The Floods of 1953 brought the sea raging inland. In one evening whole families were wiped out, house destroyed and lives changed for ever. All this week Rowan Mantell commemorates the heartbreak and the heroes of our worst-ever peacetime disaster.

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Graphic showing some of the devastation which took part during the floodsGraphic showing some of the devastation which took part during the floods

Sixty years ago this week a terrible storm tore along the coast of Norfolk.

Winds raged, the storm-whipped sea surged to high tide and, in the darkness, water crashed into thousands of homes.

Sea defences were swept aside by the wall of water which swept into King’s Lynn at 6.30pm, had reached Hunstanton by 7pm and was powering towards Great Yarmouth by 9pm.

Exactly 100 people were drowned, in Norfolk alone, that dreadful night. Thousands more spent a terrifying winter night, cowering on roofs, in trees, and on improvised rafts, soaked to the skin and lashed by salt-spray and hurricane-force winds. Tens of thousands more lost almost everything they owned and became homeless overnight.

The floods which overwhelmed Norfolk’s sea defences on the night of Saturday January 31, 1953, are still remembered as the worst peacetime disaster to strike East Anglia.

More than 300 died along the east coast of England – and across the North Sea the Netherlands was even harder hit with a death toll of more than 1,800.

Today there would be colour-coded weather warnings from the Met Office, days in advance. A yellow warning, would have turned to amber and then red, and tens of thousands of Norfolk people would have gathered in inland community halls and schools – worried, maybe homeless, but alive.

But 60 years ago the people of Norfolk’s coastal towns and villages were literally in the dark as hurricane force winds drove water down the North Sea towards them.

On Saturday January 31, 1953 people noted a strange yellow tinge to the twilight, strong gusts of wind and a marked drop in temperature.

Out to sea a routine weather report from a ship near Iceland noted a drop in air pressure. It was plotted by forecasters at Britain’s Meteorological office as a secondary depression which had broken away from a major low-pressure system in the Atlantic. But there was no suggestion that this would develop into the fiercest northerly gale ever recorded in Britain.

The winds began lashing Scotland – and the ever-deepening low-pressure system causing them spun off its predicted course and straight down the North Sea.

The winds pulled vast quantities of sea water southwards – a huge surge of water being forced down the narrowing funnel of the North Sea and on to the East coast of Britain.

The tide was racing in, eight feet higher than predicted in Norfolk – and a terrifying 14 feet higher than predicted across the sea in the Netherlands.

In King’s Lynn the river was already at the top of its banks, long before high tide. When the tidal wave of sea water hit, it inundated a fifth of the town. Roads turned to rivers. Nine people drowned and more than 3,000 homes were inundated.

Soon after the 7.27 train left Hunstanton for King’s Lynn it was halted as the sea raced across the railway line. Moments later a complete bungalow was swept into the train.

At Wells harbourmaster Frank Smith took a boat through the raging torrent to help a coastguard trapped in the beach lookout station.

In Cley families retreated upstairs as the waters rose and a vast inland sea formed behind what was left of coastal villages.

In Salthouse 30 houses were destroyed in 30 terrifying minutes.

In one house water burst through the front door with such force that it broke a woman’s leg. Her husband carried her to the kitchen table but when the next wave smashed through the house it swept her away to her death.

In Sheringham the storm pushed sea water right over seafront hotels, and flooding down chimneys into homes. Almost 100ft of the promenade was swept away. A policeman put a rescued baby in a suitcase to shield it from flying pebbles from the beach and tiles from houses.

In Mundesley witnesses spoke later of waves 80ft high, sweeping entire buildings over the promenade.

Yarmouth was flooded from the sea and from Breydon Water as waves crashed through the doors of hotels along the Golden Mile and, behind the town, the banks of Breydon Water were breached and water crashed through streets and homes. In Cobholm the little boats from the seafront summer boating lakes were used to rescue people from upstairs windows.

Lowestoft was cut in two by the surging flood water, but there were no deaths that terrible night. At first it was dubbed the luckiest town on the coast. However, Lowestoft fishing trawler Guava had left Lowestoft on January 30, with a crew of 11, to fish for herring. It was never seen again – one of eight ships which disappeared without trace in the hurricane.

By midnight 100 people were dead in Norfolk alone, drowned as a wall of water swept over sea walls and through streets and homes. Many thousands more had lost almost everything they owned, as homes around the entire coast of Norfolk were washed away or inundated with salt water and mud.

Tomorrow – meet some of the heroes of the 1953 flood.

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