Yesterday’s post by Norman Baldwin made mention of the tragic death at the age of 17 of Howard Leslie in a freak accident on a south coast beach to which we attached the press cutting from the time. Rick Gillings, who was one of the three boys involved kindly sent us this first hand account of the incident:
From Rick Gillings
I was very interested in the blog from Norman Baldwin that you recently posted. I can add some detail to the article attached :-
Four of us from school, had just completed the South Downs walk and were enjoying our last day in warm easter sunshine walking to Beachy Head. Peter Smith had left us a couple of days earlier to attend a wedding. On arriving at Birling Gap, Roger Harden, Howard Leslie and myself decided we would continue to walk along the foreshore to Eastbourne to get the bus back to Alfriston. Because of the tides and distance, we were walking at a reasonable pace to ensure that we would not get cut off by the tide.
The whole beach was strewn with large boulders after the winter storms. As we were approaching the lighthouse there was a loud bang and we were immediately engulfed in dense black acrid smoke. The bomb disposal men had detonated a large group of shells and funneled the explosion out to sea. We had walked into this funnel without any warnings both on the beach or along the foreshore. One bomb disposal guy immediately ran to the lighthouse to raise the alarm whilst Roger & I with the remaining men made a makeshift stretcher and carried Howard back along the foreshore to Birling Gap. No helicopter rescue that you would expect today. After about half an hour a stretcher party arrived and took over from us, carrying him for the remainder of the walk back to the beach. By this time my left leg had begun to seize, probably having been hit by a rock in the explosion. The effect lasted about a week and resulted in a colourful bruise.
The police and a doctor were waiting here and this is where we were initially checked over and had our fears about Howard confirmed. Both Roger and I had minor cuts and scratches from shrapnel so after a short break, we were taken by police car to Eastbourne hospital for further checks prior to transfer to the police station to take statements and returning to Alfriston where we stayed overnight. My brother and father picked us up the following morning and took us back to the police station prior to returning home.
Two weeks later we returned for the inquest where the defence of hide and seek first came to light. Roger & I were both annoyed about this suggestion. The whereabouts of the lookout and the lack of any warnings were the only crucial points in the sad loss of a close friend.
As a final footnote to this sad day, was that I had shrapnel removed from my thumb some three weeks after the incident when an injury wouldn,t heal and a further piece worked its way out from my face some years afterwards. We were very lucky.
Roger and I went to the law courts some months later to see a barrister working on behalf of Howard’s parents. They won their case, the case being settled out of court.