The devastating North Sea flood of 1953 caused catastrophic damage and loss of life in Scotland, England, Belgium and The Netherlands and became one of the worst peacetime disasters of the 20th century. 307 people died in England, 19 died in Scotland, 28 died in Belgium, 1,836 died in the Netherlands and a further 361 people died at sea.
The flood caused a major rethinking of coastal defences, weather prediction and warning systems after it became obvious that the majority of deaths could have been avoided had these already been in place. The failure of any preventative measures meant many people – babies, adults and the elderly – went to bed that on that fateful night of Saturday 31 January 1953 not knowing of the devastation to come and for many that they would not wake up in the morning
How did the storm form?
What made the storm of 1953 so different from others was the fact that it had a number of elements combined together to make it so deadly and devastating. Annual spring tides with a deep pressure system (which in itself can cause the sea to rise) and severe gale force winds. The wind was recorded 126mph at Costa Hill in Scotland. All of these elements funnelled those high tides southward toward the narrow (and shallow) English Channel, causing the swell to rise even further. The storm surge was recorded at 5.6 metres (18.4ft) at its peak.
The east coast of the UK has a number of low lying areas, some of which are barely above sea level, most notably in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Essex and the mouth of the Thames area. The Netherlands also has 50% of its territory less than 1 metre above sea level and 20% of it is below.
Sea defences in the UK were of inadequate design for flooding and tidal surges in 1953. What little there was had been designed in World War Two and was designed to keep invading armies out, not invading seas. The natural sea barriers such as sand dunes had also seen much erosion and had numerous gaps where people had walked over and worn away the natural height. Tragically, these would later prove to be natural inlets and gateways for the sea surge to flow inland.
Post war housing shortages also saw a rise in the number of pre-fabricated buildings (mainly in a bungalow design) in many of these low lying areas. This cheap type of housing was also popular with the rising post-war trend of seaside holidays especially in places like Essex and were nearly always located very close to the shoreline. The design of this type of house was never intended to withstand such force and many collapsed or were simply washed along with the current, ending up metres away from where they originally stood or washed out to sea entirely.
Lack of warning
That afternoon of 31 January 1953, a number of people noticed a weak tidal ebb. However, it didn’t seem to cause any alarm and people carried about their daily business as usual. Fishing boats still went out as usual and buses still ran their routes along the seafront. It was a typical Saturday for the people living on the coast. The official weather forecast was a slight drizzle and strong winds but nothing regarding waves and tidal flow.
This calm evening was soon to change. At different points during the evening, the tide surged over the sea walls taking many by surprise and leaving no time to warn others. One survivor in Norfolk said it took less than 15 minutes from the water first tricking in, to reaching almost 5 ft inside his property. Those living closest to the sea reported that a wall of water came over almost immediately with many homes collapsing instantaneously with the force of the water rushing in.
The force of the sea also snapped telephone and electricity cables, rendering communication impossible. Similar stories were reported in Belgium and The Netherlands. The coastal residents on both sides of the North Sea were entirely at the mercy of the tide.
The death toll at sea also included those from a number of smaller fishing vessels to the larger passenger ferry MV Princess Victoria, which sailed from Stranraer to Larne with 179 people on board including 51 crew. A rogue wave broke open the already damaged ferry doors whilst sailing in the Northern channel. One survivor recollected seeing one of the lifeboats crashing back into the sinking ferry, capsizing and pulling all the women and children on board down to their deaths. Of all the passengers and crew on board the ferry that night, no women or child survived. 133 lives were lost in total and only 44 men survived.
The preliminary emergency response came from the surviving community itself due to delays in communicating for outside assistance. Outside of the affected areas, the first that many knew of what had happened was many hours after the majority of people had been killed.
In the UK, 1600km of coastline was damaged destroying mile upon mile of sea wall and inundating 160,000 acres of land with seawater, rendering it unusable for a number of years for agricultural purposes. Livestock and domesticated animals were killed in the thousands and washed out to sea. Over 24,000 homes in the UK were seriously damaged. 40,000 people in the UK were left homeless and many people’s livelihoods were ruined. In the Netherlands where the death toll was much higher, 9% (337,300 acres) of Dutch farmland was devastated by sea water. Over 47,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 of which were completely destroyed.
When the official UK search and rescue operation was launched on the morning of 1 February it involved the police, ambulance staff, the fire service, army, the Navy and RAF personnel. The ‘blitz’ spirit was once again in full swing with temporary shelters popping up and soups kitchens opening. The story of the flood went worldwide with offers of help coming in from many places abroad such as Canada, Finland and even from schoolchildren in Kuwait.
In The Netherlands, the US Army (based in East Germany) sent aid as well as other surrounding European countries. A national donation program was implemented as well as international aid pouring in. The Red Cross was so overwhelmed with contributions; they actually gave away funds to other countries in need.
Questions soon began to emerge regarding the complete lack of warning given to the population and the consequent number of deaths. UK priority was initially given to repairing sea walls in addition to rehousing the displaced population. Long-term, building new flood defences were based much more on a cost/risk basis. The Thames Barrier is one such example that was designed and built following the lessons from the 1953 flood. Warning sirens were put in place at the most at risk areas and are still in use today. The response in the Netherlands was immediate with the Dutch government quickly forming the Delta commission to study the floods and eventually the ‘Delta Works’ were commissioned, enabling the closing of estuaries to prevent upstream flooding and included dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and barriers. Taxes were implemented and readily accepted with a national mind-set that this must never happen again. Even today, commemorations still happen on every anniversary for the dead.
Weather and tidal forecasting leapt forward in the ‘60s with the use of satellites, which provided more accurate predictions and data. The Met office began working with the National Oceanography centre and the environment agency was created. We also saw the emergence of more immediate communication with TV and regular weather reports.
Despite all the huge improvements made since 1953 and as the famous story of King Canute and the waves showed, man can never control the sea. However, we can be better warned of its actions ahead of time. Sadly for the coastal residents of 1953, neither time nor tide could wait.
First published at https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-devastating-storm-of-1953/