It was 60 years ago this week that 41 people in Felixstowe lost their lives in the worst flooding on the east coast of England for hundreds of years. In the first of a week of special features, Richard Cornwell looks back at the events of the harrowing and tragic night of January 31, 1953.

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DESPITE survivors’ recalling the horror of the east coast floods time and again, it is still difficult to grasp the enormity and the suddenness of the disaster.

It is almost impossible to imagine the terror as a wall of water swept across marshland and smashed into the low-lying southern area of Felixstowe – leaving 41 people, including whole families and 13 children, dead in its wake.

To imagine, too, the cold endured by the survivors, trapped on the roofs of their homes, freezing, clothes wet, buffeted constantly by howling winds, listening to the terrified screams of their neighbours, the shouts for help of those waiting to be rescued.

It is 60 years ago since the devastating floods battered the North Sea coastline, and the memories today are just as raw for those caught up in the tragedy – a night never to be forgotten.

Two days before the floods struck, meteorological experts had noticed signs that severe weather was on the way.

They named the deep depression forming to the south-west of Iceland as Low Z and began to plot their weather maps. But as so often with the forces of nature, they could not forecast the death and destruction that lay ahead.

Within 48 hours, 307 people on Britain’s east coast would be dead, 30,000 people evacuated from their homes, sea defences would stand smashed, river walls breached, and thousands of acres of farmland under water.

Across the icy North Sea in the Low Countries the havoc was even worse.

The scale of the devastation

• It was four days before the floodwater receded.

• Around 800 acres, one fifth of the area of the resort, had been affected.

• Official reports at the time said 700 houses were damaged.

• The greatest depth of flooding was at the sewage outfall works, where 9ft of water was recorded. In Langer Road the depth was about 6ft 6in.

• During the clean-up, 57 pigs, 15 cows, one horse, 23 rabbits, 923 chickens, 27 dogs and 32 cats were also found dead.

Some 1,800 people died in Holland and more than 50,000 head of cattle were lost when more than 50 dykes burst simultaneously and half a million acres of polder country was swamped by raging sea.

Modern flood warning systems did not exist and there was no way the emergency alert could be sounded.

Today there would be phone calls, TV and radio warnings, phone messages, internet warnings, social networking. The Environment Agency has direct contact with thousands of people living in flood zones.

On January 31, 1953, it was in most places a policeman on a bike – cycling round communities to knock on doors or shout a warning.

Those officers did reach some people in the nick of time, but many were sleeping in their beds when the floodwaters swept into their homes and streets.

The depression spotted off Iceland had started deepening at an alarming rate on January 30.

It was still hundreds of miles north-west of the Hebrides but Scotland was already feeling its gale force winds.

As the hours wore on, the met men watched the depression move east and then swing south into the North Sea.

With winds gusting up to 140mph, 15 billion cubic feet of water was sucked from the Atlantic into the North Sea to be driven south as a “sea surge”, a ten feet wall of water ahead of the incoming tide – and set for a head-on collision with the tide from the other direction.

With nowhere else to go in the narrow funnel of the North Sea, the enormous wall of water came thundering ashore.

It was unseen, unheard and unexpected – millions of gallons of water pouring inland in just a few hours.

The surge began to hit Suffolk at around 9.30pm on January 31. At Lowestoft, 400 homes were flooded and 40 children had to be rescued from a flooded church.

At Southwold, five died as the water swept away a row of houses in Ferry Road.

The first signs of flooding at Felixstowe came at 11.30pm as police received calls from Felixstowe Ferry, Landguard Point and Landguard Fort. A woman was swept away at Landguard and immediately officers were sent to start evacuation procedures.

But the full force of the flood came suddenly – and from behind.

The obvious route for flooding at the resort would be waves coming over the prom, but instead the sea surged into the River Orwell, smashing the river wall in seven places.

An unstoppable mass of water tore across Trimley Marshes – in those days the port was little more than the now-gone Dock Basin – to the Langer Road area.

Caravans in the holiday park in Walton Avenue were jumbled together as the water rushed across the open landscape and over the level crossing into the streets – flooding around 800 acres of the town.

The darkness was pierced by screams as sleeping residents awoke to find water upstairs in their homes and no escape.

An estate of prefabs at the junction of Langer Road and Orford Road was filled with floodwater – and such was the power of the water, that the homes were torn from their foundations and swept to the junction where the Beach Station Road-Langer Road traffic lights are today.

Many died in their drifting, sea-filled homes.

Those who were luckier clambered on to roofs or waited in their water-filled homes, in bedrooms and attics, as high up as they could get, worrying how much more there was to come, for rescuers to arrive and take them to safety.

Rowing boats were commandeered from the Butlin’s fun park in Sea Road as the rescue operation began. The Cavendish Hotel – which stood where the Sunday market site is today – was opened as an emergency reception and rest centre to help those who had lost everything.

A mile across the water in Harwich, eight people drowned, while at Jaywick 37 died and 700 were left homeless. Canvey Island saw 58 dead and the whole island had to be evacuated.

■ Tell us your memories of the 1953 floods – write to Your Letters, Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email richard.cornwell@archant.co.uk

n Tomorrow: Richard Cornwell speaks to one of the survivors of the disaster.

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