North Sea flood of 1953

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1953 North Sea flood
Watersnoodramp 1953.jpg
Aftermath of the flood in Oude-Tonge, Goeree-Overflakkee, Netherlands
Duration31 January - 1 February 1953
Fatalities2,551 killed (1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium, 19 in Scotland, 361 at sea)
Damages9% of total Dutch farmland flooded, 30,000 animals drowned, 47,300 buildings damaged of which 10,000 destroyed
Areas affected
Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom
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1953 North Sea flood
Watersnoodramp 1953.jpg
Aftermath of the flood in Oude-Tonge, Goeree-Overflakkee, Netherlands
Duration31 January - 1 February 1953
Fatalities2,551 killed (1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium, 19 in Scotland, 361 at sea)
Damages9% of total Dutch farmland flooded, 30,000 animals drowned, 47,300 buildings damaged of which 10,000 destroyed
Areas affected
Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom

The 1953 North Sea flood (Dutch, Watersnoodramp, literally "flood disaster") was a major flood caused by a heavy storm, that occurred on the night of Saturday, 31 January 1953 and morning of Sunday, 1 February 1953. The floods struck the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland.

A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide of the North Sea; the combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure led to a water level of more than 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level in some locations. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding. The Netherlands, a country with 20% of its territory below mean sea level and 50% less than 1 metre (3.3 ft) above sea level and which relies heavily on sea defences, was worst affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread property damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland. In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. 19 were killed in Scotland. 28 were killed in West Flanders, Belgium.

Further loss of life, exceeding 230 deaths, occurred on water-craft along Northern European coasts as well as in deeper waters of the North Sea. The ferry MV Princess Victoria was lost at sea in the North Channel east of Belfast with 133 fatalities, and many fishing trawlers sank.

Realising that such infrequent events could recur, the Netherlands particularly, and the United Kingdom carried out major studies on strengthening of coastal defences. The Netherlands developed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dams and storm surge barriers. The UK constructed storm surge barriers on the River Thames below London and on the river Hull where it meets the Humber estuary.


On the night of 31 January – 1 February 1953, many dykes in the provinces of Zeeland, South Holland and Noord-Brabant proved unable to resist the combination of spring tide and a northwesterly storm. On both the islands and the mainland, large areas of country were completely flooded. Many people still commemorate the dead on 1 February.


At the time of the flood, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day. As a result, the warnings of the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) did not penetrate the flood-threatened area in time. People were unable to prepare for the impending flood. As the disaster struck on a Saturday night, many offices in the disaster area were unstaffed.

As telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted by flood damage, within hours amateur radio operators went into the affected areas with their equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network. These well-organized radio amateurs worked tirelessly, providing radio communications for ten days and nights, and were the only people maintaining contact with the outside world.

Resulting damage[edit]

Extent of flooding in the Netherlands

The floods put large parts of South Holland, Zeeland and Noord-Brabant under water. In North Holland only one polder was flooded. The largest floodings occurred on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland, Tholen, Sint Philipsland, Goeree-Overflakkee, the Hoeksche Waard, Voorne-Putten and Alblasserwaard. Parts of the islands of Zuid-Beveland, Noord-Beveland, IJselmonde, Pernis, Rozenburg, Walcheren and Land van Altena were flooded, as well as parts of the areas around Willemstad, Nieuw-Vossemeer and parts of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.

The heaviest death toll was recorded at the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee.

Afterward, the government started the Delta Commission to study the causes and effects of the floods. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water flooded 1,365 km² of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 were destroyed. Total damage is estimated at 1 billion Dutch guilders.

Een dubbeltje op zijn kant" ("A dime on its side," meaning "A narrow escape"), a sculpture by Roel Bendijk of de Twee Gebroeders in the Groenedijk

Near flooding of other parts[edit]

The Schielands Hoge Zeedijk (nl) along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that protected three million people in the provinces of South and North Holland from flooding. A section of this dyke, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone revetments. The water level was just below the crest and the seaside slope was weak.

Volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch. But, the Groenendijk began to collapse under the pressure around 5:30 am on 1 February. Seawater flooded into the deep polder. In desperation, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered the river ship de Twee Gebroeders (The Two Brothers) and ordered the owner to plug the hole in the dyke by navigating the ship into it. Fearing that the ship might break through into the polder, captain Arie Evegroen took a row boat with him. The mayor's plan turned out to be successful, as the ship was lodged firmly into the dyke, saving many lives.

It was said that the Afsluitdijk across the entrance of the Zuiderzee paid for its construction cost in that one night, by preventing destructive flooding round the Zuiderzee.


Several neighbouring countries sent soldiers to assist in searching for bodies and rescuing people. The U.S. Army sent helicopters from Germany to rescue people from the rooftops. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded area only a few days after. A large aid program came on apace, supported by the radio. A national donation program was started and there was a large amount of international aid. The Red Cross was overwhelmed and decided to send some of the funds to Third World countries.

Politically, the disaster prompted discussions concerning the protection and strengthening of the dykes, eventually leading to the Delta Works, an elaborate project to enable emergency closing off of most estuary-mouths.

United Kingdom[edit]

A breach at Erith after the 1953 flood

The North Sea flood of 1953 was one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 km². Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.[1]

Probably the most devastating storm to affect Scotland over the last 500 years, the surge crossed between the Orkney and Shetland Isles. The storm generated coastal and inland hazards, including flooding, erosion, destruction to coastal defences and widespread wind damage. The storm's wrath was widely felt across Scotland, with 19 fatalities reported.[2] The fishing village of Crovie (then in Banffshire, now Aberdeenshire), built on a narrow strip of land along the Moray Firth coast, was abandoned by many of its inhabitants as entire structures were swept into the sea.

The surge raced down the East Coast into the southern North Sea, where it was exaggerated by the shallower waters. In Lincolnshire, flooding occurred from Mablethorpe to Skegness, reaching as far as 2 miles inland.

In individual incidents, 38 died at Felixstowe in Suffolk when wooden prefabricated homes in the West End area of the town were flooded. In Essex, Canvey Island was inundated, with the loss of 58 lives. Another 37 died when the seafront village of Jaywick near Clacton was flooded.[3] Reis Leming, a US airman, was awarded the George Medal for his bravery in rescuing 27 people in the South Beach area of Hunstanton.[4]

In East London, water poured from the Royal Docks into Silvertown, where it drained into the sewers only to flood back out of them again in Canning Town and Tidal Basin. There was one local fatality: William Hayward, a night watchman at William Ritchie & Son, died of exposure to gas from a damaged pipe. Almost 200 people were made temporarily homeless and took refuge at Canning Town Public Hall.[5]

The total death toll on land in the UK is estimated at 307. The total death toll at sea for the UK, including the MV Princess Victoria, is estimated at 224.


The coastal defence of Flanders was also severely damaged. Near Ostend, Knokke and Antwerp, heavy damage was done to the sea defence with local breaches. Twenty-eight people died, including a famous Belgian musician, Robert Dubois.


After the 1953 flood, it was realised that similar infrequent events were possible in the future.

In the Netherlands an ambitious flood defence system was conceived and constructed, beginning in the 1960s. Called the Delta Works (Dutch: Deltawerken), it is designed to protect the estuaries of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. The system was completed in 1998, with completion of the storm surge barrier Maeslantkering in the Nieuwe Waterweg, near Rotterdam.

In the UK the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office Sir Frank Newsam coordinated the immediate efforts to defend homes, save lives and recover after the floods. After the flooding, major investments were made in new sea defences. The Thames Barrier programme was started to secure central London against a future storm surge; the Barrier was officially opened on 8 May 1984.


In 2013 a service was held at Chelmsford Cathedral to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Flood, attended by Anne, Princess Royal. Acts of remembrance were also held in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.[6]

Books, films and music[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stratton, J.M. (1969). Agricultural Records. John Baker. ISBN 0-212-97022-4. 
  2. ^ "The storm of 31 January to 1 February 1953 and its impact on Scotland", Scottish Geographical Journal, Volume 117, Issue 4, 2001
  3. ^ Grieve, Hilda (1959). The great tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex. Essex County Council. 
  4. ^ "Obituaries:Reis Leming". Daily Telegraph. 18 November 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  5. ^ Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. The Sugar Girls. Collins. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-00-744847-0. 
  6. ^ "Commemoration". BBC. Retrieved 3 February 2013. 
  7. ^ "BASS 2010: Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water” | A Just Recompense". 18 April 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  8. ^ "Google Drive Viewer". Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  9. ^ Bride Flight

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