Rare view of Cliff Casemates Balcony, Dover Castle Secret Wartime Tunnels, Kent, UK

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John Latter on June 17, 2011

Casemates Balcony is situated high up on the White Cliffs of Dover at East Cliff, about 50 feet below the cliff-top at the southern limit to the grounds of Dover Castle (one of the town's English Heritage sites).

This rare, if not unique, view of the Casemates Balcony entrance to the Secret Wartime Tunnels (later designated a Regional Seat of Government in the event of nuclear war) was taken from the cliff-face itself on Sunday, 17th of April, 2011. Seagulls are included at no extra charge.

The zoomed-White Cliffs of Dover Castle from the Roman Empire to the Cold War photo shows the Casemates Balcony in relation to the Roman Pharos, Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro, Victorian Officers New Barracks (Officers Mess), and 20th Century Admiralty Lookout and Port War Signal Station.

The shot was taken 1500 yards away from the end of the Prince of Wales Pier and shows two doorway entrances into the secret tunnel complex, each topped by a double layer of white-framed windows (the uppermost being arched).

The Casemates Balcony, Entrance to the Secret Wartime Tunnels of Dover Castle photo was taken from the bottom of the cliffs (1) and only shows the windows above the doorways.

The windows above the two entrances can't be seen at all in the photo on this page, however, although their positions are indicated by scaffolding as English Heritage engage in some restoration/renovation work. The wide-angle camera setting gives the impression the steepness of the cliffs at this point is less than it really is.

Having said that, there is a small plateau immediately in front of where the photo was taken from which extends the width of the supporting brick archways beneath the balcony.

The horizontal concrete block left-of-centre at the bottom of the photo is the roof of an exit point from the DUMPY tunnel complex described below (its the end of tunnel 86, apparently).

There are a couple of other 'interesting features' on the plateau and just below on the cliff-face: check subsequent "Comments" for links to any photos that may be uploaded later.

Behind the railings on the left of the Casemates Balcony is where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Jan Smuts (alt. Field Marshal) (2) were photographed during the Second World War.

The tunnels behind the balcony are much older, of course:

Alterations to Dover Castle during the Napoleonic Era (3)

Massive rebuilding took place at the end of the eighteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars with France. Colonel William Twiss, the Commanding Engineer of the Southern District, as part of his brief to improve the town's defences, completed the remodelling of the outer defences of Dover Castle adding the huge Horseshoe Bastion, Hudson Bastion, East Arrow Bastion, and East Demi-Bastion to provide extra gun positions on the eastern side, and constructing the Constable's Bastion (Constable`s Barbican) for additional protection on the west.

Twiss further strengthened The Spur at the northern end of the castle, adding a redan, or raised gun platform. By taking the roof off the Keep (or "Great Tower") and replacing it with massive brick vaults he was able to mount heavy artillery on the top. Twiss also constructed Canon`s Gateway (alt. Canons Gateway) to link the defences of the castle with those of the town.

With Dover becoming a garrison town, there was a need for barracks and storerooms for the additional troops and their equipment. The solution adopted by Twiss and the Royal Engineers was to create a complex of barracks tunnels about 15 metres below the cliff top and the first troops were accommodated in 1803. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels housed more than 2,000 men and to date are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels were partly converted and used by the Coast Blockade Service (see Last Public Execution in Dover caption) to combat smuggling. This was a short term endeavour though and in 1826 the headquarters were moved closer to shore. The tunnels then remained abandoned for more than a century.

The Secret Wartime Tunnels (3)

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw the tunnels converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command centre and underground hospital. In May 1940, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey directed the Dunkirk evacuation of French and British soldiers, code-named Operation Dynamo, from his headquarters in the cliff tunnels.

A military telephone exchange was installed in 1941 and served the underground headquarters. The switchboards were constantly in use and had to have a new tunnel created alongside it to house the batteries and chargers necessary to keep them functioning. The navy used the exchange to enable direct communication with vessels, as well as using it to direct air-sea rescue craft to pick up pilots shot down in the Straits of Dover (English Channel).

Later the tunnels were to be used as a shelter for the Regional Seats of Government in the event of a nuclear attack. This plan was abandoned for various reasons, including the realisation that the chalk of the cliffs would not provide significant protection from radiation, and because of the inconvenient form of the tunnels and their generally poor condition.

Tunnel levels are denoted as A - Annexe, B - Bastion, C - Casemate, D - DUMPY and E - Esplanade. Annexe and Casemate levels are open to the public, Bastion is 'lost' but investigations continue to gain access, DUMPY - converted from Second World War use to serve as a Regional Seat of Government in event of an atomic war during the 1947 - 1991 Cold War - is closed, as is Esplanade (last used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War). DUMPY is an acronym for Deep Underground Military Position Yellow.

There are over three miles of these Tunnels going deep down into the chalky cliffs; some still undiscovered. There are tunnels that are far too dangerous to walk down.

A statue of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was erected in November 2000 outside (above) the tunnels in honour of his work on the Dunkirk evacuation and protecting Dover during the Second World War.

Dover Castle Cliff Tunnels (4)

Underground command and control centre developed during World War 2 from 18th century casemated barracks.

The pressing need for more barrack accommodation within Dover Castle in 1797 led to the expedient of excavating underground barracks within the cliff face. Four parallel tunnels or 'subterraneous bombproofs' (see Casemates) were dug in the cliff face a distance of 100ft. In 1798, another group of three longer tunnels for officers were dug further to the east. Between the two groups, a well and latrines were dug all linked by a communication tunnel. All the barrack room tunnels had fireplaces and ventilation shafts. Their use was limited to the period of exceptional demand for barrack accommodation created by the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1938, the old Napoleonic tunnels, conveniently sited under the Port War Signal Station, were seen as an ideal location for a bombproof headquarters for local military and naval commanders. Initially, it was intended to house the naval headquarters in the most easterly tunnels with the Fortress Commander, the coastal artillery (eg St Martin`s Battery) operations room and the anti-aircraft operations room in the adjacent tunnels. The remaining space was taken up for dormitories and storage. The easternmost casemate became the cabin for Rear Admiral Bertram Ramsey and was the operational hub for the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940. To the rear of this was the Wireless Office and communications centre, linked directly to the transmission mast of the Port War Signal Station.

What had started as a naval headquarters ultimately mushroomed into a Combined Headquarters in 1943. By early 1944, it was decided to extend the underground system. An upper level of tunnels laid out on a grid pattern was begun to the west of the Napoleonic 'Casemate' level. This was named 'Annexe' and its tunnels were initially used as a hospital but later, in part, became dormitories. At Casemate level additional tunnels adjacent to the eastern ones were used by the General Post Office (GPO) for batteries and charging equipment for the telephones and teleprinter links and a new tunnel was dug to give communication with the operations rooms.

Later in 1941 a huge new Combined Headquarters for all three services was constructed to the rear of Casemate level. Another linking tunnel, code-named Bastion Level, at the rear of Casemate level was begun but serious rock falls led to its abandonment. Instead, in 1942 it was decided to excavate a further grid of tunnels 50 ft (15.5m) below Casemate level. This was named Dumpy and was used for the Combined Headquarters in 1943 until the end of the war.

In 1958 the Admiralty abandoned its headquarters but, with the threat of nuclear war, the Home Office took over the tunnels and adapted them to form one of ten Regional Seats of Government in England. These RSGs were intended to provide relatively secure accommodation and were intended to function after a nuclear attack in order to maintain the basis for some form of government.

Much expenditure was directed at Dumpy level and there were at least three modifications. A lift was installed to link all three levels. Another tunnel complex was begun at road level but this was a simple cutting through the chalk and was abandoned. The old spiral staircase access to the Casemate level was capped at the top as a precaution against nuclear contamination. New communications equipment, air conditioning and generators were installed. Large stores of food, fuel and water were provided.

At Casemate level, Ramsey's old headquarters, the coastal artillery and anti-aircraft operations rooms and the old telephone exchange were abandoned and their contents removed. The western group of tunnels and those at Annexe level were converted into dormitories and mess rooms. Finally in 1984, the tunnels were decommissioned by the Home Office and virtually all their equipment removed.

Dover Castle is a Grade I Listed Building (5).

The following is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence (PSI licence number C2010002016):

Building Details:

Building Name: DOVER CASTLE

Parish: DOVER

District: DOVER

County: KENT

Postcode:

Details:

LBS Number: 177823

Grade: I

Date Listed: 07/03/1974

Date Delisted:

NGR: TR3249141696

Listing Text:

1050 DOVER CASTLE

TR 3241 1/47

TR 34 SW 7/47

I

2.

Norman keep C.1155 of rag-stone ashlar blooks picked out flints with Caen stone dressings. Around the keep are ranges of C18 (=18th Century) houses of 2 to 3 storeys ashlar with a flint galleting. Round headed windows. Surrounding these ranges are 2 concentric rings of walls and towers dating from Mediaeval times. Beneath the castle are a whole series of subterranean passages dating from the C13 and improved for defence during the Napoleonic period. Ancient Monument. (Abridged).

Listing NGR: TR3249141696

Source: English Heritage. Click to see all photos of Listed Buildings in the town of Dover, England.

(1) The photo was taken from the seafront promenade close to where Charles Lightoller lived in Dover when he was stationed here during the the First World War as a member of the Dover Patrol.

Charles Lightoller was second mate (second officer) on board the RMS Titanic, and the most senior officer to survive the 1912 iceberg disaster.

(2) Click to see a photo of Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Jan Smuts on the Casemates Balcony.

(3) Abridged extracts from Dover Castle.

(4) Extract from Dover Castle by Jonathan Coad (1995).

(5) Grade I: buildings "of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important".

Dover Castle appears in the video, "Dover in World War - 1942", a ten minute British Ministry of Information film, released by the US Office of War Information, and narrated by the American journalist, Edward R. Murrow.

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

John Latter on August 13, 2011
John Latter on March 7, 2013

Also see the HMS Robertson entry (3rd comment) at:

Rare view of Dover Grammar School for Boys from Dover Castle, United Kingdom

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on April 17, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/04/17 11:01:21
    • Exposure: 0.005s (1/200)
    • Focal Length: 20.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: -0.30 EV
    • No flash

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