Posts Tagged ‘Other Coastal Defences’

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.

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.

 – Sewage Works Remains
– Second World War Pillbox

Two Tree Island was reclaimed from the Thames in the late 1700’s and was used as farmland until 1910 when a sewage works was constructed on part of the site. These sewage works were used for the majority of the 20th century. During the North Sea Floods of 1953 two of the sewage workers had to be rescued by boat from a shed roof on the Island. From 1936 the entire island was used as a landfill site and continued until 1974, when only a smaller section was used for landfill. It is believed the sewage works stood there roughly up until this time. Soon after it was capped and re-seeded with grass. Like Canvey Heights, once also a tip, and Canvey Wick, once an oil-refinery, it is land which saw former use by man which often becomes the most appealing to wildlife.

Little is known about the sewage works and its structure on the island, so please contact us or comment below if you have any useful information or even photographs.

 Geograph contains several photographs of the Island in 1987 when it first became a nature-reserve

For a long time, the site was known as Leigh Marsh, although more recently, the site has been known as Two Tree Island as it was less-commonly known historically. Today the site is a nature haven and country park. At the peak of the Second World War, a pillbox was constructed on the eastern edge of the island, looking out across the Thames. This survived the war and is still there today for fellow explorers to visit, although over the years it’s become a victim to severe weathering. Since our first visit in 2011 its roof has nearly entirely caved in.

The Rainham/Purfleet area has been in use by man since the days of the so –called ‘Cavemen’. You can see some of the petrified tree trunks still remaining today from a 6,000 year-old Neolithic forest, opposite the very northern end of Wennington Marsh, in the Thames foreshore. However, much of Rainham came to use in the last few centuries by the Ministry of Defence on Aveley Marsh; this is what we investigated with guests Luke Baker and Michael Clark, paying a visit to the now RSPB-owned nature reserve.

The article following has been designed in manner which both documents our visit, informs readers on the location, and offers advice enabling you to make a visit yourself as part of our ‘iBTP’ scheme. If you do wish to visit, follow the numbers on the satellite map below which correspond to the places mentioned in the following article. We recommend you download and print our ‘printer-friendly’ trail-guide version of the article found below the map. Please note trail shown on map is not to be followed religiously. May contain errors or be subject to change over time. Please note the historic structures shown in the article are not accessible and are on potentially dangerous land. However, they can be clearly viewed at leisure from the footpaths.

Purfleet Train Station (not to be confused with Rainham Station further down the river) is part of the C2C train line. It will take you towards London or Southend-on-Sea. Trains only run roughly once an hour so make sure you plan a train. Alternatively you can drive and park in the Rainham Nature Reserve car-park next to the visitor’s centre. The reserve has been designed with nature in mind, although with respect to the sites heritage, so the marshes are well worth a visit if bird-watching or any other kind of wildlife enthusiasm is of interest to you.

ibtpRainhamMap

Download Printer-Friendly Trail Guide Here

  1. Purfleet Heritage & Military Centre is a museum set up inside 1759 Magasine No.5 from the Royal Magasine of Gunpowder Check opening times here: http://www.purfleet-heritage.com/pages/contact.html We took some video footage and photographs during our visit, and were fortunate enough to speak to founder Alan Gosling. We will release a short video and more in-depth article on the building in the near future which will be linked here.
  2. Rainham Marshes Visitors Centre was built around 2006 after the MOD land was bought and cleared by the RSPB in 2000. It has a café and toilet facilities, and houses views of the marshes as well as its own impressive architecture. We visited and the food/facilities were respectable and ideally located.
  3. The Anti-Submarine Blockhouse can be found at the end of one of the longest sections of the walk (around 10 minutes) which takes you to the western side of the central reserve. However, you can appreciate views of the Thames from here, also ideal for bird watching. This is a pillbox-type outpost made of brick and concrete, although much larger than conventional pillboxes, and is the first sign of the areas use during the First World War. It is said that in March 1916, decoy beacons were lit on Wennington Marsh, and the structure shot down a German zeppelin via the machine gun that would’ve been mounted on its roof. It remains in fair condition, but is water-logged and inaccessible.
  4. The Firing Ranges span across the green line marked on the map, and divide the two marshes. The war department created this rifle range in 1906, and the structures you see today were built in 1915. The firing range sheds (‘mantlets’) remain, which were where the target-mechanism operators would stand, as does one of the three ‘butts’ (the area in which the targets are set up).  The target area (butt/backwall), made up of a brick ‘Aztec-looking’ plinth with wooden numbers on, is visible from path. Its size means it can be seen across most of the reserve. It is on private land and inaccessible to the public. The surface of the remaining butt is littered with quite sizable bullet-holes in the brickwork, probably inflicted by the standard issue service rifle of the time – the Lee-Enfield and its .303 calibre bullets. The firing sheds (mantlets) were on private land and are inaccessible. They were made of metal and still held original wooden seats and other decor, as well as a corrugated iron shed. The mantlet roof was covered with earth from the bank to protect the target-mechanism operators from fire coming at the back-wall overhead. They span the entire western side of the central reserve in two sections. The green line on our map above marks their location. They were highly impressive.

  5. The Cordite Store was a large magazine building that once stood on the square area extant today. You can see the blast mound around the outside of this which would’ve contained an accidental explosion. We can imagine this must have been an immense building when it stood, more like some form of hangar or hall than a store-room.
  6. Only one of the eight Anti-Aircraft Ammunition Magasines remains today; ruined and overgrown just north of the visitors centre. The rest were demolished shortly after the RSPB gained the land in 2000. It lies off of the main footpath and is not accessible to the public. It was surprisingly large and had a small walkway between the blastwall and the exterior of the main structure. Window-frames inside were still present although no other features survived. You can see all eight magasines in the 1940 image at the bottom of the post.
The marsh in 1940

The marsh in 1940

That concludes the trail. If you decided to follow it you can now return to the Visitors Centre or go straight back to the C2C train station. Beyond the Point certainly enjoyed our visit and found it highly fascinating. First-time heritage-explorer Michael Clark said the trip was “thrilling; history meets adventure, and it really captivated me”, in the same way that BTP Joe and Liam were by their numerous adventures into remaining glimpses of the past.

The two BTP boys, and occasional accomplice Jack Swestun, set off at McDonalds in Southend Airport, to investigate pillboxes once defending Rochford airfield, established in August 1914. Although it became an airport in 1935, it wasn’t designated for civilian use until late 1946, after the war. Using sources such as the Defence of Britain Project, coupled with Google Earth, we were able to mark out the locations of 8 pillboxes on a map we printed out of the area.

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The first pillbox we saw was bare concrete and of Type 24 design (guide to pillbox variants here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_hardened_field_defences_of_World_War_II#Type_24). It was hidden behind the McDonalds car park, facing out onto Rochford Road. It was accessible but featured a fair degree of graffiti inside.

After this we crossed the railway line via the bridge that the road continued onto. There was some old signage to be seen. We passed the current airfield control tower, the Avro Vulcan bomber (an impressive model of plane used by the RAF from 1956 up to 1984) that the airport holds there, and another Type 24 pillbox similar to the one we saw first.

Still heading along the Rochford Road-side, we made an impressive discovery. Jack spotted what appeared to be an Anderson shelter from the Second World War. it looked old enough, and has been confirmed to likely have been one, although possibly lifted (originally sunk into the ground for extra strength against bombing). It appeared to have been used as a general shed, as various tools and a couple of chairs were hidden in it, although even these appeared to be rather old. Being in such a hard to reach, overgrown location, it is probable it had been left to ruin.

 

After a few directions from the locals, and a walk through a public park, we ended up at another type of pillbox – this time, of ‘Cantilever’ design, which we would see two more of later on. Cantilever pillboxes were designed and built by F C Construction for airfield defence, and ’53 examples are still extant’. The roof was disconnected from the sides of the pillbox, supported only by a large central pillar, meaning a 360 degree firing slit was possible. They featured a rail around the sides of the slit for the mounting of weapons. The slit was only slightly higher than ground level, as the main pillbox body was sunken, enabling what appeared to be an effective defense. This one was against the railway fence, although a way from the actual track. Its door and firing slit was bricked up.

 

We next passed a hut which looked as if it was likely to have been from the days of the Rochford airfield, underground some kind of conversion or restoration work which seemed to be fairly vacant. The three of us then joined up with Rochford Hundred Golf Course, finding a pillbox on the outskirts with a fresh puddle inside. We looked out at the golfers, all over 50, wondering which bad-boy could’ve been responsible. It was rendered in brick from the casting process, although much of this had crumbled away to reveal the concrete underneath.

Next we passed a few derelict planes within the airport site, and a small stream. This lead us out onto a field where we would see the last four pillboxes together. One of the bunkers was infact a possible ammo store (‘magazine’) and not used for firing upon enemies. It was basically a covered brick pit sunken far into the ground, with steps going down into it. Although beyond the airport fence, these fields would originally have been part of the site of the airfield. Finally, we checked out two more cantilever pillboxes in that field, along with another Type 24. One of the cantilevers had an aircraft tyre in, which looked rather old too!

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