The Wartime Tunnels of Fan Bay Deep Shelter Beneath the White Cliffs of Dover

Wartime Fan Bay Deep Shelter beneath the White Cliffs of Dover (All images by Disco-Dan; uncovering Kent’s Fan Bay Deep Shelter)

In 2012, after purchasing a stretch of southern England’s iconic White Cliffs of Dover, the National Trust found that it had become the unintentional custodian of a subterranean military defence network, abandoned and concealed years earlier. The tunnels of the forgotten Fan Bay Deep Shelter were remarkably well preserved. Over the next 18 months, more than 50 volunteers helped the Trust painstakingly excavate 100 tonnes of spoil by hand, revealing a series of historic tunnels that had been infilled in the 1970s.

Wartime Fan Bay Deep Shelter beneath the White Cliffs of Dover 2

The subterranean labyrinth known as Fan Bay Deep Shelter was constructed during the 1940s on the orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Buried 23 metres beneath the White Cliffs, the wartime tunnels formed part of Dover’s coastal offensive and defensive gun batteries, with the aim of preventing German shipping from moving unchallenged through the English Channel.

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In an article detailing 12 things you should know about Churchill’s Second World War tunnels under the White Cliffs of Dover, History Extra magazine writes that Fan Bay Deep Shelter could accommodate around 190 officers and men during counter bombardments, despite being carved out of the chalk cliffs in just 100 days between November 1940 and February 1941.

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The effort, which was undertaken by Royal Engineers from the 172nd Tunnelling Company, followed a memo sent by Churchill to his chiefs of staff stating that: “We must insist upon maintaining superior artillery positions on the Dover promontory, no matter what form of attack they are exposed to. We have to fight for command of the Straits by artillery, to destroy the enemy batteries, and fortify our own”.

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The shelter lay beneath the Fan Bay gun battery, part of Britain’s coastal defence network which, by virtue of its position overlooking Dover Strait, had become the country’s front line after the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk. Manned by the 203rd Coast Battery, Royal Artillery (later the 540th Coast Regiment), the shelter had three entrances and comprised sturdy iron girders and metal sheeting – borrowed from the mining industry – in its construction.

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Due to its strategic location less than 22 miles from northern France, the site had also been used during World War One with the installation of sound mirrors in the cliff edge. The National Trust began searching for the abandoned sound mirrors in May 2014, uncovering them four weeks later following the removal of 600 tonnes of spoil.

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Returning to World War Two, however, and History Extra reports that “the finished Fan Bay battery boasted some of the most cutting-edge technology and weaponry of the time.” The 3,500 square foot site featured three six-inch guns (with a range of 14 miles), radar, a plotting room, five bomb-proof accommodation chambers and medical facilities. Ventilation came in the form of galvanised ducting and a generator room supplied the necessary power. The latter was thought to have been demolished, but 2014 National Trust excavations revealed its continued existence.

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The largest shelter of its kind in the Dover area, Fan Bay Deep Shelter was decommissioned in the 1950s and left to the mercy of vandals. The site lay abandoned for some years before one of the tunnels partially collapsed following an arson attack. As a result, the abandoned military shelter was finally infilled with earth and debris during the 1970s.

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For years its remains lay entombed within Dover’s famous White Cliffs, a wartime relic lost to time. But when the National Trust accidentally stumbled across the remains of Fan Bay Deep Shelter during enabling works in 2012, what was revealed was one of the deepest surviving examples of its kind from the period.

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Perhaps the most poignant find of all was the remarkably well-preserved wartime graffiti that survived within the tunnels, including one timeless verse discovered near the toilet: “If you come into this hall use the paper not this wall. If no paper can be found then run your arse along the ground”.

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Other contemporaneous discoveries included a copy of naval adventure novel Shadow on the Quarter Deck, a Unity Pools football coupon from February 20, 1943, as well as an assortment of American 30 calibre rounds and British .303 cartridges.

Wartime Fan Bay Deep Shelter beneath the White Cliffs of Dover 13 (All images by Disco-Dan)

Thanks to the National Trust and its team of volunteers, Fan Bay Deep Shelter is now open to the public, and visitors can descend 125 steps to experience the remarkable slice of subterranean history in all its wartime glory.

Related: 10 Abandoned Gun Emplacements, Artillery Batteries & Flak Towers

 
 


 
 
 

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