidal levels which then smashed through sea wall fortifications. Rivers and drains were sent into reverse by the surge and banks were breached to create a double jeopardy with water driven in all directions and engulfing many communities.
Dawn broke with something of a lull under grey skies beneath which the landscape had been ingloriously changed as muddied, dun-coloured waters choked with a variety of debris swirled around as far as one could see. Only the railway embankment seemed to be above water as service personnel and civilians emerged to continue rescue work, clearing debris and sand-bagging breaches.
News gradually confirmed that we were just part of what was becoming headlined as ‘Britain’s greatest peacetime disaster’. All around us people were seeking personal news of loved ones and colleagues. And we soon became aware that those prefabs we had passed a few hours previously had been uprooted by the surging waters and carried down the road almost to the seafront 200 yards away..
Later we learned that many people in the prefabs had been caught asleep in their beds. Some died there; others clambered on the roofs and clung on desperately awaiting rescue. But in the cold light of day it was found that 28 of those residents had been washed away and drowned (the greater part of the 40 deaths in the Felixstowe area).
During that unblessed Sunday morning I went with others to the nearby admin building to see if anything could be salvaged. I’m not sure what happened at the inland underground Ops centre in Trimley Heath, but the admin building was a muddy, smelly and unhealthy mess. With concerns growing about the evening tide, we were mustered, packed on to inshore vessels. ferried round to Harwich, then taken on to the RAF/USAF shared base at Mildenhall.
Events then became a blur, I must have collapsed with an infection and only remember waking from a coma in Ipswich Hospital a few days later and trying to escape from the bed and ward. The feverish state brought on by pneumonia and a form of meningitis was well managed, however. Recovery prompted hopes of home leave (if not discharge) but instead I was sent to a convalescent home – near Felixstowe and with a view of the cold, steely North Sea.
Eventually I did get home, and was then posted on to an RAF station on a Wiltshire hillside near Calne – well away from water! But for the rest of my service, and ever since, I have two specific memories that have helped to shape my life.
The fate of so many of the families in those prefabs – could we have done something to help in the first hours of the storm, and should we have taken a serious and broader view of the situation? Hindsight is both enlightening and perhaps non-productive unless, as in the totality of the catastrophe, it serves to drive new defences and procedures.
The second memory concerns one of my then comrades, who I will call Charles. He was the subject of some envy because he had relatives near Felixstowe and drove a car – which gave him a certain status as well as the freedom to enjoy homely comforts. He wasn’t with us that night. We found out later that he had used his car to help ferry sick servicemen and staff from the medical unit to a place of safety. His car was later found flooded and abandoned. I never saw Charles again, but pray he survived.
For me envy, like hindsight, became negatives that I have since striven to counter in both social and business life. Also, I learned to regard the sea and rivers with respect, not fear, in the pursuit of leisure – having lived by the Thames for many years and enjoyed river cruising holidays.
(Postscript: It was in 1953 that John Harris penned ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, the air-sea rescue service motto, which film maker Lewis Gilbert turned into a wartime RAF rescue classic in 1954 – and which, ironically, was partially shot offshore from Felixstowe, close to our ravaged base.)