North Sea flood devastates large areas of low-lying Europe – archive, 1953

On the night of 31 January 1953, a heavy storm struck the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, overwhelming sea defences and causing extensive flooding. See how the Guardian and Observer reported events

Dutch dikes wrecked: worst havoc in 400 years

2 February 1953

The Hague
The worst floods in Holland for more than 400 years have cost at least 142 lives, wrecked dikes, devastated hundreds of square miles of fertile land and rendered tens of thousands of people homeless. A government spokesman said the flood was by far the worst since the year 1521.

A tide 19 inches higher than ever recorded in Holland swept through breaches in the dikes last night and new areas were flooded. The latest death-toll includes 40 people drowned on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee, south-west of Rotterdam. A radio message said many more would die unless a big ship was sent immediately. Rubber boats had been dropped to villagers on the island earlier in the day by naval aircraft.

The spokesman said the wind had dropped during the night and somewhat reduced the worst danger, but most of the dikes were in such a weakened condition that grave peril for hundreds of townships and villages would continue until the dikes had been strengthened. “What we need above all is sandbags and rocks,” he went on. “The British authorities who want to send lanes, asked us what to drop. We told them: Sandbags, sandbags and more sandbags. That is even more important than food and clothing.”

The Queen’s tour
Queen Juliana left her palace near the Hague and went to one of the worst stricken areas at Dordrecht, south of Rotterdam, and found the city of 70,000 half under water. The burgomaster of Sliedrecht, a few miles away, described the position as “hopeless” and 1,200 people were evacuated.

The immense oil refineries at Pernis, near Rotterdam, were damaged, as were several factories in the area.

Three men in a boat making their way down a flooded street in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, 2 February 1953.
Three men in a boat making their way down a flooded street in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, on 2 February 1953. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Havoc in Belgium: Ostend flooded and without light

2 February 1953

Brussels, 1 February
Ostend, two-thirds of which is flooded, is blacked out tonight and cut off from outside. Hundreds are homeless and food, water, and milk supplies are running short. The city was cut off when the power station, post office, and water station were submerged. At least seven people have been drowned. At Zeebrugge the jetty was seriously damaged.

The dies at Knokke le Zoute and Lekkerbek and along the Scheldt estuary sagged and gave way. Six breaches – some of them 130 yards long – were torn in dikes around Termonde, the Belgian river port in the Scheldt estuary.

Floods near Calais
Hundreds of acres of farmland near Calais were flooded today when raging seas tore holes in the sea wall and poured inland, according to first reports. The storm is reported to be the worst for 25 years. A French ship was thrown against a cargo boat in Calais harbour by the wave and both ships were damaged.

East coast flood disaster: great storm sweeps sea inland

2 February 1953

The death-toll in disastrous floods along the east coast from Middlesbrough to the Thames yesterday had risen to over 150 this morning and was still mounting.

Towns and villages were swept by high seas driven by storms which, on the other side of the country on Saturday, overwhelmed the Stranraer-Larne ferry and caused the loss of 133 lives. Almost the entire population of Canvey Island – about 13,000 people – has been evacuated. Another large-scale evacuation took place in Lincolnshire, where some places, including Mablethorpe and Sutton on Sea, are completely exposed to the high tides.

Canvey Island’s 13,000 refugees
By eleven o’clock tonight about 13,000 people had been evacuated from Canvey Island in an operation carried out by military, police, and civil defence authorities. It is not known how many lives have been lost. The lowest estimate from any reliable source is 25, but the figure of a 100 had been mentioned.

Storms and flood disasters

2 February 1953

After a weekend of disaster caused by violent storms and devastating floods, it was still impossible last night to reckon the full toll of human life and property, but the death-toll in the flooded areas of east and south-east England has reached 108. The following reports summarise the story so far as it can be told at present:
Continue reading. See also: How the great storm of 1953 caused Britain’s worst peacetime disaster

Ordeal by Water

The Observer, 8 February 1953

A unique co-operative journalistic effort has been launched to assist flood relief funds. The Hague daily newspaper, Het Vaderland, is this week publishing a special multi-language pictorial edition, containing 100 photographs, telling the full story of the Dutch calamity.

Entitled Ordeal by Water, it is already being printed in Dutch, French, English Flemish and Scandinavian languages, and distributed in each country in co-operation with national newspapers.

The edition, running into many hundreds of thousands of copies, is being produced by the paper’s staff working overtime without pay, and except for the cost of newsprint, the full proceeds are being given to flood relief.

The proceeds of the sales in Britain will be equally divided between the British and Dutch funds. The price of Ordeal by Water is 1s and post-free from the Observer, 22 Tudor St, EC4.


Compiled by Richard Nelsson

The GuardianTramp

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