Kent and its neighbouring county, Sussex, make up the southeastern corner of Great Britain, the closest part of the mainland to France. Both counties were important embarkation points for Operation Overlord, meaning they played a crucial role in the Liberation of Europe.
Their proximity to continental Europe also meant that Kent and Sussex were bombed throughout the war – from sea, air and German batteries in France. Coastal towns in particular were under constant attack: Dover and Folkestone in Kent were so badly bombed that the stretch of coastline near them became known as “Hellfire Corner”.
A few kilometres down the coast from Folkestone is Romney Marsh, an area near the Kent-Sussex border bounded by the Royal Military Canal on one side and the sea on the other. The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway runs the length of the marsh’s coastline. The area has a long association with military defence and was a key point in Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain. Several surviving World War II pillboxes are visible along the canal, and four Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) – small temporary airstrips built to support D-Day – were sited in the area. Dungeness, the headland of Romney Marsh, was an assembly point for one of the Mulberry harbours built for the Normandy landings, and was also the point from where one of the PLUTO undersea pipelines started. A little further up the coast at Littlestone-on-Sea there’s an abandoned Phoenix caisson that’s visible at low tide.
As the closest point to mainland Europe, Dover and its famous white cliffs became a potent symbol of British resilience in World War II. Dover Castle sits high above the harbour, a major defence against invaders for centuries. During the war its array of tunnels had many uses: Casement Tunnel was Admiral Ramsay’s naval headquarters, from where he planned the evacuation from Dunkirk; Annex was a military hospital; and Dumpy was built in 1943 as a regional government centre in case of nuclear attack. Other tunnels were used as air-raid shelters. The castle was also one of the sites of the fictitious 1st US Army Group, created to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion would land at Pas-de-Calais. Even after D-Day, Hitler was convinced that the real invasion would be launched from Dover. As a result, the town became the target for some of the heaviest German shelling since the beginning of the war. Remains of Dover’s wartime defences can be seen along the cliffs between Dover and Folkestone.
Ramsgate was another vulnerable Kent town. Before the war started, its farsighted mayor nagged central government to allow him to build Deep Shelter Tunnels as protection against air raids. Four kilometres were eventually built (in addition to the existing railway tunnel). Many people evacuated the town when the heavy bombing started, the remainder sought refuge in the tunnels, which had entry points around the town. Entire families lived there almost permanently, and a whole underground community grew up with shops, street signs, a hospital and even a concert hall. Some of these tunnels can now be visited.
The brainchild of two racing-car enthusiasts, this miniature railway (one-third normal size) has been running along the coast between Hythe and Dungeness since 1928. In World War II the line was requisitioned by the War Office and used to transport material for the building of PLUTO, the undersea oil pipeline. Twenty-one kilometres long, the railway has five other stations between Hythe and Dungeness (some of which are request stops) where other wartime sites can be visited.
A bleak, windswept expanse of shingle right at the tip of Romney Marsh, Dungeness was one of two sites chosen from where oil pipes were laid under the English Channel to France. PLUTO was a complex engineering project conducted in total secrecy shortly after Operation Overlord was launched. Pluto Cottage, a pumping house built to resemble a small house, still exists at Dungeness and five more disguised installations can be seen at Greatstone-on-Sea, six kilometres up the coast. Fifteen kilometres inland from Dungeness at Brenzett is a small museum, the Romney Marsh Wartime Collection, which details the area’s wartime connections.
Top image: Dover Castle © Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock