Second World War tunnels built on the orders of Winston Churchill underneath the White Cliffs of Dover, have opened to visitors for the first time following a two-year conservation project involving over 50 volunteers.
Fan Bay Deep Shelter was built in the 1940s as part of Dover’s offensive and defensive gun batteries, which were designed to prevent German ships moving freely in the English Channel. The shelter was personally inspected by Winston Churchill in June 1941.
Carved out of the chalk cliffs, the shelter accommodated four officers and up to 185 men of other ranks during bombardments in five bomb-proof chambers and also had a hospital and secure store. It was decommissioned in the 1950s and filled in two decades later.
Reopening the abandoned tunnels
support for our Neptune Coastline Campaign. After their discovery the following year, a team of over 50 volunteers, two archaeologists, two mine consultants, two engineers and a geologist excavated and prepared the tunnels for opening to visitors.
Over a hundred tonnes of soil and rubble were removed by hand from inside the tunnels to make them accessible once again and the original entrance has been restored. Specialist guides can now lead torch-lit hard hat tours deep into the heart of the White Cliffs to reveal the story of the tunnels.
Entering a time capsule
Visitors will descend 23 metres below ground down the original 125 steps to reach the labyrinth of tunnels, once manned by troops from the Royal Artillery. The shelter was originally dug by tunnelling units from the Royal Engineers.
Wartime graffiti discovered in the tunnels including names of military personnel, and ditties and drawings carved into the chalk, serve as poignant reminders of the shelter’s history on the tours. Other personal mementoes on show include wire twisted into homemade hooks by soldiers, a needle and thread tucked into the tunnel wall, and ammunition.
Experiencing a piece of history
‘I hope visitors will surface having experienced something truly unique,’ said White Cliffs volunteer Gordon Wise. ‘It’s been thrilling to have been involved. Seeing the tunnels in their raw state when they were first discovered, handling artefacts and giving tours is like standing in the footsteps of history.’
‘This re-discovered piece of Second World War heritage is a truly remarkable find,’ added Jon Barker, visitor experience manager at the White Cliffs. ‘With no public access for over 40 years, the tunnels remain much as they were when they were abandoned. We’ve preserved both the natural decay and authentic atmosphere of the space.’
Visitors will also be able to see another military legacy at the site – two First World War sound mirrors. One of the first early warning devices invented in the UK, sound mirrors gave advanced notice of approaching enemy aircraft but had become obsolete by the invention of radar technology in 1935.
Support for the conservation project
The work to excavate the tunnels has been part funded by a Landscape Heritage Grant through the Up on the Downs Landscape Partnership Scheme, a Heritage Lottery Fund project. It has also been supported by donations from Subterranea Britannica, an archaeological society which studies underground sites.