Posts Tagged ‘Military’

Seven Victorian tunnel-like magazines were built on the Benfleet waterfront near Jotmans in the late part of the 19th Century. They would have been used for the storage of explosives by barges possibly on the way to London or nearby explosives factories (where is now Wat Tyler Country Park and Coryton Refinery).

The Benfleet Community Archive first introduced Beyond the Point to ‘the mags’ at a community event on Canvey. We were told it was rumoured they were used as storage from barges carrying explosives down the Thames. There was definitely a heavy explosives industry in South Essex around the turn of the 20th Century, so this was not an unreasonable idea. I looked this up when I got home, and listened to an audio account on this website which mentions them and their location. We visited the area numerous times between 2012 and 2015, finding a wartime pillbox and ruins from the old sewage works, yet were unable to locate the ‘mags’.

Magazines

In September 2015 we decided to investigate the rumours, following a 1895 map from http://www.benfleethistory.org.uk showing the location of the magazines layed over modern satellite imagery. The entire area south west of the sewage works was overgrown and it became very difficult to work out exactly which parts of the area the magazines were in. We covered what we believed to be the entire area and only found rectangular mounds/earthworks, perhaps covering something? A brick walled section, broken concrete, and a very old huge iron manhole cover (probably from the sewage works) was also found.

 After explaining about the mounds and brick wall that we found to the http://www.BenfleetHistory.org.uk archive site, we were put in touch with Dave Cowan in early 2016 who has lived in the Jotmans area since he was a child. He gave the initial audio account on the Benfleet Archive of playing near the mags as a child that prompted our investigation.

   We met up with him and he took us to where he saw one of the mags around 2012/13 guided by a picture of the area on his phone, using a tree as a landmark. After some looking in the bushes we finally uncovered the ruins of one of the entrances  (mag 1,2, or 3).  He was unaware of the other mags west of the current sewage works as this area was inaccessible in his childhood days, but when we showed him the earth mounds I found in September 2015 he found it all made sense; we had finally found where the mags are/would have been in relation to the 1895 map!

Magazines 1-3

Above you can see the remaining entrance area of either magazine 1, 2, or 3 and an artistic reconstruction. The other two of the three are somewhere along this stretch although they could either be overgrown or gone without trace. Dave explained how the sides and entrance facing were made of brick, yet the interior was buried in earth and was concrete from what he could remember. We found the two walls that would’ve formed the entrance although the actual doorway was covered in soil; presumably it had collapsed at one point. Dave recalls seeing the magazine turn off left and right inside, going down about 10-12 feet either way. He remembers several along that stretch which corresponds to the old map, although the other two were probably hidden in the undergrowth hence why further investigation could be done. Below are the brick remains of the one we found closer:

Magazines 4 & 5

Below are photographs of reinforced concrete broken roughly on the site of either of mags 4 and 5. This must be part of them as Dave remembers reinforced concrete being used to form the inside of magazines 1-3, presumably of the same design. A section of brick wall was also found near here in good condition, although seemingly isolated from any kind of greater structure. Still it was probably part of the entrance to magazine 4 or 5.

Magazines 6 & 7

These magazines are both further north-west along the bike track in the wood area west of the current sewage works. They remain only as earth mounds at first glance, although it could be likely that the magazines remain underneath and were simply covered over at one point, or demolished and churned. The photos below only feature mag 6, but 7 is a similar mound of smaller size further north along the bike track/footpath.

Many thanks to Dave Cowan for his help and for joining us, but also to Frank Gamble from http://www.BenfleetHistory.org.uk for aiding us on this quest and putting us in touch with Dave. See the coverage of this on there here, which has been lucky enough to be featured for the time being: http://www.benfleethistory.org.uk/page/uncovering_the_lost_explosives_magazines

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This post continues from Part 1.

From 1827 the tunnels had remained derelict although from graffiti carved into chalk walls, it is known that soldiers were based there guarding an ammunition store in the 1850’s and 60’s. This is because they were on high alert for invasion although this threat never came to anything. In the First World War, the same tunnels were also mainly used for ammunition storage and perhaps as emergency stationing for soldiers about to make their short trip across the channel to the trenches of Northern France and Belgium. The tunnels were under the control of the Royal Navy during the First World War.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey who died in 1945 from a plane crash. Photo from FanPop.com

Without much action for the next two decades, the tunnels were called back into action when the Second World War commenced. They were first converted into an air-raid shelter in 1939 although later became a secret military command centre and underground hospital. In May 1940 Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey directed the biggest operation ever seen at the site, from deep inside the White Cliffs, – Operation Dynamo, also known as the evacuation of Dunkirk.

The tunnels needed to be upgraded and transformed and this was a big mission itself. Over three miles of new and secret tunnels were dug out (by hand) to accommodate these changes. New levels of tunnels were commissioned from 1941 to provide separate, hidden and secure centres of operations for Army, Air Force and Navy. Many of the older tunnels were fired back into use by being lined with plywood or corrugated iron, of which much remains today. In addition space was needed for kitchens and mess rooms, maintenance and communications centres, barrack accommodation and a hospital for the wounded. The existing casemates were converted into offices, workshops, a telephone exchange, generator and planning rooms.

By the end of the war there were completed tunnels on three levels, one below the other.

A – Annex level, which from 1941 contained the hospital, dormitories, kitchens and mess rooms.

The planned B – Bastion level, behind Casemate level, was to be combined military headquarters and dormitories, but was never completed and never used.

C – Casemate level (the original 1797 tunnels and casemates planned by Twiss), held Admiralty Headquarters’ plotting, telecommunications and planning rooms, workshops and offices.

D – Dumpy level, the lowest level, built in 1942, was intended to be the main operations headquarters for the Army and Air Force.

Wartime life at Dover Castle

Photos Copyright English Heritage Photo Library

Post War

The DUMPY sign still at the Castle.

The Admiralty retained an interest in the tunnels until 1958 when they were handed over to the Home Office for a new defence function – a Regional Seat of Government to be used in the event of a nuclear war. The final phase of the working life of the tunnels came in the 1960s during the Cold War when tensions between East and West were at their height. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, with its serious threat of nuclear war, particularly concentrated the minds of politicians and military planners in Britain. The government response was to identify a number of sizeable and secure fall-out shelters from which some vestige of local organisation could be continued in the event of a nuclear attack by the USSR. Dumpy level of Dover’s still secret, underground tunnels was chosen as the Regional Seat of Government for South East England, known as R.S.G.12. This Government centre was to be controlled by a cabinet minister with a staff of service personnel and civilian administrators after a nuclear war.

The work of converting the tunnels started again although this time converting them into radiation proof T.V. and radio studios, living accommodation and operations centre. Doomsday rehearsals and civil defence training were carried out regularly in the modified tunnels throughout the 1960s although the tunnels became increasingly difficult to maintain (and keep secret) during the 1970s. It was also realised that the porous chalk would have offered barely any protection against contaminated rainwater percolating down from any nuclear winter at ground level. The tunnels were abandoned as a Regional Seat of Government but were kept secret until 1986 when they were passed into the hands of English Heritage for eventual opening to the public.

Present Day

Scent bottlesToday English Heritage take pride in creating a realistic experience for people to a glimpse into what it would have been like during the war. The tunnels are open to the public with tours available for free (entrance fee to the site applies). While some of the tunnels maintain the wartime look and feel, some are making the most of technology with projections and immersive sound effects. Bottles like these are used to create realistic smells of some unusual things such as the boiler room, beef and a general musty smell.

Walking past these bungalows you wouldn’t think anything of them – they’re just someone’s average home, but the buildings are far from average, they were actually built to withstand an atomic explosion.

Hiroshima-after-blast_1945

This photo, taken by the United States Air Force, shows how deadly an atomic bomb can be. This community, Hiroshima, was the victim of an atomic bomb on August 5th 1945.

Following the end of the Second World War, in 1946, plans were submitted to build atomic proof bungalows on Canvey Island.

A plan of the houses - find more at CanveyIsland.org

A plan of the houses – find more at CanveyIsland.org

What was planned?

The plans show that they were to be made of 9” brick or 9” Concrete Hollow Blocks and waterproof cement rendering with bitumen felt flat roofs. The houses were either to have a flat roof or a pitched one. The floor on the first floor states 5” ‘Hyrib’ or 9” Hollow Concrete Blocks.

The single bungalow to the west of Miramar Avenue was originally supposed to be a pair and further west, stretching to Maple Way, there were plans for three sets of four three-bedroomed terraced houses with a balcony over the doorway, built on similar lines to the bungalows.

The Atomic bungalows, at the junction of Long Road/Miramar Avenue were originally going to be the start of a large estate of houses and bungalows spreading all the way to Maple Way to the West and North for A. De Angelis Esq but, for an unknown reason, the estate never materialised.

Today

The bungalows that remain today would not be strong enough to cope with a modern day bomb (and most likely one from the 1940s either) although they are a fascinating historic relic. It is possible that they were merely built in a design similar to that of American ‘ranch’ style houses of the time, hence their association with being ‘atomic proof’. We will never know if they would’ve stood up to a 1940s Russian atom bomb or resulting radiation, but it is unlikely.

 

Situated above the White Cliffs of Dover, this iconic castle has guarded our shores from invasion for 20 centuries and is the largest castle in England. Dover Castle is owned by English Heritage and is a Scheduled Monument meaning that it’s “nationally important” and is protected from any unauthorised change. Known as the ‘Key to England’, we explored the dark, atmospheric Secret Wartime Tunnels that lie in the chalk below as well as the Keep Tower and medieval tunnels.

English Heritage Places

This graph from the English Heritage website shows how many historic sites they own – over 400 – ranging from prehistoric sites to palaces and statues.

Dover Castle is one of the UK’s most famous castle’s and is Grade 1 listed meaning that it is recognised as an internationally important structure. English Heritage has spent millions over the years doing up the site and creating a vibrant experience for tourists and visitors. An estimated 350,000 people visited the site in 2010 however over the winter months, the castle is only open at weekends. Dover Castle has been on our list of places to visit for a while and in December last year, we were fortunate enough to visit the site during the week, getting an exclusive guided tour with the BTP boys being the only visitors in the entire site!

Early History of the Site

Unusual earthworks suggest that the site might have been fortified in the Iron Age, or before the Romans invaded in 43AD however this is not certain although it is unlikely that these earthworks would have been used for a medieval castle. Iron Age evidence has been found at the site however it could be associated with the hillfort. The site still contains one of Dover’s two 80 foot high Roman lighthouses, with the other lighthouse at Western Heights, another place that we are keen to visit. After the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William the Conqueror and his forces marched to Westminster Abbey for his coronation, traveling via Dover. The English were fearful of his approach and has little confidence in defending the site and hence were preparing to surrender. The Normans set the castle on fire and William paid for the repairs as he had taken control of the site. The castle was first built entirely out of clay however this eventually collapsed (not surprisingly.)

Henry II

Under the reign of Henry II, the site really began to look like a firm fierce castle. An engineer was responsible for building a keep and this still exists today and remains as one of the last rectangular keeps ever built. It is furnished in an authentic manner – surprisingly the vivid almost childish colours used are believed to be accurate to the fashions of the time. Several other defences from the Middle Ages span the site, such as the Avranches crossbow tower we looked inside. (see above gallery) In 1216, a group of rebel barons invited Louis VIII of France to come and take the English crown. He had some success breaching the walls but was unable to take the castle. This act was known as the First Barons’ War. During the English Civil War it was held for the king but then taken by a Parliamentarian trick without a shot being fired (hence it avoided being ravaged and survived far better than most castles) in 1642.

Napoleonic

Massive rebuilding took place at the end of the 18th century during the Napoleonic Wars. The Commanding Engineer of the Southern District, William Twissas, had the task of improving the town’s defences and completed the remodelling of the outer defences of Dover Castle adding the huge Horseshoe, Hudson’s, East Arrow and East Demi-Bastions to provide extra gun positions on the eastern side, and constructing the Constable’s Bastion for additional protection on the west.

The protected passageway and caponier – a gun battery that extends the building, was led to via a system of tunnels and traps used for clever defence against attackers. For instance a hole in the wall projected light from the outside onto the floor inside to monitor enemy movement!

With Dover becoming a garrison town, there was a need for barracks and storerooms for the additional troops and their equipment. The effective solution to this was to create a complex of tunnels about 15 meters below the surface of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. This was put into effect and the first troops moved in, in 1803. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, more than 2,000 men were based in the tunnels and to date, they are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels were partly converted and used by the Coast Blockade Service to combat smuggling. This was a short-term endeavour though, and in 1827 the headquarters were moved closer to shore. The tunnels then remained abandoned for more than a century – imagine exploring these today!

This is just the start of exploring Dover Castle, there’s much more to come in the part two of this article where we explore the Secret Wartime Tunnels and the operations that were carried out there in the war. We will also feature a Beyond the Point documentary.

Coalhouse Point where the Thames suddenly narrows was home to several defences since 1402, and a D-shaped artillery battery fort stood here from 1539. The fort was replaced in 1799 with Coalhouse Fort which was rebuilt in 1847 and 1860. The large moat you can see to prevent invaders reaching the fort is a techonological remnant from Medieval defences around traditional castles – Coalhouse/East Tilbury Battery built down the road around 25 years later used a spiked metal fence instead in a ditch which is a step away from the use of moats. We visited the fort in January 2013 but did not get to look inside. The fort was designed to be used to create a ‘triangle of fire’ with Shornemead Fort and Cliffe Fort in Kent, of similar design, against a French attack which seemed more dangerous with their development of the ‘ironclad’ warship in 1859 which was much stronger against explosive and incediary rounds which would cause wooden ships to set alight.

In the park around the fort there was several defences built in the Second World War – from a spigot mortar mount that the Home Guard would’ve fired a mortar shell from, to an XDO Minefield Control Tower than would be used to watch over and detonate a minefield places out in the Thames incase of German craft trying to invade. Liam and I squeezed into this via one of the firing slits (loopholes) and struggled to get out again. I was boosted by Liam to get out with help of our guests, Sam and Jack, pulling from the other side, but there was now no-one to boost BTP Liam out! He had to stack up wooden pallets lying around in the tower under the loophole and still had to be pulled out so hard I thought I might be stretched in-half!

Just south of the fort lies a quick-fire battery built in the early 20th Century presumably standing ready for use through WW1, equipped with 12pdr guns. The guns would’ve been mounted on a metal rail to allow them to be turned and fired/loaded in quick succession hence its name; the rapid fire battery.

On the river Thames foreshore just south of the fort lies an early radar tower built in the Second World War. because radar was a very secret British technology initally the tower was named ‘water tower’ on maps to avoid attention. Through the Second World War the fort was fitted with a Degaussing Station to ensure friendly ships leaving Tilbury Docks were sufficiently proofed (‘degaussed’) from magnetic mines put out in the river to catch the enemy – the only other example of one of these dates from the Cold War on Canvey Island and is now an excellent military history museum.

The first defences in this area were built druing the late Middle-Ages in 1402 to defend the village from a French attack, consisting of towers and earthworks. A blockhouse and jetty once stood near the site of the radar tower. The blockhouse was built under Henry VIII in 1540 as part of the coastal defence scheme, and would’ve held 15 cannons. This was upgraded to house 27 guns 7 years later, with a range of 1-mile. More recently a jetty was built on this site in the Victorian Era to serve the fort as barges would bring in supplies and armaments and the sleepers from this railway link still stand.

Map of defences/military remains along the Thames from Kent County Council

Map of defences/military remains along the Thames from Kent County Council

To see what other remains we’ve covered in the local area, check out our Interactive Map where you explore the sites we’ve covered.

Purfleet Heritage & Military Centre is a museum set up inside Magasine No.5 from the Royal Magasine of Gunpowder. This MOD magazine (which means an explosives and ammunition  store) was contracted in 1759, consisting of five buildings, plus a proof house for testing the explosive. Four of the magasines, which would have held up to 10,400 barrels of gunpowder, were left in a derelict overgrown state until they were demolished when Thurrock Council bought the site off of the MOD. The magasines were part of a larger Ministry of Defence site covering what is now Rainham Marshes Reserve. See our visit here: http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/historic-locations/east-tilbury-and-west/rainham-marshes-firing-range-ww1/

We decided to take the train down one Monday to see the museum. The 300 year-old timbers that line the floor and rafters still remain, and were imported from America because they were the only timbers long enough to be carved into the required shape. The museum does a commendable job of retaining the original look and feel of the building, such as the original painted numbers on the timber, whilst accounting for the modern-day appeal of the exhibits. There is still a huge attic spanning the length of the building used for storage filled with tons of original sand to contain an accidental explosion.

Alan Gosling decided to save the building, and I was fortunate enough to speak to him on our visit. He explained how the museum has to work the displays around the preservation of  the listed building. It became a museum in 1992, housing an impressive collection of artifacts and displays relating to both the magazine itself and local history, as well as British military history from the 19th Century, such as the Zulu War, through to the two world wars and beyond. The scale of the interior is huge and it is entirely full with displays and artifacts; there is plenty to see! The welcoming atmosphere of the building was finished off with some appropriate wartime music and enthusiasts dressed in British infantry uniform from the Second World War who were stopping by.

Visit the centre’s website and check their opening times at http://www.purfleet-heritage.com/