Step by step, a group descends into the pitch black of a narrow subterranean tunnel, the walls sweating. Reeking of old creosote and wet earth, the air is dank and sticky. Following more than 100 steps, they finally arrive. A year and a half of hard work has paid off. After committing some 3,000 hours to excavating a long-abandoned World War Two tunnel network, 50 volunteers and experts get to explore it in full…
The Fan Bay Deep Shelter lies some 75 feet beneath the ground. Held in place by metal supports, its warren of tunnels spans an area of 3,500 square feet. The shelter is located deep within the so-called White Cliffs of Dover in Southeast England – a procession of high chalk cliffs that overlook the English Channel.
According to the National Trust – the esteemed heritage charity that manages the site – the tunnels aren’t for the faint of heart. Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian in 2015, one of its representatives described the shelter as “a dark, dirty and wet environment… not suitable for those who are claustrophobic or unsteady.” Indeed, one needs to be in “good health” to complete the descent.
As tour guide Gordon Wise explained to the Australian channel ABC News in 2015, the shelter formerly served as a bastion, strategically positioned to defend against an invasion. “You can actually see France, 34 kilometres away, just 70 seconds’ flying time for a shell,” he explained. “You get some idea that this was really the frontline. This was where the defense of Britain had to start.”
Today, the tunnels offer an unnerving snapshot of daily life in a World War Two bunker. The eerie subterranean complex is punctuated by spooky relics that hint at the routine dread endured by the soldiers stationed there. After all, the Germans were fully intent on conquering the United Kingdom, just as they had numerous other nations in Africa and Europe.
The United Kingdom might have yielded to German occupation but for its isolated island geography. As such, the White Cliffs of Dover have long provided a bulwark against aggressive forces. In fact, England hasn’t been invaded and occupied since 1066. As such, the cliffs are a national symbol, much like the Statue of Liberty in the United States.
The 300-feet-high cliffs stand sentinel over some 8 miles of coastline in the English county of Kent, a vast and immovable wall. Their distinctive white faces are composed of exceptionally fine, soft chalk that formed over the course of millions of years. As green algae and other organisms died, they descended to the seabed and eventually coalesced into compressed layers of calcium carbonate. And when sea levels descended, the cliffs became visible.
One of the earliest historical records of Dover was provided by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who attempted to invade England first in 55 B.C. and then again a year later. Believed to be the oldest extant record of the country, his Commentaries on the Gallic War described how the early Britons used the White Cliffs to attack his war party by throwing weapons from the summit.
Centuries later, the English crown ordered the construction of Dover Castle on the clifftops, which was later referred to as being “key to England”. Speaking to the BBC in 2012, Gareth Wiltshire, the manager of the White Cliffs of Dover Visitor Experience, explained that the fortification was used for diplomactic purposes. “Dover was a key place for royalty,” he said. “Overseas visitors would be greeted there and the castle would provide accommodation.”
Naturally, the cliffs have been represented countless times in English culture. Perhaps most famously, William Shakespeare depicted the cliffs in the finale of King Lear, when the despondent Earl of Gloucester considers taking his own life. He says, “There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me to the very brim of it, and I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear…”
Today, the cliffs are still often associated with their defensive and symbolic role in World War Two. Gun batteries were constructed on the cliffs at South Foreland, Wanstone and, of course, at Fan Bay. Moreover, they managed to sink some 29 enemy ships between them. Collectively known as “the fortress,” Britain’s coastal batteries were also used to test pioneering radar technology.
Fan Bay Deep Shelter and its sister defenses were constructed after the British prime minister Winston Churchill came to Dover in the summer of 1940. Using his binoculars, he observed the unimpeded movement of German vessels in the English Channel. The sight apparently made furious and he resolved to install artillery guns on the coast.
Churchill stressed the strategic urgency of the guns in a note addressed to his joint chief of staff. “We must insist upon maintaining superior artillery positions on the Dover promontory, no matter what form of attack they are exposed to,” he wrote. “We have to fight for command of the straits by artillery, to destroy the enemy batteries and fortify our own.”
The need for coastal batteries became acute after September 2, 1940. On that day, German artillery shells targeted Dover town. Indeed, after defeating France, the German military machine installed massive batteries along the French coast. The batteries were intended to be used during Operation Sealion – the codename for the planned invasion of England.
The 172nd Tunnelling Company’s Royal Engineers began work on Fan Bay Deep Shelter during November 1940. However, the dismal English weather proved a hindrance to their work. According to the Kent Archaeological Society website, an engineer wrote in his journal, “Construction continued slowly in a sea of mud.” Nonetheless, by the turn of the month, some 6-inch artillery guns were staioned at the site.
The engineers gradually carved the shelter and its tunnels and fitted the walls with durable metal supports. In order to transport the earthen waste out of the tunnels, they constructed a railway. The waste was then loaded onto carts, steered to the edge of the cliffs and dumped into the sea.
Troops moved into the complex long before it was finished. On December 10, 1940, more than 100 soldiers belonging to the 203rd Coast Battery of the Royal Artillery, including four officers, took up stations in its muddy tunnels. Construction of the complex was completed by the end of February 1941, some 100 days after it commenced. And in June, Churchill himself toured the facility.
Considered a pioneering installation at the time, Fan Bay battery featured a host of useful amenities including a hospital, generator, radar, washrooms and accommodation areas. Its deepest levels were home to the so-called deep shelter – a complex of bomb-proof chambers complete with bunks and weapon stores. Indeed, Fan Bay had the largest deep shelter of England’s coastal batteries.
The battery fired its guns for the first time on February 28, 1941. However, its weapons were short-range and purely defensive. The only battery capable of long-range attacks was the nearby Wanstone Battery, which was home to a pair of 15-inch guns with the playful nicknames of Winnie and Pooh. Eventually, Fan Bay, Wanstone and South Foreland were merged under a single command, which was known as the 540 Coast Regiment.
The batteries served their country well and, ultimately, Hitler failed to secure a foothold in England. Instead, he turned east and opened a disastrous second front against the Soviet Union. On September 2, 1945, the Allies finally defeated the Axis powers and emerged victorious. Although at peace with Europe, the British military still kept hold of the batteries throughout the 1950s. Thereafter, they became the property of private individuals.
However, the old batteries had been defaced over the years and were now considered blots on the landscape. During the 1970s, in fact, local communities even lobbied for them to be demolished and for the White Cliffs to be returned to their pre-war state. As a result, Fan Bay Shelter was packed full of earth and debris. And except for a discreet metal plate on a cliff-top, all traces of its existence were removed.
The National Trust subsequently raised $1.6 million to purchase a section of the Dover Cliffs in 2012. Initially, however, the charity had no idea the property contained the remains of Fan Bay Deep Shelter. But when it realized it had unwittingly procured the facility, it set about excavating the complex.
In fact, the National Trust had discovered the shelter one day almost by accident. The only clue to its existence had been a little crack in the land. Kent Underground Research Group specialists then conducted some surveys. The tunnels, they discovered, were still intact. And so with the help of numerous volunteers, the trust cleared the primary stairwell of debris weighing some 30 tons.
Of course, this was only just the start. In the end, some 100 tons of debris had to be removed by hand. Technicians and experts from a wide range of fields contributed, including carpenters, electricians, geologists and builders. Some 80 railway sleepers were installed to facilitate repairs to the tunnels. As ever, though, the task was hampered by inclement weather.
Nonetheless, the hard work was worth it. Speaking to ABC News in 2015, site manager Jon Barker said the project had drawn attention to an otherwise obscure part of the nation’s history. “[The shelter] is an important piece of wartime heritage and it’s also a piece of forgotten history,” he stated. “The story of the cross-channel guns was largely forgotten.”
Ultimately, the tunnels served as a kind of time capsule, its relics and artefacts proffering intriguing details about daily life in the shelter. Early on, for example, volunteers found some needle and thread, probably Khaki, nestled inside a tunnel wall. Brown-colored Khaki has been present in British military uniforms from the 1840s onwards.
Naturally, the tunnels concealed discarded military supplies, including stocks of live ammunition. Volunteers found American .30 caliber rounds and British .303 cartridges hidden within small openings between metal supports, suggesting the troops were liberally armed. Indeed, they needed to be ready to repel a surprise attack at any given moment.
Known as “latrinalia,” vulgar graffiti has adorned washrooms since Roman times. In Fan Bay Shelter, volunteers found latrinalia etched upon the broken fragments of the toilet blocks. One charming limerick read, “If you come into this hall, use the paper not this wall. If no paper can found, then run you’re a*** along the ground.”
Scrawled in chalk on a piece of shuttering, another message had vaguely communist undertones. It read, “Russia bleeds while Britain Blancos.” Originally a newspaper headline, this popular slogan was a reference to the British military and their supposedly lax support for their Soviet allies. The word “blanco” – used here as a verb – refers to a cleaning substance that troops employed to polish their gear.
Hidden on top of an air duct was a 1903 adventure book, Shadow on the Quarter Deck by Major W.P. Drury. Although somewhat obscure by contemporary standards, the author penned several military-themed books during his lifetime including Men at Arms and The Peradventures of Private Pagett. His most famous and popular work is The Flag Lieutenant, which was made into a movie on three separate occasions.
Additional finds included a wealth of everyday objects: makeshift wire clothes hooks, telegrams, packets of cigarettes, a tic-tac-toe game and a Unity Pools soccer coupon dated February 20, 1943. As much as the troops were entrusted with a hard and dangerous task, they may well also have endured great boredom and loneliness.
Among the most valuable discoveries were some acoustic mirrors from World War One. Prior to the invention of radar, acoustic mirrors were used to detect incoming enemy attacks. Resembling enormous concrete bowls with diameters of 15 feet, the mirrors worked by focusing approaching sound waves. At Fan Bay, a pair of acoustic mirrors were installed in the cliffs.
In fact, the Fan Bay acoustic mirrors were part of an early warning system that included a chain of similar devices at North Foreland and Joss Bay. The system represented the culmination of more than 20 years of experimentation by the British Air Ministry. They found that the size and shape of acoustic mirrors, for example, changes how they focus sound.
By the onset of World War Two, though, British scientist Sir Robert Watson-Watt was already close to developing radar technology. This would allow the military to pinpoint enemy movements with unprecedented accuracy. Nonetheless, the sound mirrors weren’t entirely obsolete. After the German air force launched attacks on Britain’s radar stations, they continued to be of useful service.
The National Trust began excavating the sound mirrors in May 2014. The task was mammoth. It required the removal of 600 tons of debris, which was enough to fill some 50 trucks. Fortunately, carefully positioned heavy machinery expedited the excavation considerably. As a result, ultimately the acoustic mirrors were fully uncovered in under a month.
Additional work on the shelter’s original entrance also exposed a hidden generator room. Unfortunately, the chamber appeared to have been destroyed previously, but archaeologists were able to identify an adjoining network of stairs and corridors. Moreover, with the help of the blueprints used in the 1940s, engineers and builders were able to carefully reconstruct them.
In the first half of 2015, engineers took away the last of the debris from the tunnels and entrances adjacent to the newly excavated acoustic mirrors. All that remained were some final cosmetic tasks – the construction of benches, the treatment of woodwork, some painting and other minor tasks. Finally, in July 2015 the work was completed.
Speaking to the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2015, volunteer Gordon Wise expressed his gratitude and delight. He said, “Seeing the tunnels in their raw state when they were first encountered, handling artefacts and giving tours is like standing in the footsteps of history… To be part of the digging team, mirroring the work the Royal Engineers originally took to excavate the shelter, was very special.”
Today, visitors can experience the shelter for themselves – with a few minor provisos. No high heels or sandals. No children under the age of 8. No claustrophobes. With 125 steps, the descent should not be attempted by those in poor health. All tours are guided and hard hats are mandatory. For those who meet these criteria, though, an unforgettable experience awaits.
The White Cliffs of Dover are a quintessential symbol of Englishness. Unlike the national borders of Europe, which have shifted countless times over the centuries, these chalk cliffs signify an enduring physical boundary that seemingly can never be moved. As much as the Fan Bay Deep Shelter offers rich historical insights, it also reflects the identity of an island nation.