SEVENTY-five years ago today, Bournemouth people heard aircraft engines and looked up to see a squadron of German planes flying low in the early afternoon sky.

Within five minutes, the enemy bombers would destroy 59 buildings and claim at least 130 lives.

Direct hits on the Metropole and Central hotels would take the heaviest toll on human life. Other landmarks which were hit included the Beales, Bobby’s (now Debenhams) and the Central Hotel and Punshon Church, both on Richmond Hill.

The Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft had taken off from Caen less than half an hour earlier, 20 of them heading for Hastings and 26 to Bournemouth.

The air raid sirens sounded at 12.54pm and the planes came in over Hengistbury Head and Southbourne, flying at just 50ft or so.

They were spotted by radar on the Isle of Wight, but there was not enough time for British fighters at Warmwell and Ibsley to be scrambled.

The first bomb fell at Cotlands Road, where the Shamrock and Rambler coach station was hit. The planes fanned out and dropped a total of 25 bombs, of which 21 or 22 are believed to have exploded. Fifty-nine buildings were destroyed and another 3,422 damaged.

The Metropole Hotel contained hundreds of Allied servicemen – mainly Canadian, but also Australian and American. Many were having lunch, while some were luckily away on training.

The bomb caused horrific casualties. Among the lucky ones to survive were some 34 airmen on the upper floors, who were rescued by firefighters.

The hotel’s stoker, 76-year-old David Gear, was in the boiler room and managed to switch off the electricity and damp down the fires. His action averted an explosion which would have cost even more lives.

A short distance away, Beales also took a direct hit, rupturing a gas line and starting a fire which wrecked the store. Volunteers formed a chain and spent hours passing buckets of water from the Lower Gardens to fill the pumps which were fighting the fire, succeeding in saving the buildings around the department store.

Also wrecked were West’s Picture House, where the Burlington Arcade now stands, and the Central Hotel and Punshon Memorial Church on Richmond Hill. A plaque on Bristol and West House in Post Office Road records the event.

At Bobby & Co, in the Square, the frontage was shattered by the nearby explosions. Across the road at the Exeter Road bus station, two staff were killed and 15 coaches destroyed, with the windows blown out of 25 buses.

Also hit were the Keystone Garage in Exeter Road, Dean Park, Lansdowne and Howard roads.

The late Angela Beleznay researched many of the human stories behind the bombings for her book Incident 48: Raid on a South Coast Town. (She took her title from the vague newspaper reports that were allowed under wartime censorship.)

There was the serving officer and the Bournemouth housewife who died together at the Central Hotel, where they were conducting an affair. Their families refused to accept their identification and they were initially buried at the Bournemouth North cemetery before being exhumed and reburied in their separate towns.

Among the civilians who died that afternoon were Leonard and Jean Crute,, who were staying at the Centrral Hotel with Jean’s parents. Jean’s father escaped uninjured, but her mother never recovered and died two years later.

Near to Beales, at Cairns House, hotel assistant Dorothy Candy died with a 21-month-old boy, Michael Wheeler, believed to be her grandson. Home Guardsman Douglas Herridge died after being hit by falling masonry at Old Christchurch Road.

Back at the Metropole, a Scottie dog was found alive, two days after the raid, and was taken off by a colonel for a drink.

The estimated number of dead has fluctuated wildly over the years, but Mrs Beleznay put it at 130 or 131, of whom 81 were civilians. There were 16 from the RAF, seven from Royal Australian Air Force, 11 from the Royal Canadian Air Force, six Navy and Army personnel and six US infantrymen. A German pilot died after being shot down over Bournemouth and another was killed when he crashed on landing back at Caen.

Another researcher, Jan Gore, put together biographies of everyone known to have lost their lives and shared them on the Daily Echo website in 2013.

That same year, Pamela Moriarty, of Lexington, Massachusetts, published Finding My Mother, Finding Myself, about her quest to find out what happened to the mother who disappeared from her life when she was seven. It emerged that Kathleen Jeffrey was buried at Bournemouth East cemetery, having been killed while lunching at the Metropole.

The dead were commemorated officially that year, when a plaque was unveiled at the site of the former Metropole Hotel.

Among the survivors attending was Vernon Masterman, who was trapped in rubble when a bomb demolished his street as he ran for shelter with his mother.

“I found it very moving, much more so for those of us who were there at the time,” he said.

“I was only four but I still remember it vividly.”