Share This Article

THERE ARE NOT NOW, nor have there ever been, “bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover.” The British Isles lack bluebirds, a fact ignored by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, the Americans who composed Vera Lynn’s anthem.

So ornithology was not on my mind when friends offered me a stay of nearly a month in a century-old villa they had inherited four miles northeast of Dover and perched atop the heralded cliffs. What did pique my interest was my benefactors’ casual mention of a crater across the road from their home. Made by a German artillery round, the pit is 20 feet wide and 10 deep, and much grown over. After a few days around Dover, I saw how lucky that comfortable country house was: it could have shared the fate of the town, which endured not only wartime destruction but a postwar reconstruction that left its core charmlessly utilitarian.

Dover was where commanders planned Operation Dynamo, the evacuation in May and June 1940 of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk, 22 miles across the English Channel. Many rescue vessels, military and civilian, sailed from the harbor, returning to debouch exhausted passengers. A modest monument on the strand by the marina honors that heroism. After France fell, Dover and its environs bristled with guns trained on the beaches, the Channel, and France. German ordnance savaged the city, above which the Battle of Britain began and in whose vicinity Luftwaffe pilots made a point of trying to down barrage balloons nearly every day throughout the war.

This was not Dover’s first go as a strong point. An Iron Age fort overlooked the harbor before the Romans invaded in 43 AD. They left a crenellated lighthouse, later joined by a Saxon church. In 1066, after routing defenders from the heights,William the Conqueror garrisoned the area, and thereafter until 1958 British forces kept watch on the cliffs. In 1160 King Henry II began building Dover Castle, whose heyday came when rebel barons teamed with the French in 1216 to attack loyalists holding the fort. French sappers felled one tower, but King John’s men prevailed. In 1797, with Napoleon threatening invasion, British engineers honeycombed the chalk to garrison soldiers, who chiseled initials, hearts, and other graffiti still visible there.

Once Napoleon was banished, the tunnels lay quiet until 1939, when the Admiralty dug new passages 85 feet down for a secret headquarters. The reconstructed command center, which hatched Dynamo, is the focus of a tour that begins in a room stacked with facsimiles of 1939 newspapers. Speakers emit dire historic broadcasts culminating with King George VI starting his famous September 3, 1939, speech:“For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war….” Gracie Fields’s hit “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye”lilts until a cockney sergeant major barks:“Roight! Quieten down! Don’t stray from the path, and go where you’re told to.” A green light urges visitors on. “Get going!” the disembodied drill instructor yells.“Naaoooow!”

The tour winds through the Coast Artillery Operations Room, which coordinated 42 gun batteries and thousands of troops, and past the phone exchange and radio gear used in 1944 to fake troop movements, helping convince the Germans that the Allies would land at Pas-de-Calais, not Normandy.A separate tour traverses adjoining emergency hospital tunnels that have their own soundtrack: medicos chattering, bomb and ack-ack blasts, plane engines.

Above ground, at Dover Museum in the town center, I saw documentation of those days and far earlier times. Photos show caves that sheltered Britons during attacks. Gas masks and tubes of ointment recall fears of chemical weapons. Nearby is a nearly intact Bronze Age wooden boat found during an excavation in the city.

Downtown Dover, where pedestrians sometimes get the run of the streets, is nestled between the Channel, the castle, and the Western Heights—sprawling fortifications from the 18th and 19th centuries. Leading from the heights down 140 feet to street level is the Grand Shaft, a set of spiral staircases built in the early 1800s.

Dover’s business as a passenger port waned when the Channel Tunnel began shuttling trains between London and Paris, but ferries still carom from Dover’s West ern Docks to Calais and back, carrying drive- and walk-on traffic. One clear day, I hopped the ferry simply to enjoy a spot of escargot in Calais and see the cliffs going and coming.

About five miles west of Dover, in Capel-le-Ferne, I visited the National Memorial to the Few, which lists nearly 3,000 of the RAF pilots and crewmen who defended England from the onslaught that began in July 1940 above Kent and the nearby Channel.

At my home base, the artillery crater wasn’t the only souvenir. During the war, the military used the villa: above interior doors and cabinets, stencils reading STORES and PRIVATE persist beneath layers of paint. My hosts tell of a neighbor, now deceased, who waved each morning to the Messerschmitt pilot who flew over his garden en route to shoot at Dover’s barrage balloons.

These stories and the shell hole were a foretaste of my visit to St. Margaret’s at Cliffe, four miles northeast of Dover and the spot in England nearest to the French mainland. When Britain went to war, the authorities evacuated nearly every resident of this resort village for security.“We must insist upon maintaining superior artillery positions on the Dover promontory, no matter what form of attack they are exposed to,” Churchill said in August 1940. One large gun was nicknamed Winnie; another became Pooh.

On the road to St. Margaret’s, I spotted bits of embrasure, barracks tunnel, and other wartime infrastructure, incongruous in a locale where Noël Coward and Ian Fleming vacationed. A map at the village’s public parking lot shows military sites and the footpaths connecting them. Next door, at the church of St. Margaret of Antioch, whose well-preserved Norman façade is over 850 years old, I saw a 19th-century tomb surrounded by metal stubs indicating that another fence of good English iron had given nearly all for the cause.

The martial is never far away here, but Dover history has other elements. A five minute walk southwest from the villa brought me several times to South Foreland Lighthouse, where in 1858 Michael Faraday demonstrated an electrically powered beacon and in 1898 Guglielmo Marconi conducted wireless experiments. The same path leads four cliffside miles from St. Margaret’s to Dover through farmland pocked with shell craters, some sporting mature trees. On clear days I could see the “vasty fields of France,” as Shakespeare called them, and couldn’t help but conjure the boom of cannons, the roar of Merlin and Daimler-Benz engines, and the fury of aerial combat. Or was that the clatter of cavalry, the thud of catapults, and the scrape of blade on chain mail?


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.