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An eye-witness remembers the bombing of the Whitehall cinema

1 March 2012

Please note: this news article is in our archive. Articles were correct at time of publication, but should not be relied on for accuracy after the passage of time.

NINETY-two-year-old war-bride Patricia Lorange from Canada has been in touch with the Town Council with her eye-witness account of the 1943 bombing which killed 108 townspeople people and injured 235 more, the largest loss of life in any air raid in Sussex.

On 9 July 1943, ten German aircraft crossed the Sussex coast at Hastings and headed for London. At 5.05 pm the air raid sirens sounded in East Grinstead.

At that time 184 people were watching a film featuring Hopalong Cassidy in the Whitehall Cinema in the London Road. A warning appeared on the screen that a German air raid was taking place but few of the audience, mostly children taking advantage of the cheap matinee, took any notice of the message.

 At 5.10 PM one pilot became separated from the other planes and decided that he would find another target before he returned home. A few minutes later he saw a train entering East Grinstead station, so he circled the town twice before dropping his bombs.

One hit the Whitehall Cinema and others landed on shops in the High Street and London Road. These included A & C Bridgeland, an ironmongers, causing 500 gallons of paraffin stored in the basement to explode. The blast swept through the parade of shops, destroying Bridgeland’s and Rice Bros next door, and causing the rear of the Sainsbury’s to collapse.

Patricia recalled the terrible events of that afternoon when she started writing her life story for her grandchildren.

“I got as far as July 1943 when the details of the bombing came back to me with startling clarity.

“I was in the library on the second floor of Boots which looked directly up the hill towards the cinema. I have no recollection of hearing the siren but I did hear the loud noise of a plane diving very close.

“I looked out of the window which was immediately filled by a German plane with its black and white cross. The pilot’s face in profile seemed close enough for me to reach out and touch him before I left the window to throw myself on the floor yelling ‘it’s Jerry…’

“I saw the bombs leave his plane and start their rapid curving flight towards the cinema, then heard the awful noise, the sound of more explosions and then machine-gun fire.

“Several of the women working in Boots had husbands in North Africa and they felt so fearful knowing they had given their children permission to go to the cinema as Friday matinees were cheap.”

Pat had met her husband-to-be Alex, from Montreal, in 1940 just as the Battle of Britain had ended and the Blitz begun.

“I was on duty as a telephone operator one night in September and a terrific air raid was in process. My subscriber was getting very impatient as I couldn’t get his number. I said I’d call him back and kept on dialling.

“Each time I waited for an answer, I heard a man’s voice saying Canadian Corps Headquarters, so I’d disconnect but the same voice kept sounding in my earphones.

“On the third try, there he was again, so I asked him if he was operating a switchboard and asked him to dial the number I wanted.

“After the call he was still on the line and I thanked him for his help, thinking what a nice voice and accent he had. Our children have always said if it hadn’t have been for our voices they would never have been born!

“We met within a month and my parents, who lived in Wallington, Surrey, insisted that he had to come for a meal. But the second time he came down, for my 20th birthday, we were all in the air raid shelter when a 500lb bomb lifted my house off its foundations.”

Buried in the rubble, the family had to wait to be dug out. Pat’s terrified mother thought the smell of cordite was gas, prompting her father to remark later, with true British phlegm, that “Pat’s birthday went off with a bang…”

Alex was stationed in Ashstead where Corps Headquarters worked at Headley Court and was later posted to Fen Place. The couple married on 27 September 1941, and their story was included by Ben Wicks, the famous cartoonist and writer, in his book about war brides.

In the book Pat also spotted the story of a Whitehall cinema usherette who had left for Canada on the Mauretania, a month after she herself had in 1943 aboard the Acquitania.

“With her name fresh in my mind and the name of the town she had gone to from records kept by Pier 21 in Halifax, which is where most of the war brides landed, I phoned directory enquiries and got her number.

“I said ‘am I speaking to Doris Rhindress?’ and she said ‘yes’ so I introduced myself saying ‘Nearly 70 years ago I saw the face of the pilot who bombed East Grinstead cinema…’

“We spoke for over a half-an-hour. Her husband had died two years previously, I have been widowed nearly 15 years. I have three children, so does she: we both have grandchildren.

“She lives at the other end of Canada four thousand miles away in a time zone four hours ahead mine and although I have never been to her home town we will be pen pals for life and are going to exchange pictures of ourselves as young women, and more recent ones.

“I can’t tell you how excited she was. She kept saying ‘wait until I tell my children..!’

“I never joined a war bride’s club as I got a job in the head office of Barclays Bank in Montreal where two girls were needed at the switchboard and I was happy to be with all the Brits who wanted to know all about life in war-time England.

“Alex came home safely at war’s end but we never found an apartment for rent due to the housing shortage when all the troops came home and all the people who had worked for the war effort stayed in the city where they’d established themselves.

“An American came to the tyre plant where Alex had gone back to his old job as a cost accountant and through him we left Canada and joined the International branch of Uniroyal.

“We had two sons born in Mexico City and a daughter born in 1961 in Spa Belgium, the town the British made famous when they shipped the waters from there to England.

“Five years in Caracas and two in Cuba came before our six years in Belgium. We lived in Montreal for 23 years before retiring to a picturesque hill top town right on the border, 45 miles south of Vancouver, attracted by the mild winters.”