The night the sea invaded, and the heroes who helped

70 years ago, a merciless storm unleashed its full fury on our county’s coastal communities in one of the most devastating flood disasters in recent history…

On Saturday 31st January 1953, the East Anglian coast was struck by one of Britain’s greatest peacetime disasters when three elements joined forces in a fatal combination. High spring tides and low atmospheric pressure prompted water levels to rise at a remarkable pace and ferocious northerly gales swiftly brought the sea raging inland. 

As it funnelled into the narrower areas of the North Sea the great wall of water grew higher, surging almost eight feet above normal level and unleashing its fury on England’s unsuspecting East Coast. Sea defences were swept aside as the waves came roaring in, smashing homes, flooding farmland, and destroying everything in their path. The disaster struck so swiftly the devastated areas received little or no warning; on that fateful evening whole families were wiped out and thousands of lives changed forever. 

When the storm finally subsided it was revealed 307 people had died in England, 24,000 properties were damaged, more than 32,000 people were evacuated and 46,000 livestock had drowned. In Norfolk exactly 100 people were killed, with the stretch of coast between Hunstanton and King’s Lynn facing the full force of the surge. At Snettisham there were several major breaches in the sea walls and more than 150 beach bungalows were smashed to smithereens. Whole buildings were lifted like toys, torn to pieces, and carried away, leaving battered remains strewn across the sand.

“I carried a young girl out from a broken bungalow and waded through the water to take her to higher ground”

However, alongside this devastation came tales of courage and humanity as heroic local people came together to support their communities. Emergency services, military personnel and civilians launched daring rescue operations to save the stranded, battling through hurricane-force winds and heavy rain with total disregard for their own safety. 

At the age of 22 Eric Linge witnessed the nightmare of the floods first hand, and the terrifying events are still etched in his memory 70 years later. 

He was at his family’s farm in Snettisham preparing to take his girlfriend out to their first dance, but these plans came to an abrupt halt when his panicked father arrived with urgent news. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “Father came rushing in after checking on the cattle and warned the water was coming up fast. We felt we needed to get straight down to the beach to see what was happening there, so I grabbed the long wagon ropes we used on the farm and charged out into the storm.”

Eric and his family were among a remarkable rescue party who saved dozens of lives at Snettisham Beach that evening. They tied ropes to telegraph poles and waded through the icy water, plucking stranded civilians from the tops of cars, carrying children to safety, and grabbing people before they could be swept away by the brutal waves. 

“We worked for hours on end, coated with mud and soaked to the skin,” he says. “At one point I remember battling through the 100mph winds in my poor two-decade old car to find more rope. It was a horrendous night - we could barely hear ourselves think in those terrible conditions – but we kept on going and did the best we could.”

18-year-old Snettisham resident David Bocking was also among the brave young men called out to assist in the crisis. He’d been at a farewell party in King’s Lynn, as he was preparing to leave for the army, and returned home with his family to find their farm submerged in salt water and over 100 livestock perished.

“We tried to get down to the beach on our bikes, but the wind was so powerful we kept being blown off and had to abandon them and go on foot,” he says. “It was pitch dark and the weather was horrific– we were drenched within minutes and frozen to the core.”

Upon arriving at Snettisham beach, David and his companions were met with a scene of panic and chaos and instantly set to work pulling victims to safety. “I carried a young girl out from a broken bungalow and waded through the water to take her to higher ground,” he remembers. “It was a frightening situation, but you didn’t think about the danger – you just focused on helping others.”

25 people drowned in Snettisham on that dreadful night, but countless lives were saved due to the amazing acts of courage performed by valiant villagers. 

As the 70th anniversary of the great flood approaches, David has helped to organise a memorial event, taking place on the weekend of January 28th and 29th, to reflect on the tragedy and pay tribute to those who died. 

An inspiring and meaningful occasion, the event will involve a two-day exhibition of articles and photographs in Snettisham Memorial Hall followed by a dedicated church service. There will also be a ceremony at the flood memorial stone, situated on the village square.

“I’m one of the only survivors left in the village and may not be here for the next ten-year anniversary, so this event is particularly special to me,” says David, now aged 88. “I grew up in Snettisham and knew every victim, so it’s important to me to remember them.”

IMAGES: Les Edwards, North Walsham Archive

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