Dover Castle’s Second World War tunnels

Dover’s chalky terrain has not only given the town it’s unmistakeable landscape, but has also added extra layers of historical depth to its most famous monument. A visit to Dover Castle is certainly a full day out as it is the largest castle in England, its history spans over 1,000 years and unlike many other English castles it has been used for active defence purposes right into the 20th century.

While the medieval castle dominates the landscape and has its own fascinating history, one of the most interesting elements of the area is the network of tunnels dug into the chalk. People have been tunnelling into the hill from the earliest days of fortification. You can visit the defensive medieval tunnels underneath the north entrance to the castle which are not very deep, but contain features such as remotely controlled doors.

On the south side of the hill, there is a much deeper and more complex network of tunnels which were first opened up in the late eighteenth century to serve as barracks for soldiers. These were created due to the fear of a French invasion during the Napoleonic wars. The conditions for the soldiers were very poor. Vents were built into the tunnels to allow air to circulate, but these also allowed water to enter which ran through the entire network.

The tunnels continued to be used to store ammunition following the defeat of Napoleon and during the First World War. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the tunnels were transformed and expanded to provide secure centres of operations for Army, Air Force and Navy. The tunnels became a functioning operational base with mess rooms, kitchens, communications rooms, barracks and a hospital for wounded soldiers.

Wall defences, Dover Castle
Wall defences, Dover Castle

There are two tours you can do when you visit the castle: the Underground Hospital and Operation Dynamo. Unfortunately photography is not permitted which explains the lack of relevant images in this post! The hospital tour is a shorter tour through the hospital rooms, which have been reconstructed using photographs as they would have looked in the early 1940s. With a soundtrack and English Heritage guide, the tour takes you through the journey of a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital and you make your way through the wards and into surgery.

Operation Dynamo – Rescue from Dunkirk is a longer tour through the operational HQ of the Admiralty, however it has a much broader scope, using audio-visual displays to take you through the run up to war, the early stages of the war and the evacuation of Dunkirk. The Dunkirk section is particularly good as you move through a long room with a large video projection on one wall showing how the evacuation unfolded. The next sections of the tour are self-guided as you move through rooms with reconstructions of communications and planning equipment.

English Heritage have done a pretty good job of bringing the Second World War history of the tunnels to life in quite a lot of detail while still making clear their earlier history, for example by pointing out examples of eighteenth century graffiti. I’d say both tours are a must-see for any visit to Dover.

View from Dover Castle
View from Dover Castle

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