By May 1940, it was obvious that the German army was much stronger than those of Britain and France. After steamrolling through the Netherlands and Belgium, German armed forces broke through Allied defences in the Ardennes and executed one of their most cunning plans: to surround certain Allied troops and back them into a corner. Trapped on the coast of Dunkirk and separated from the remainder of the French Army, British and French forces bravely fought on, but it soon became clear that they were caught in a hangman's noose, waiting for it to tighten. What could be done?
For some strange reason, one of those great mysteries that shall forever plague historians, German troops were given a 'halt order', which provided the Allies with time to build some defences and co-ordinate their evacuation plan. From deep within the tunnels under Dover Castle a great plan was hatched: the troops would be evacuated from under German noses.
For nine days men waited on the beaches of Dunkirk, mercilessly bombed by the Luftwaffe while British naval ships tried to rescue them, made especially difficult after the jetty was bombed. Eventually, local boaties from around the South coast of England were called upon to assist the Royal Navy with the evacuation, helping to ferry soldiers through shallow waters to the waiting destroyers. The Royal Air Force also stepped in to help, and made a most valiant effort to protect the departing troops from Luftwaffe fire.
From May 27 to June 4, Operation Dynamo saw the evacuation of 338,000 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, bringing them back to ports across the south-east of England, marking one of the most victorious defeats in history. Figures differ, but probably around 40,000 French troops were left behind to be captured or killed by German troops, while up to 68,000 Britons were killed, missing, or captured. One can only imagine how many troops never made it off the beach.
When the public were eventually told of the retreat and evacuation, there was an outpouring of joy at the "victory" of their men, at the success of the operation. On June 4th, Mr Churchill spoke about the evacuation, saying "A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. ... wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance..."
(Quote is from the website of The Churchill Society, http://www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/Dunkirk.html, accessed Nov. 20)
And so, it was with this great story ringing in my head that I convinced Adam to head to Dover. As we stood on the White Cliffs, looking across to France, I could see - in my mind's eye - the troops on the beach, weary, hungry, angry, and could feel how close to home it was for the boaties sailing over to rescue them. Those living in Dover at the time must have been able to see the orange glow of firepower and I wonder if the sound of war was loud enough to touch their ears.
Later that evening, as I read through a brochure on Dover Castle, trying to decide if I was too stingy to (get Adam to) cough up the $64 for a visit, my eye was caught by a heading "SECRET WARTIME TUNNELS". For no extra cost, one could have a tour of the tunnels below the Castle, whence the evacuation of Dunkirk was coordinated. (?!) My heart leapt and the breath caught in my throat. Secret Tunnels?! War!? Evacuation from Dunkirk!?! No extra charge??!!??!!
At 2pm the next day we entered the Secret Wartime Tunnels. Yes, just like that. Just walked on through the front door. As we went on our tour, one thing struck me as amusing - that we all, tourists, wandered around together: English by French by Germans. And I could only picture the disbelief on the faces of those historic figures who coordinated Operation Dynamo from their secret hideaway, at the idea that holidaying Germans might look around their inner lair on a Saturday afternoon trip. It seems strange to me, a child of peace, to think back 60 years and picture those we now see as true friends as real enemies.
I also had to admit that it seemed a little irreverant that the Secret Wartime Tunnels were just open to the public for their perusal. These are Secret Wartime Tunnels, people! They didn't really seem as special as they might have if it were all hush-hush secret squirrel, and I suspect the fact that they are publicised as Secret Wartime Tunnels! might have something to do with that. (You know, if they really were secret then would one go around labelling them as Secret?)
Although, Dave Hulse, when we were walking around on the hillside above the Secret Wartime Tunnels I did spy these, from behind a safe-looking tree:
and I wondered if The Man was keeping tabs on those who came to view The Tunnels...
The original layer of tunnels was built during the Napoleonic Wars as extra barracks for troops, housing up to 2,000 men. During the Second World War, an extra two layers of tunnels (or possibly more) were added and the area became a military command centre and underground hospital. A telephone exchange was built in the tunnels in 1941 and this required large numbers of batteries and chargers to keep the exchange going. Personnel lived and worked in the tunnels during the war, and would sometimes wait days to see daylight, depending on the risk aboveground. During 1940, the tunnels proved their importance as a strategic military post, with Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey conceiving and executing Operation Dynamo from within.
During the cold war, some parts of the tunnels were prepared as a potential seat of government in case of nuclear attack. In total, there are over three miles of tunnels winding deep within the Dover Cliffs. Today the public is allowed into level DUMPY, where Dynamo was conceived, while other levels are off-limits, in some cases because they are dangerous. Urban legend claims that there are two other levels of tunnels, one of which has been 'lost' and is the subject of ongoing investigations to rediscover its entrance... Exciting stuff!
With this exciting knowledge in our heads, we took off on our tour. Unfortunately we were too late to view the underground hospital, but we did get to see the exhibits in the Tunnels and take a guided tour. The tour was quite good, treating us as if we were young recruits in 1940, receiving briefings and hearing broadcasts about the war as it unfolded. After this, we were allowed to poke around a few rooms in the tunnels that were used as communications centres and the like. Unfortunately, the public is not allowed to photograph the tunnels, so I shall leave you with a few pictures shamelessly plagiarised from the internet. (Apologies for my poor academic performance in this regard)
Entrance to the Secret Wartime Tunnels
Above and below: communications hubs
Churchill strategy-making from deep within the bowels of the Dover hillside
We can now say that we have walked where Winston Churchill has tread. What an afternoon! (And I shall leave the morning's explorations of Dover Castle for another post).