White Cliffs of Dover reveal their wartime secrets

10th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

The wartime tunnels carved through the White Cliffs of Dover, Britain's front line of defence, are ringing once again with the sound of German bombardment.

Reopened to the public in 2011, radio chatter echoes round the chalk walls and the damp air lingers in the corridors as if it was 1940.

"With the sound and the smell, all these sirens, you do get the feeling of how it was like in those days," says 92-year-old Richard Sheen, who worked in the subterranean warren during World War II.

Dover, on the southeast coast of England, is the closest port to continental Europe and its giant white cliffs, visible from France, have been a bastion throughout the centuries.

The tunnels were first excavated more than 200 years ago and were brought back into service in World War II, housing the command centre that controlled naval operations in the English Channel and planned the Dunkirk evacuation.

Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, some 338,000 British and French troops were rescued from Dunkirk in northeastern France, 75 kilometres across the English Channel from Dover.

A hastily-arranged flotilla of around 700 boats, including fishing vessels, pleasure crafts, paddle steamers and lifeboats, rescued Allied troops cut off by the invading German army.

More than 70 years later, the tunnels, around a kilometre long, once again house command bunkers, a radio room that transmitted false information to the Nazis, and the gun operation room where Sheen followed the trajectory of enemy aircraft.

The World War II tunnels, open to the public from Friday, plunge visitors back into the frenetic activity of the time, with black, moving shadows of workers projected onto the white walls.

"One of the great fears in the outbreak of the Second World War was the growing power of aircraft and aerial bombardments," said Paul Pattison, the senior properties historian with the English Heritage national conservation body.

"Being 26 metres underground was a good choice of place to have your most important command functions. The tunnels get used by both the navy and the army for their important headquarters."

During Dunkirk -- code name Operation Dynamo -- Sheen said his job was to protect the returning ships by identifying their location on radar and passing this onto the gunsights.

However, Britain soon found it did not have enough shallow-water ships small enough to ferry fleeing soldiers between the Dunkirk beaches and the bigger transport boats.

A call went out and the "little ships of Dunkirk" flotilla was hastily assembled.

Softly spoken and his eyes sparkling, Sheen, who proudly wears five medals on his blazer, recalled the moment.

"I could hear the noise in the harbour and looking at the whole harbour literally full of small ships, elderly men, boys, prepared to risk their lives. That's something that sticks to my mind. It was epic," he said.

When the troops returned to British shores, Sheen helped get them quickly onto the trains.

"It was a very sorry sight to see a elite army coming back defeated," he said. And then prime minister Winston Churchill "was telling us 'we shall not surrender'. He cheered the country up."

In restoring the White Cliffs tunnels, first built during the Napoleonic Wars to provide a barracks for Dover Castle, English Heritage hopes to convey their part in the historic evacuation.

Although the Battle of Dunkirk was a military defeat, the event is a key moment in Britain's history and the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" is still used to sum up defiant courage and solidarity in the face of adversity.

"The only other place where you can really hear about the operation is in Dunkirk," said Pattison.

"We wanted to reunite this place with the actual operation, so linking Dunkirk back to Dover."

The next project could be to open up another layer of tunnels carved into the cliffs some 50 metres beneath the castle.

The bunkers were constructed for use as a regional command centre in case of a nuclear attack. However, much of the material relating to the tunnels remains classified.

© 2011 AFP

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