Dover Castle’s secret underground tunnels

PUBLISHED: 16:03 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 16:15 15 May 2017

Learn to salute at Dover Castle's Second World War Weekend (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)

Learn to salute at Dover Castle's Second World War Weekend (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

With a new Christopher Nolan feature film on Dunkirk due out this summer, English Heritage is putting a special focus on the ‘secret’ underground tunnels at Dover Castle with a Second World War weekend taking place this month

Enjoying a cup of tea 1940's style (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)Enjoying a cup of tea 1940's style (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)

Arriving in Dover by train, the eye is quickly captured by the sight of the medieval castle, high on the hill above the town.

But below the walls of the fortification, hidden from view in the celebrated white cliffs, is a network of tunnels, excavated more than 200 years ago.

Created at a time when there was a genuine fear that the south coast of England was about to be invaded by Napoleonic France, ultimately the tunnels’ finest hour was to come more than a century later when the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk was planned and coordinated within them.

The story of their contribution to the defence of the realm did not end there, and the tunnels continued to be in use into the 1960s during the Cold War.

Enjoying the action at the Second World War Weekend (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)Enjoying the action at the Second World War Weekend (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)

Now in the care of English Heritage, as is Dover Castle itself, the tale of the Secret Wartime Tunnels can be experienced by the public, and it’s fair to say that they do so in somewhat more secure and salubrious conditions than those endured by the Operation Dynamo mastermind, Admiral Ramsay.

When he and his staff first moved into the tunnels in 1939 they were confronted by bats and rats. The Napoleonic tunnels were actually enlargements and extensions to ones dug out in the 13th century during the reign of King John.

Built to take 2,000 troops, the soft chalk had made for easy progress for the military engineers, but a chalk fall in 1799, which was resulted in the tragic loss of two lives, meant that subsequently they were brick lined.

“They were extremely unhealthy, however, with limited ventilation,” explains English Heritage senior curator Rowena Willard-Wright.

Thrilling military re-enactments will take place at Dover Castle (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)Thrilling military re-enactments will take place at Dover Castle (photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage)

“They were surrounded by sea mists and sea air, and even today we can feel the dampness and vapour that gets sucked into the tunnels.”

It’s unsurprising that, after the threat of an attack by Napoleon receded, they weren’t much used until the outbreak of hostilities with Nazi Germany in 1939. “There’s no evidence of use during the First World War, other than for storage purposes,” adds Rowena.

A visit to the Secret Wartime Tunnels experience today starts with a scene-setting short film featuring newsreel footage of the build-up to the Second World War.

And while there are still people living locally who remember going down into the tunnels, or who have recollections to pass on of things their parents or grandparents told them, times are moving on, and many of the younger visitors today are unaware that Winston Churchill was the prime minster during the Second World War.

The entrance to the wartime tunnels and Hellfire Corner (photo: Derek Kendall, Historic England)The entrance to the wartime tunnels and Hellfire Corner (photo: Derek Kendall, Historic England)

In fact, it was Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain who had recalled Rear-Admiral Bertram Ramsay from retirement to command naval defences here, in the recognition that a secure headquarters at the castle was necessary to protect the all-important Strait of Dover.

Ramsay had cut his teeth in the Dover Patrol in the First World War, and knew the seas and coastline well. But when the four miles of tunnels were re-opened, Ramsay had to share them with coastal artillery and anti-aircraft defence operators, and for a time it was a battle for space and resources.

The winter of 1939-40 was exceptionally cold and even today you can sense how dark and grim it must have been.

Ramsay was fortunate, however, in having excellent administrative back-up in the form of the officers from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

An interior view of one of the tunnels showign graffiti on the walls (photo: Jonathan Brady, Historic England)An interior view of one of the tunnels showign graffiti on the walls (photo: Jonathan Brady, Historic England)

“This year is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the WRNS, and it seems appropriate that we celebrate their contribution to the Dunkirk evacuation, which was codenamed Operation Dynamo, and which included managing the planning room and monitoring the radar system,” explains Rowena.

Further into the tunnels, original footage projected onto the walls and voices quoting from oral history over a soundtrack of screeching fighter and bomber planes and anti-aircraft gunfire, conveys a terrific sense of the atmosphere of the times.

The scenes on the sands of Dunkirk, as the men wait on the beaches or on makeshift jetties to be rescued, is claustrophobically intense.

“What we wanted to do was to capture something of the tension not only of events on the other side of the Channel, but also how that was also being felt here in these tunnels, where news of how the evacuation was progressing was constantly being monitored,” says Rowena.

She points to the irony of the fact that the staff, who lived and slept in the tunnel casemates for days on end, were totally cut off from the outside world and yet were actually more in touch with what was going on in the war than people above ground.

This was one of the remarkable things about the Dunkirk evacuation. Ramsay was operating at a time when communications technology was still relatively primitive.

To begin with he was working with First World War equipment, and had only one phone line running out of the tunnels.

“Rather like Bletchley Park, Operation Dynamo was this strange combination of cutting-edge technology and amateurism,” says Rowena.

But he and his officers learnt fast. By 1943, Ramsay had presided over a massive upgrade, and in one of the final rooms in the tunnel you are able to tour, you see what was top-of-the-range communications equipment for the period, which was in fact to continue in service into the Cold War.

The miracle of Dunkirk truly was that. Throughout May 1940, the German forces had advanced through France at a terrifying rate. By 25 May they were on the cost, with Boulogne falling into their hands, quickly followed by Calais.

Ramsays’s remit was to get as many of the 400,000 British and allied troops off a diminishing perimeter centred on Dunkirk. He had less than a week to prepare the evacuation, and worked around the clock.

Operation Dynamo began on 26 May. Larger vessels and the famous flotilla of Little Ships, aided by RAF sorties and perfect weather, with the sea like a sheet of glass in the words of one participant, managed to secure the rescue of 338,000 soldiers by 3 June.

More than a quarter of the British ships which had taken part were sunk and many others were seriously damaged. Ramsay praised the participants’ fine seamanship and indomitable courage and endurance, but he himself has been something of a forgotten hero. Four years after Dunkirk, he plotted Operation Dynamo, the naval element of the D-Day landing, but was killed in an air crash in January 1945.

However, one man, David Divine, who had manned one of the little ships and later went on to become a press correspondent, didn’t forget his heroic contribution to Dunkirk.

Years later David wrote: “It is given to few men to command a miracle. Yet it was given to Bertram Home Ramsay, and the frail iron balcony that juts from the embrasure of the old casemate on the Dover cliff was the quarter deck from which he commanded one of the great campaigns in the sea story of Britain.”

Find out more

Dover Castle’s Second World War Weekend, 27-29 May, this year will have a special focus on the wartime tunnels: english-heritage.org.uk / dovercastle.co.uk

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