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Whitstable at War - World War II 

Significance of Location

 

What happened to Whitstable in the war, dad?

It's the sort of question that you might be asked by your offspring and the answer is perhaps a little more complicated than you might imagine. 

The town was fortified to some degree.... but not as extensively as neighbouring communities to the south and east. It witnessed much of the major conflict taking place around and above it.... but without ever becoming a major target itself. It suffered a number of attacks, incurred some significant bomb damage and, sadly, sustained loss of life on a small scale.... but mainly through bad luck, accident and/or opportunism rather than any planned devastation on the part of the German Luftwaffe.

But, why was a sleepy fishing port involved even to this extent?

Well, if you are a visitor who has stumbled across these pages without knowing much about the town, a short explanation may be in order.... because most of the answers stem from the town's location. 

 

The Importance of Location

Let's take a look at the scene in the dark days of 1940..... 

 

  

At that time, the German army was amassed on the coastline of Northern France. An invasion attempt was thought to be imminent and Kent's lengthy coastline was vulnerable. Although Whitstable was not the most likely landing site, it's beaches needed to be fortified along with those of the rest of the county. Some military presence was also needed within the town and surrounding areas. After all, Whitstable was one of the seaside towns closest to London.

The Channel ports had been thrust into a front line that edged the important sea route through the Straits of Dover. They were within easy reach of enemy aircraft and within shelling range of big guns located on the coastal fringes of France. By contrast, Whitstable held a more sheltered position on the North Kent waterfront - some 30 miles behind the main lines of confrontation and outside the scope of even the heaviest of artillery. The town's lack of industrial and/or military significance also meant that it was never going to became a target for pre-planned air attacks.

Nevertheless, it did attract some passing interest from the Luftwaffe... and, again, location played an important part as follows....

  1. Whitstable sat beneath the air route that many enemy bombers used to strike at London. Occasionally, such aircraft suffered damage and/or technical problems that prevented them from reaching their intended target... whereupon they offloaded their explosive cargo over Kent in order to lighten their burden for the precarious return trip Northern France. This led to sporadic hits on our town.

  2. The Whitstable coast was set alongside the main shipping lanes into both London and the Medway towns. The Luftwaffe attempted to block this major supply artery by dropping sea mines into the Thames estuary on parachutes. Very occasionally, parachutes drifted inland on the prevailing wind and landed in the Whitstable area. These inidents gave rise to some the of biggest explosions suffered by the town. Fortunately, most landed in open areas but one hit Victoria Street and created the worst scenes of devastation suffered by the town in war time.

  3. Whitstable was set in the middle of a major air conflict and suffered the occasional sporadic attack from a German fighter plane or fighter-bomber. These appear to have been opportunist attacks from aircraft roaming the Kent countryside on seek and destroy activities.

In the final years of the war, Whitstable also sat below the tracks of Hitler's terror weapons - the V1 flying bombs (ie the doodlebugs) and the V2 rockets. The town suffered some strikes by these weapons... but, once again this was largely by virtue of bad luck and/or accident rather than any intentional attack.

 

Witness to the Battle of Britain

As a precursor to invasion, the Luftwaffe began to strike at RAF sites in an attempt to destroy Britain's air defences. Serious damage to the country's permanent air bases led to air force high command creating a myriad of makeshift and easily repaired air fields across the south east. Kent airfields used during the course of World War II are shown in red on the map below....

 

 

  

Some of these airfields were designated "Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs)" and were only populated with planes at key times of the day. For protection, the aircraft were withdrawn to larger bases further back from the main battle zone when large scale enemy attacks were less likely. 

As we all know, this initial struggle for air supremacy became The Battle of Britain and much of it took place in the skies of Kent including those of our town. It was a short but critical time.... lasting between 10th July and 31st October 1940. Whitstable witnessed the historic events.

Eventually and somewhat unbelievably, Hitler became frustrated and changed tactic.... by switching the main focus of bomb attacks onto cities (particularly London) in an attempt to undermine the morale and will of the people. The Battle of Britain had been won... or, perhaps more important, it hadn't been lost. The RAF now had breathing space to strengthen its resources. 

An enemy invasion had become less likely given Britain's massive naval power and the Luftwaffe's failure to achieve air supremacy. Moreover, Hitler's attention and many of his resources would soon be diverted eastward..... towards Russia.

  

Witness to Major Air Raids Elsewhere

With Hitler's change of tactics, Whitstable witnessed the massive bombing raids that passed overhead en route to London and, as we have said, it suffered occasional bomb strikes itself. It also became a spectator in the dogfights between RAF fighters and enemy bombers and their escorts. In fact, a number of aircraft were brought down off the town's beaches and amidst the surrounding countryside.

Form a distance, Whitstable also viewed and heard devastating attacks on more strategically significant towns such as Dover. And, of course, it watched in horror when, just seven miles to the south, a large section of Canterbury was demolished by the Luftwaffe on the night between 31st May and 1st of June 1942. This raid was believed to have been a reprisal for a massive allied air raid on the German cathedral city of Cologne just 24 hours earlier. Much of the southern area of Canterbury city centre was destroyed. 

 

Whitstable and the V1

As the war progressed, enemy equipment became ever more complex and devastating. On and from 13th June 1944, a new and more sinister form of weapon was directed at London in the form of the unmanned V1 - the "doodlebug" low flying bomb. Many passed over Whitstable and were viewed by Natives.

Unfortunately for us, a very high proportion of doodlebugs fell short of their intended targets. Some were brought down by anti-aircraft fire, barrage balloons or RAF fighters. Others suffered technical problems. The end result was that many plummeted into Kent and, by sheer misfortune, there were occasional hits on Whitstable.

 

Whitstable and the V2

Hitler's final weapons of terror were practically "invisible" due to their high speed and high trajectory. These were the V2 rockets that were introduced on 8 September 1944 and they carried massive explosive capability. Like the V1 doodlebug, they were largely directed at London but some fell short in Kent.

The "shortfall" had nothing to do with orchestrated defence measures because the V2 was impossible to stop. Some simply malfunctioned due to their primitive guidance systems. Some had insufficient power to reach their intended target due to German fuel shortages. Some were actually sabotaged by non-German staff working on the V2 production lines of mainland Europe.

Mercifully, few V2s hit Whitstable. In fact, we know of only two incidents involving a V2 within the borders of the town.

 

Witness to Allied Operations

By the time the V2 was operational, Whitstable people were viewing the massive flights of allied bombers heading eastward and witnessing some of the air-based activities that supported the push through Europe following the Normandy landings. They also spotted new types of aircraft from across the Atlantic and welcomed American air force to nearby airfields such as Manston. Some Natives now live in the US after marrying American military personnel.

 

  To Sum It Up

Whitstable could perhaps be described as a bystander who was inadvertently caught up in a major war zone and unable to escape! As such, it was a witness to many historic events and suffered significant collateral damage by virtue of bad luck, accident and occasional opportunism on the part of individual Luftwaffe aircraft.

Casualties were mercifuly light and damage was confined to specific locations. This contrasted with other major cities and towns (such as London, Canterbury and Dover) that were specificallyt targetted and had large areas laid waste by blanket bombing.

This is the background to Whitstable in wartime. Now, it is time to look at our "detail" pages to see the human side of it all - through the quotes, stories and anecdotes of our Native contributors.


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