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Horror of air raid lives on

PUBLISHED: 15:10 22 October 2009 | UPDATED: 15:22 03 July 2010

Horror of air raid lives on

Horror of air raid lives on

HEADLINES are meant to catch the eye of the reader and draw the attention to the report beneath it. A recent one in a broadsheet national newspaper is a case in point: “If you lived through the war, wouldn't you rather forget it?” it inquired, above the personal opinion of a younger journalist whose impression of the 1939-45 conflict was drawn mainly from cinema films.

HEADLINES are meant to catch the eye of the reader and draw the attention to the report beneath it. A recent one in a broadsheet national newspaper is a case in point: “If you lived through the war, wouldn't you rather forget it?” it inquired, above the personal opinion of a younger journalist whose impression of the 1939-45 conflict was drawn mainly from cinema films.

He argued that a soldier's pals were probably killed before their eyes far from home, and a civilian back in Britain had to eat powdered egg. “It must have been awful,” he wrote, tongue in cheek, then wondering seriously why there was such an intense current interest in rekindling those sad and painful memories 70 years after the war began.

The answer is simple: for those of us who lived through it - either on active service, or at home with the ever-present threat of bombing raids or invasion - it was probably the most dominant features of our lives for six whole years. I was only 11 when peace came, but my childhood memories are often war-related, and I am sure am not alone in that.

If you put that broadsheet writer's question to 85-year-old veteran Brian Heaney. of Mildenhall, without doubt he would reply emphatically that he is desperate to forget the war...because he has been haunted for more than six decades by one horrific incident while he was stationed in Yarmouth.

“When I was 18 I was in Yarmouth and Gorleston with the lst Battalion Sherwood Foresters,” he tells me, the recollection still brutally vivid and undimmed by the passage of time. “In Yarmouth we were billeted at the institution hospital (the workhouse) off Northgate Street, and I was the medical officer's driver.

“On that particular day in May 1943 we got up at 5.30am, had breakfast, and went on duty, manning a Bren gun mounted on a tripod positioned on the shore end of the Britannia Pier, out to catch fighter-bombers coming in low from the east in the rays of the sun, dropping their load and disappearing. But on that particular morning, all hell broke loose. One flew in and its bomb landed on this hotel on the sea front, and it was in ruins.

“We were ordered to dig in the rubble to get the mutilated bodies out, so we clambered in and started work. The bodies were being laid out on the tennis court as we dug them out of the rubble - they were all young girls.

“There were bodies, and arms and legs and torsos, all separate. You can't imagine what it was like. Bodies everywhere. Imagine - doing that when you're only 18!

“We were told there were 73 dead; I have that figure of 73 firmly implanted in my mind. We were led to believe they were WRNS (navy); they were girls in uniform. Some of the victims were in their nightwear, or underwear, or PT clothes.

“We were given a tot of rum each because of the trauma of getting these young girls out of the rubble of the building.

“I have lived with all this since 1943, and I want to lay it to rest. At 85 I want to put all my memories to sleep.”

Mr Heaney was speaking to me after he and his wife spent a few hours in the borough last month, diverting here on the way home to Suffolk from a day out in Cromer.

At first his inquiries pointed to the March 1943 air raid by a single German plane, its bombs demolishing large houses at the Queen's Road-Nelson Road junction, one of which was a hostel occupied by sleeping WRNS. Thirteen trapped servicewomen survived and were dug out of the debris, which caught fire, but the casualty toll was severe - eight women died and 27 were injured.

But he was positive the date was May, and the location North Drive, close to the pier where his Bren gun was positioned.

Mr Heaney persevered, and ascertained that his nightmare was the result of the blitzing of Whitfield House (another report calls it Sefton House), a billet for members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) girls.

Eighteen Focke Wulf 190s took part in that raid on Yarmouth, arriving so swiftly and low that there was no time for the air-raid warning sirens to wail.

Twenty-six girls lost their lives. They had been doing physical recreation on the Wellesley Road recreation ground behind the hostel when the hit-and-run enemy raider zoomed over. One report claims a 27th girl tripped as they all dashed for what they thought was the safety of the hostel...and she survived, while those who reached the building all perished.

The official account of Yarmouth's wartime experiences, Chief Constable Charles Box described it as “grievous loss of life.” It has also been termed the largest single military loss of servicewomen. The youngest victim was a local girl, 19-year-old Lillian Grimmer, of Cobholm.

The site is now occupied by the swimming pool of the Burlington Palm Hotel. In 1994 a memorial plaque recording the tragedy and and listing the names of those who lost their lives was unveiled at the hotel by Lady Soames, youngest daughter of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

On their day out Mr and Mrs Heaney also went to Gorleston, but were unable to find the drill hall where he was based (it was in Priory Street until demolished, perhaps in the 1970s).

“We were billeted in a row of houses facing the drill hall; at that time the MTBs used to be anchored in the river below there. All this comes back to me.”

Soon after the tragic bombing of the ATS hostel in Yarmouth, he was sent to Scotland and from there posted to North Africa where he fought in several campaigns before a move to Italy, taking part in the liberation of Rome. He finished as a sergeant.

After demobilisation in 1947 he became a bus driver in Chester, then a long-distance lorry driver, GPO engineer and telephone fitter, worked with TV aerials and finally was a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning engineer. The couple have two children.

After learning that the nightmare he experienced was the result of the destruction of the ATS hostel, Mr Heaney vowed to visit Yarmouth again to help in his quest to exorcise those the ghosts that have tormented him for all of his long adult life.

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