Alone with the Doodlebugs

My grandmother Bessie Gordon was in her early 40s during the Second World War. Her husband Alex, had been seriously wounded in the Great War and it is likely that he suffered from ‘shell-shock’. Alex and their 9 year old son Roger, had been evacuated to Dursley in Gloucestershire along with his sister Dorothy (Dolly).

Bessie’s daughter Sheila had been evacuated to Yorkshire to stay with Bessie’s brother and sister-in-law Reginald and Alice who had moved there from Eastbourne. Reggie, who worked as the Projectionist at the Tivoli Cinema in Seaside, had a wartime job running two cinemas in Doncaster.

During 1944 Bessie lived in Eastbourne on her own at 8, Annington Road. The letters cover the period around the time of the D-Day landings and refer to the ‘Doodlebug’ attacks on the town.

The following are extracts from the letters….

Monday 8th May 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

I am dealing with your income-tax paperwork. I was amused that you are now working selling paints. I guess you know more about them than I do. Still, what you don’t know about PINTS is not worth knowing!

Ronnie Baulcomb joins the RAF later this week. Jack Hammersley has appealed to the Tribunal. It was adjourned last week and will be heard again on Wednesday.

I hope you had a nice day on the hills on Sunday. I do miss you all now the spring is here and I miss our trips on the hills and our cycle rides. I get so bored being here on my own. On Sunday evening I went to Chapel and then walked up to Meads with Mrs Woods. The trees are very pretty now. Please thank Dolly ever so much for the parcel of goodies which she sent me. The buns, biscuit, apple and orange went down ever so well but what is the brown powder? It looks like Ovaltine but I am not quite sure.

Your loving wife, Bessie xxxxxx

Wednesday 10th May 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

I am pleased you like your job at the Co-op. We are fairly busy here but expect things will slow up when the Second Front starts as supplies will be held up.

All night there were some awful bangs which shook all the houses in town. I don’t know whether it was bombs, gun practice over the hills or a naval action in the channel. It might have been the Germans blowing up things in France but I doubt it. Anyway nobody got much sleep. Jimmy Hart and his wife got the wind up as they thought the invasion had commenced!

Ellen Jones and I are going for a walk on the hills tonight and might call in at Snappy Snaps on the way back.

Reggie and Alice have received the things I sent them last week, they gave me the key to their flat [49a Seaside Road] and I sent them a wireless.

Two rows of potatoes are up but I think the late frosts have hurt them. The French beans have gone west.

Please write me a nice LONG letter next time. Your letters are scrappy and have no love in them so I am very disappointed.

Your loving wife

Bess xxxxxxxxxxxx

At the end of May 1944 Bessie paid a flying visit to her husband and son in Gloucestershire.  The trip back to Eastbourne was not easy…

Thursday 1st June 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

I must tell you about my experiences returning home on Monday. First of all I had nearly an hour to wait at Stroud and then, when the train came in, I had to stand in the corridor on the sunny side. By the time we got to Swindon there was a storm in progress and the rain was coming down in buckets. The platform was crowded and when the train came in there was pandemonium. I couldn’t get into a carriage but got into the guards van, however we were all turned out of there as a calf had to go into the van. The train was packed to suffocation so I didn’t make another attempt to get on. When it went out we were left on the platform for just a few minutes when another train came in from Bristol. I was able to get a seat on this and I don’t know  why the railway people hadn’t told people about this second train.  I got to Paddington about 9 o’clock and managed to get on a Victoria bus by jumping the queue. When I got to Victoria there was a Brighton train just leaving at 9.28pm so I got on this.  I soon found the guard who told me that there were no more trains to Eastbourne so I wondered what I was going to do. I had already got into conversation with a lady in the carriage and, what a surprise, she said she would take me home with her. I thought this was awfully kind of her.  We got to Brighton at about 11pm but, as the buses had stopped, we had to wait for a taxi. A queue had formed and four people were taken each time to a particular part of the town. We had to wait a long time before our turn came and we got to her flat in Hove about midnight. Her husband was all right and said I could stay and gave me some tea.

During the night in Brighton we had two warnings but no bombs although there had been bombs the previous night. Eastbourne had had warnings every night I was away.  I caught the 8.45am train to Eastbourne and you can take it from me that after all my adventures I have been tired ever since.

Fondest love, your darling wife Bessie xxxxxx

[D-Day – the allied invasion of Normandy was on Tuesday 6th June 1944.]

Sunday 11th June 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

I am pleased to say that everything here is all right. Friday and Saturday was comparatively quiet in the air but planes have been going over in the direction of Normandy ever since I woke at 6.30 this morning and I expect it has been going on all night.

Roger said in his letter that you had seen and heard planes on Tuesday morning but I did not hear anything unusual.  Mr Barton and Mr Hewitt thought there was something happening as they heard unusual noises which may have been the glider-planes going over.

I will try to drop you a line each day and let you know how things are moving. I wish I could get Mum & Dad to go away but as you know they don’t want to budge, still, if things get lively I will insist.

Forgive me if my letters get a little scrappy as the din in the air makes it difficult to concentrate. Of course as we establish bases in France this may die down later as the planes will land and start from there.

I went to see ‘Jane Eyre’ again last night. I think perhaps you might like it. I heard one of the soldiers say that he thought it was very good. I saw it at the Tivoli this time. It seemed funny it being open without Reggie being there.

All for now dear, I must get on with my dinner,  Your loving wife Bessie xxxxx

Friday 16th June 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

Thanks for your letter dated 13th. Very short and sweet. Don’t forget there are two sides to the notepaper and it is thick enough to write on both sides!!!

I gave Mr Barton your message about the Derby horse and he laughed and said we will have to see what happens.

What do you mean when you said ‘be careful what you write about now’. Did you mean about the war or about private things? I certainly don’t want to say much about the war but you grumble if I don’t say much about what is happening here in Eastbourne but I will gladly say nothing if you wish it.  Anyway we had three warnings today, these self-propelled aircraft are roaming around but who cares – our wonderful lads in the air will soon overcome this new frightfulness of Hitler.

It has been cold all week again and I haven’t been down the garden much, Mr Hewitt has given me some cabbage plants and Mr Hedger two marrow plants. I hope they will do all right.

It has been ‘Salute the Soldier Week’ here but I haven’t heard much about it. I will let you know if we get to our target.  Mr Pocock is back working at Mansfield’s again. His wife is very queer and has to be pushed around in a bath-chair. Mr Barton is not looking at all well and is drinking heavily. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a serious illness one day. I am so glad you are not drinking now like you used to.

I am posting you some cigarettes. I must close now sweetheart. Write soon

Your ever-loving wife

Bessie xxxxxxxx

Sunday 18th June 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex

Thank you very much for your letter. I am pleased to say we are all right up until the present.  As you may have heard from the wireless or seen in the papers we HAVE had some Robot Planes – all day and all night every hour or so they come over. We have had dozens of cuckoo warnings.

I have seen several of the planes and don’t they go! They are over the town in a flash and the guns open up all around. Of course we have had little sleep and I don’t expect I will get any tonight. I am glad you are not here as I know how you would get nervy but everyone here is getting used to them.  They make an awful noise and you can’t mistake them for an ordinary plane. Ever so many of them have been brought down over the sea and land and one blew up near Ocklynge tonight at 9.45. The gunners are getting quite expert at shooting them down.

The tomato plants look tiny but I believe they have taken root. I have had some tomatoes this week but not had any potatoes yet.

We had a lovely sermon from a Welsh RAF man tonight at Chapel. His name was John James.

All for now sweetheart, I hope to hear from you soon.

God bless you from your loving wife Bess xxxxxx

[Note: At 8.52pm on 18th June 1944 a flying ‘doodlebug’ bomb fell in the triangle formed by Charleston Road, Milton Road and Mountney Road, Old Town. It had been damaged by Anti-Aircraft fire whilst still out at sea. 41 people were injured considerable damage was caused to a wide area. Seven houses were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished.]

Thursday 27th July 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne.

My Dearest Alex

Thank you for your letter enclosing the money.

Last night I had arranged to go for a cycle ride with Ellen Jones and we were a bit late home due to the doodlebugs.  We went across the marshes to the Lamb Inn at Hooe and you must go there one day as it is a delightful old inn and I know you would like it.  We came home around Wartling Hill and as we were going across the marshes towards Pevensey two doodlebugs came over so we sheltered under a hay stack.

I am very sorry about your foot and only wish I could rub it for you like I used to. Never mind. It won’t be very long before things will take a turn.  I am putting plenty of cabbage in the garden in the hope you will all be home for the winter.

I paid the War Damage £2/5/- last week so that is all cleared up for another year.

Do rest as much as you can in the evenings as I expect you are on your feet all day and go to bed early. At least you don’t have any doodlebugs to keep you awake. Dozens have been brought down today – the Navy gunners are marvellous!!

All my love to you dear,

Your loving wife Bess xx

The Lamb at Wartling (right) Photo taken by Bessie in 1926

Monday 4th September 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

My dearest Alex

Well I am back at work again. Isn’t the news wonderful? I was very thrilled on Sunday night when the news came through about the entry into Belgium and I expect you were too. Also the entry into Brussels today.

I have had a nice letter from Sheila. If all goes well and we get no more enemy action I hope she will be home by the end of this month.  I had a lovely day on the hills on Friday and hope we shall be doing this again soon all together.

Freddie Gringlewood has just said (10.45pm) that we have crossed the Dutch frontier and that Antwerp is probably in our hands. It won’t be long now before we are all together again but don’t do anything rash about your work.

All for now dear.

Your loving wife Bess xxx

Sunday 10th December 1944

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex

Thank you very much for your two letters. I have found some straps for your leg and I am posting them tomorrow. I have sent you your usual cigarettes. I am pleased that you are sending me some apples and also some Ovaltine which will come in handy.

I have had a cold for a fortnight now and cannot get rid of it. I am missing you rather, especially at night having lived on my own now for nearly a year. I want someone to look after me.  This is my last week alone though as you know Roger is coming home on Thursday. I had a letter from the Town Hall on Saturday about Sheila but have heard nothing from her although I received a telegram to say that Alice is coming home on Tuesday so I will ring the Town Hall to see if Sheila is coming home with her.

I was thrilled to hear about you feeding the horses and giving them a drink.  I do think that a change of occupation has done wonders for you and that you have perked up and when you come home we will be able to enjoy things together more than we used to. Dear sweetheart do not worry about those nice kind cows though – they won’t hurt you and wont hurt anyone.

I went to see ‘The Call of the Wild’ on Saturday with Clark Gable and Loretta Young. It was ever so good and I know you will like it.

I have heard from the Grammar School and the Headmaster says he is making arrangements with the Education Officer with a view to Roger being admitted in January. Mum and Dad’s Golden Wedding went off well and they had a lovely lot of presents flowers, cards and telegrams.

What are you doing for Christmas? Have you thought about coming home? I know when I asked that you said you would not come back to Eastbourne until it was all over and you could come back for good and I can quite understand how you feel.

Of course I am feeling terribly thrilled about the children coming home before Christmas and will let you know directly they arrive. The time given for Roger’s arrival is 3.40 at the station.

Write soon won’t you?

With all my love

Your ever loving wife Bessie xxxxxx

Sunday 14th January 1945

8, Annington Road, Eastbourne

Dearest Alex,

Thank you for the apples which you sent for Christmas and also the books. They were very nice indeed.

I have started putting Sheila’s hair up in curlers as she looks nice with a few curls. Can you get me some curlers? She needs about 20. I would prefer some ‘Dinky’ metal ones. Sheila is very good at cooking and she does things quite professionally and I think she must take after your mother. She has made buns and pies every Sunday.

Roger starts school on Thursday and he is sorry his holiday is over. He has been busy every day fixing up lights with batteries, wire and bulbs. Please send him some electric wire and batteries if you can.

Everything is about the same at the Howard Engineering Works and all the time they are making buffer cylinders they will run a night-shift. There is a shortage of coal here.

All my love – your loving wife Bessie xxxxxx


Family archives and photographs

Eastbourne 1939-1945 (Strange the Printers 1945)

Wartime Eastbourne (George Humphrey 1989)


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