Dover Castle – Part 2: Going deeper undergroud

Dover Castle – Part 2: Going deeper underground

In part one I explored the life of Dover Castle under siege in the Medieval period and how through the attacks made upon it the Castle was developed into a great fortress which would survive the ages. In part two I will be jumping forward to the late 1700s when the siege engines of medieval warfare had ceased to be of use. There were new technological threats to face and Dover would transform once again to defend its country and continue to be the Key to England.

In the late 1700 and early 1800s, Dover Castle was under threat of invasion from France. A man named William Twiss who was a British Royal Engineer was tasked with developing the Castle to withstand these new threats and be a base for the soldiers to go and fight across the Channel. Twiss would add anti-aircraft guns, observation posts, earthworks, outworks, battlements, and gun placements to Dover.

He had the task to home up to 1000 men in the Castle, no easy feat. His response to this was to dig tunnels in the cliffs. These tunnels would become the barracks and were some of the most extraordinary barracks ever built in Britain. Four tunnels or Subterraneous bombproofs as they were known would consist of two floors, the upper being made of timber. A year later in 1798 three additional tunnels were dug and made larger and were to house the officers. All the tunnels would be linked near the cliff edge by a communication tunnel, which would also link o the well and the latrine. Another entrance would be added at the rear of the tunnels just above the main gate.

Born around 1744 Twiss worked at the ordnance office at the Tower of London. He received his commission in the army in 1763 where he would work on the defences at Portsmouth Dockyard and some defensive positions in Canada. In the mid-1780s, he would work on several defences in England including a chain of Martello Towers along the Kent and Sussex coast. He died in 1827 and buried in the church of All Saints, Bingley.

Twiss’ tunnels were space-saving, imperious to any artillery bombardments and were located too high up to be impacted by any gunfire from enemy warships. The barracks could house from 8-30 men who would live, sleep and eat in these spaces with their comrades. The conditions were hardly the best for the soldiers, the tunnels were dimly lit with little warmth, there would be condensation dripping from the walls, and constant smells of the men and stale food. Evidence of the soldiers can still be seen today by graffiti engraved into some of the walls of the tunnels.

After the battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, activity at Dover would decrease. Some of the tunnels would be used to store gunpowder magazines. During the years, 1818 – 22 they would house soldiers who were involved in the blockade to defeat the smugglers of Kent. By the end of the 19th Century the tunnels were abandoned.

With war looming, Dover Castle would undergo defensive upgrades again in 1941 with an additional two levels being added to the tunnels, these would be for a secure base and an emergency dorm accommodation for the army. A few years before in 1939, the tunnels were already being equipped to be the hub of defence operations for the army along with the partition of some of the tunnels to create offices and meeting rooms. Lighting and ventilation were added to improve conditions along with improvements to radio communications

Dover and the Tunnels below would be the site of Operation Dynamo the organisation of the evacuation of Dunkirk (see blog post ….) Bertram Ramsey would be the man in charge, no easy feat. In a letter to his wife, he described life in the tunnels as being round the clockwork, organised chaos and night and day being the same.

Why the name? The name comes from a room in the tunnels, which once held a dynamo, which was a device, which produced electricity. On the first day, only 8,000 men were rescued but by the end, 338,226 soldiers had managed to get to safety. This successful Operation led to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and a united nation working together to defeat Hitler.

IN FOCUS – Bertram Ramsay: Ramsay was a British Admiral who at the time was known for his modern and determined views. At the time of the Second World War, he was in the process of being retired. However, with the outbreak of war, imminent Dover command was reactivated and Ramsey was given the post, which would lead to him being involved in some of the most significant events of the Second World War including Operation Dynamo.

A perfect choice for the operation he had an attention to detail and kept his cool in complex and constantly changing situations like the operation would be. He trusted those under his control, did not need to micro-manage, and allowed those close to the action to make decisions. He received the KCB for his work in the evacuation. After the operation, he remained at Dover for another two years. Returning in 1943 to help plan for the invasion of Europe and Operation Overlord.

‘had it not been for his organising genius … in his command… The evacuation might never have achieved its …

Ramsey died 2 January 1945 in an air crash. He is considered one of the most successful British military leaders of the entire war.

Operation Dynamo enabled 338,000 troops to be rescued from Dunkirk when it was only hoped, 45,000 men.

Dover was also designated to be a location to be defended to the last should the Germans had been successful in their invasion. It was provisioned as such and was believed to have been able to withstand a 6-week siege should it happen. The final stage was to blow it up to prevent it from falling into enemy hands and explosives were played at key points in the castle to be donated should the need arise.

In 1943, it was decided that a combined headquarters of the army, Navy and Air force, would be based at Dover. These were to built in the chalk cliffs and be 15m below the casemate level. Some 30,000 sq ft was required (and that does not include the passages). The tunnels were dug using mainly hand tools and completed by … active from 1943 and like the Napoleonic tunnels there were minimal comforts and basic facilities for those who lived and worked there. Long hours, damp working conditions, limited daylight, and constant noise from the forced ventilation made it no easy workplace but the spirit of those who kept the fight going was never demolished.

An underground medical station was added above the casemate levels, which consisted of an annexe grid system with a large communication tunnel and small tunnels coming off t right angles to be used as wards and operation theatres. The Dumpy level was the headquarters for the Castle, was 1.5 metres below the casemate level, and linked by two staircases. This was completed in May 1943.

After the end of the War in 1945, the Headquarters were closed. There would still be soldiers, the military based at the Castle, and the Hospital in the tunnel was continually used until the military left in 1958.

A final note of Dover Castles underground history came during the Cold War conflict in the 1960s. The government worried about a military strike began to loom for 12 seats of Government in the country. These seats would be secure and safe locations for the surviving government and emergency services personal to be based should a nuclear attack happen. The Tunnels at Dover were chosen to be one of these seats and work began in … Modernisation of the tunnels, especially on the Dumpy level were made. This included better equipment, new air filtration systems and securing the entrances and exits from radioactive contamination. A lift shaft and lift were also added. It was planned to house 300 government and military chiefs. Fortunately, it was not needed and the Home Office would leave Dover Castle n the 1980s where it was handed over to English heritage who were already managing other parts of the site above ground and continue to do so today.

Tours of the underground hospital and the Wartime tunnels are included in the admission price at the Castle and are necessary see. Both tours are guided and run at certain times throughout the day. Each includes both interactive storytelling and letting the tunnels and how they are set up speak for themselves.

Admission to the Castle starts from £20.90 per adult, free for English Heritage members. For more information head to their website


Brindle, S (2012) Dover Castle London: English Heritage

Coad, J (2011) Dover Castle: A Frontline Fortress and its Wartime Tunnels. London: English Heritage

Anon (nd) Operation Dynamo – things you need to know. Available from: [Accessed 9.02.2019]

Rickard, J (2008), Sir Bertram Home Ramsay (1883–1945), Available from [Accessed 10.02.19]

Anon (2016) William Twiss. Available from: [Accessed 10.2.19]

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