The interwar period was the golden age of British seaside resorts. Every summer thousands of holidaymakers would flock to the coast, their bustling bodies filling the beaches of Brighton, Blackpool and countless other seaside towns. After the horror of the First World War people wanted to enjoy life, and what better way to do that than walk arm-in-arm along the promenade with your sweetheart.
Alas, as is so often the case with golden ages, it didn’t last. With the declaration of war in 1939 Britain had to prepare herself. Beaches that had once been defended against imaginary foes by rows of tiny sandcastles now found themselves adorned with barbed wire and pillboxes, whilst the cold yet inviting ocean was laden with sea mines to prevent German landing craft.
Anti-tank defences and barbed wire along the seafront at Brighton (left). An Army Serviceman attending a mounted machine gun on the seafront promenade in Brighton (middle). Workmen sandbagging the Aquarium sun terrace on Brighton seafront (right).
Images courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
Piers were another casualty of the war. For decades they had been the sign of a true seaside resort, yet with the ever-increasing threat of a German seaborne invasion the British government decided that something had to be done. Detachments of Royal Engineers headed to the coast and blew vast holes in the decking to prevent them from being used as landing stages.
While seaside towns on the east and south coasts were fortified against a possible invasion, those to the west were seen as the perfect place for evacuees. There were thousands of spare beds to be found in the hotels and boarding houses of the west coast, with Blackpool alone taking in 37,500 evacuees in the first three days of war.
Civilians watch two thousand recruits give a physical training demonstration on the beach at South Shore (left). Polish pilots undergoing physical training on the beach at Blackpool (right).
Images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Photo Archive.
It was not just civilians that headed to the western seaside towns. Boarding houses and hotels could easily be transformed into barracks to house soldiers. Blackpool played an important part in housing and training members of the RAF, with an estimated 750,000 men trained there during the war. They would run drills along the promenade and exercise on the beaches, offering some entertainment for the other evacuees housed there. As the war progressed soldiers from Europe and America joined those already at Blackpool, often to the disdain of the British soldiers who disliked the competition for the local ladies’ affection.
The beaches of Britain also served as a training ground for the biggest amphibious assault in history – the D-Day landings. Seaside towns were evacuated to make room for Allied forces rehearsing the attack. One such training exercise, Exercise Tiger, ended in disaster when an Allied convoy preparing for the landing was attacked by Germany’s Kriegsmarine, resulting in the death of over 800 American servicemen. The incident was barely reported at the time, as the impending invasion meant that secrecy was of the utmost importance.
Once the Second World War came to a close British seaside resorts tried to resume normal proceedings and, whilst they never reclaimed the glory of the interwar years, they did see several more decades of success before their eventual decline. Even after six brutal years of war the British people had not forgotten how to enjoy themselves, and the seaside still had plenty to offer.
If you would like to know more about life in Britain during World War II take a look at Elite 109 - The British Home Front 1939-45. For more books looking at the conflict as a whole take a look on our World War II store page.
Special thanks to Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and the Imperial War Museum for the images.