The Kent underground tunnels hidden beneath our feet and their fascinating stories – 5

Part Five

Fan Bay tunnels

Deep within a fortress nestled within the White Cliffs of Dover, 189 soldiers of varying ranks prepared to defend Kent and the South East from Nazi attack.

They were stationed in Fan Bay Deep Shelter, a 3,500 square foot complex of bomb-proof tunnels. The labyrinthine network was carved from thick chalk and existed 23 metres underground with three entrances.

It was built in 1940 on orders by Winston Churchill but lay forgotten and completely untouched after the war until its rediscovery and reopening to the public by the National Trust in 2015.

When Churchill visited Dover in 1940 he was furious to discover German ships moving freely in the Channel. This anger was the catalyst for a memo sent to the then joint chief of staff, which read: “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”.

And thus Fan Bay Deep Shelter was conceived. The tunnels were carved out of the chalk cliffs in just 100 days by Royal Engineers from the 172nd Tunnelling Company.

Construction of Fan Bay began on November 20, 1940, and the site became fully operational on February 28, 1941. Engineers dug five large bomb-proof chambers from the chalk, one of which was used as a hospital.

The completed battery boasted some incredibly modern technology and weaponry: the shelter housed three six-inch guns, each with a range of 14 miles – one precisely located to give protection to the entrance to Dover harbour – and radar.

The military gave up the position in the mid-1950s and the tunnels were filled in during the 1970s. The biggest tunnel in the complex, which is more than 100 feet long, had partially collapsed after vandals had set fire to its wooden supports.

After more than forty years, the tunnels were accidentally discovered by potholers exploring underneath land which was bought by the National Trust in 2012.

A team of volunteers, archaeologists, mine consultants, engineers and a geologist then spent two years excavating and preparing them for the public.

Upon its 2015 reopening, Jon Barker, project manager at the shelter, said: “This re-discovered piece of the country’s Second World War heritage is a truly remarkable find.

“There has been no public access to the tunnels for over 40 years and so they remain much as they were when they were abandoned.

“We’ve carried out extensive conservation work to preserve both the natural decay and authentic atmosphere of the space.”