SITTING in a cinema today, the auditorium would break out in panic if the message "air raid in progress" flashed up on the scene.

But during the Second World Wat the message was so commonplace that many chose to ignore the warning.

Doing so led to Sussex's bloodiest civilian loss of the war as 108 people were killed with 235 seriously injured in a single bombing raid on East Grinstead's High Street.

The Whitehall Cinema was showing a western film, which 184 citizens, including children, had packed inside to watch.

Moya Knight, 84, of Wilson Avenue, Brighton, was among the spectators.

She saw the warning flash up.

"They usually flashed something on the screen but if you took notice of every air raid warning you would never get anything done.

"We got so used to them that not everybody took much notice.

"You just got the general feeling that people thought 'if it's my turn, it's my turn'. You just took your chances."

Mrs Knight, born in Hove, was in East Grinstead at the time because her friends were in a local land army section. It was only the need to get the bus home, having watched the tail-end of the previous screening, that meant they left before the blast.

Above them, a German Dornier bomber had got lost as part of a raid on London and decided to drop its load on East Grinstead instead before machine gunning the town.

On the cinema bombing, Mrs Knight remembered: "We were only yards away on the bus when we heard a big bang.

"It shocked us when we heard how many people had died. We considered ourselves very, very lucky. Out of a packed cinema I wouldn't think more than 30 people left.

"The cinema was pretty full so we were lucky to get in there in the first place - but now I think we were lucky to get out."

William Roy Henn was the projectionist that day in the Whitehall cinema and when interviewed later on he said it was a terrible day.

He said: "The auditorium of the cinema was the most awful scene.

"I looked down from my projection box and it seemed everything was moving. There were people screaming in terror while others just laid their, quiet. They were the dead ones. The walls were just collapsing on to the people - awful, just awful.

"There were body parts laying on the seats and in the aisles. Some people were laying in the aisles, quite motionless.

"I had to shake myself to make sure this was real. Just then a lot of bullets started ricocheting off the walls.

"When I got outside I saw half a dozen people lying dead in the roadway and gutter. There were other people walking about past the bodies completely dazed. They had no idea where they were. One of our usherettes was killed in the cinema.

"I don’t understand how I got out alive."

In other stories, Tom Peters was an air raid warden at the time of the bombings. A bomb that hit Bridgeland’s shop nearby blew Mr Peters across the road and he hit the wall of the building opposite. Realising he was not seriously hurt, he looked around and saw several people laying in the road terribly injured. Some were victims of the machine-gunning from the Dornier.

He told local press at the time how a bullet from the bomber passed through the tunic and waistcoat of a sergeant who fortunately only suffered a seared stomach.

Like Mrs Knight, Arthur Chalkly was also lucky to escape the bombing - his brother and he had been naughty and were forbidden from going to the cinema as they usually would.

The 85-year-old, of Station Road, in Winchelsea, told The Argus: "My brother and I had been naughty.

"We used to go scrumping and I found a duck egg and took it home.

"My grandmother, who was looking after us, said, 'You cannot go to the cinema.' She was a strict disciplinarian and we hardly spoke to her."

But then they heard about the bombing.

Mr Chalkly added: "A few children from our school were killed. It was a catastrophe, terribly saddening.

"The young lady up the lane from us in Forest Row was killed.

"We were quite young. At that age the word scared didn't come into our vocabulary but we were all very sorry."

Mr Chalkly remembers how a Canadian ambulance company was staying at the top of their lane and how "they were pretty busy when the bomb went off".

"They used their station for a lot of the bodies from the cinema," he added.

Joyce Shelley's father was in the civil defence and was head of the rescue teams that day.

The 93-year-old told The Argus: "He rescued no end of the poor souls out of there. A lot of the people who died went to the same school as me and had the time off to go to the cinema. About a dozen people I knew quite well died. So many people were buried in a communal grave. It was terrible."

Mrs Shelley was born in East Grinstead and was working as a land army girl on a farm when the raid happened. She now lives in Exmoor, Devon.

Of course, there were other grave bombing raids. On September 14, 1940, a bomb fell on the Odeon cinema in Kemp Town, Brighton, killing 53 people, many of them children.

Two years later a bomb landed on the child welfare centre in Sussex Street, killing three children and injuring expectant mothers.

Two months after that, 25 German planes attacked Brighton at noon, dropping bombs and machine gunning people in the streets. That day 24 were killed including two boys and two policemen.

Elsewhere, in Petworth, a bomb fell on the village school where 35 children and two teachers had been at their desks. Only seven youngsters survived.

But all were surpassed in magnitude by the tragic events of 73 years ago today.