Dover Castle cuts a striking and ominous figure, perched on the famous white cliffs. But there is more to this place than meets the eye. A little-known network of tunnels is now being presented to the public as it appeared in World War II, when it was the headquarters for one of the most renowned military operations of all time: Operation Dynamo.
Known more commonly as the evacuation of Dunkirk in May and June 1940, the event has captivated the imagination of generations, and many remember the ‘little ships’ that were mobilised in such a heroic effort. But now an exhibition, which has been two years in the making, aims to elevate the event above mythic status by inviting visitors into the fantastic labyrinth where the rescue operation was masterminded by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay.
Historically, Dover Castle has been the fortress overlooking the English port nearest to the mainland, which it has been guarding for nine centuries.
The tunnels were first dug into the chalk below the castle in 1797 by army engineer Lieutenant Colonel William Twiss, in answer to the need for more barrack in the area. At the time, England was at war with France and the area around Dover was full of troops anticipating a French invasion. Cutting the seven main tunnels – known as Cliff Casemates -, and the linking communication tunnels, took until 1810. Although the living quarters were not exactly comfortable, they were well-provided with ventilation shafts, a well, water tanks and service rooms, besides being safe from bombardment.
Between the end of the war with France and the beginning of the Second World War, the tunnels (despite being declared unfit for human occupation), were used intermittently as barracks for the headquarters of the Coast Blockade Service, who had the task of tackling smugglers. They were also used as a gunpowder store. It is likely that during World War I the tunnels were used as Barracks for the many thousands of troops who passed through Dover during the course of the war.
In 1941 a second layer of tunnels – the ‘Annexe Level’ – was created as a medical centre for wounded troops. Then in 1942-3, a third, deeper complex was excavated, with the intention that it would serve as the headquarters for the planned Allied re-invasion of Europe, Operation Overlord.
Although Portsmouth ended up becoming the headquarters for Overlord, the tunnels played a crucial role as headquarters for many other landmark events during the war. Deception operations coordinated from Dover Castle convinced the Germans that the D-Day landings would occur many miles away from the Normandy beaches, whilst a couple of years earlier Vice-Admiral Ramsay coordinated the Dunkirk rescue mission from his offices in the tunnels.
When Ramsay first arrived at the castle, he described the situation to his wife: “Here we are struggling with the difficult problem of trying to set up a naval base and at the same time trying to operate it as though it was already established. We have no stationary, books, typists or machines, no chairs and few tables, maddening communications.”
But against the odds, Ramsay performed a vital role in the survival of the Allies. His leadership and driving energy in the unique command centre was applauded at the time by contemporary press correspondent David Divine, who actually manned one of the hundred and eighty-eight small boats which went to the military’s aid. “It is given to few men to command a miracle,” he wrote. “It was so given to Bertram Home Ramsay, and the frail iron balcony that juts from the embrasure of the old casemate in the Dover cliff was the quarter deck from which he commanded one of the great campaigns in the sea story of Britain.”
The exhibition, “Operation Dynamo: Rescue from Dunkirk”, opened in June 2011. It combines original news reels and recordings, two years of painstaking research, testimonies from veterans of both the beaches and the tunnels, and state of the art special effects to deliver a vivid account of what Sir Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance”.
The main contractor carrying out the repair and refurbishment works was Kier South East, whilst Carden and Godfrey were the architects on this remarkable project. Kvorning Design and Kommunikations also provided services on the project.
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “Helping people to understand the history of this nation through our historic buildings lies at the heart of English Heritage. There is no better place in England to learn about the Dunkirk evacuation than Dover Castle. With “Operation Dynamo”, you’ll step into the tunnels and onto the beaches, boats and command centre during one of our darkest yet greatest hours.”