Brighton had been shrouded in darkness from September 1, 1939, two days before Britain declared war against Germany. In the following years Brighton would be transformed into a ghostly town once the sun set, with no street lights to illuminate the roads. Not even the glow from a nearby window could help pedestrians find their way, as all Brighton windows and doors had been tightly sealed with blackout curtains or blackout blinds.
Pedestrians were encouraged to carry newspapers or white handkerchiefs to make them more visible to motorists. Policemen continued to patrol the streets of Brighton, their capes and whistles coated in luminous paint. Walking sticks and torches became massively popular as pedestrians grew weary with fumbling around as they tried to navigate in the dark.
Travel by automobile at night was naturally difficult, if not impossible, but traveling by passenger train proved to have to have its own set of problems during the blackout. Railway goods yards had no exemptions from the blackout requirements, and porters struggled to make out the names on luggage and freight, causing delays for those traveling by train. In the carriages travelers to Brighton rode in near darkness, the windows covered in blackout blinds, with only meager blue lights to see by.
Yet traveling in the dark was the least of Brighton’s concerns. In July 1940, Brighton would suffer its first air bombing attack. Over the next four years Brighton would be attacked another 55 times, killing men, women and children and destroying numerous buildings and homes.
Out of these 56 attacks, the worst would come on May 25, 1943, two years before the war would end. That day over 25 German aircraft would ravage the town, dropping 22 bombs and machine-gunning the streets. Although in total the air raid lasted only five minutes, the damage was devastating. Ten men, twelve women, and two children were killed, and another 127 were injured. Over 150 houses were destroyed, leaving hundreds homeless, and Brighton’s railways were razed. The wreckage would take years to fully repair.
By 1944, German resources were waning. In September the UK government would replace the blackout with a “dim-out”, lifting the restrictions to allow some light. This relaxed the strict enforcement of blackout curtains, allowing as much light on the streets as would be equivalent to moonlight, although civilians had to be prepared to return to a full blackout if an alarm was sounded.
After five years and 116 days, Brighton would finally lift its blinds and emerge from the blackout imposed by the necessities of war. The air raids had cost 198 Brightonians their lives, and more had been lost in accidents caused by the total darkness. On May 8, 1945, the Mayor of Brighton read a proclamation of victory to the jubilant crowds.
Bob Wells described the elation that Brighton felt when the war finally ended. “On VE day the war in Europe was over. People went wild, laughing, singing and dancing in the streets and public places…Things got a bit easier after that, people got more light-hearted even though the queues were still there, and some rationing stayed well into the fifties.
All the servicemen from all nations suddenly left our town, and things slowly began to get back as they had been. The army took away their BOFAR guns, which were all along the seafront and the beaches were cleared of mines and the barbed wire on posts were taken down. On the seafront the only thing that remained of the war were the gaps in each of the piers, put there in case of invasion, the enemy would not be able to use them to unload supplies.
On VJ day the people who had gone wild on VE day went even crazier, banners were flying, flags everywhere and the lights coming on in the streets. Down came the blackout curtains, gone were the ARP men shouting, “Put that light out” or knocking on your door to tell you under threat of jail.” (Memories of WWII, My Brighton and Hove)