The White Cliffs of Dover at war

Cliffs at South Foreland were the perfect place to construct gun batteries © John Guy

Cliffs at South Foreland were the perfect place to construct gun batteries

During the Second World War, the White Cliffs of Dover were Britain’s frontline from 1941 and large gun batteries were constructed along the coast.

On the cliffs close to South Foreland, important gun positions were built which would attack enemy forces across the Channel. Although quickly constructed and only fired sparingly, the guns were an important aspect of the defence of Britain.

Dover after Dunkirk
Winston Churchill visited Dover after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. He was enraged to see German shipping moving freely in the Channel. The building of long-range batteries was ordered to attack German shipping and fortifications on the French coast.

The Foreland Fortress
The three gun batteries of South Foreland, Wanstone and Fan Bay were quickly built. Once operational, the guns became know collectively as a Fortress, with headquarters near the edge of the lighthouse grounds.

Guns and the Geneva Convention
The Geneva Convention stopped lighthouses being used for military means. So the grounds of South Foreland became an island amidst the batteries. The light was turned off to prevent it aiding German shipping and the tower was camouflaged.

Even disguised, the lighthouse was damaged; shrapnel marks can be seen inside the lamp room.

A deadly deceit
The military purchased land east of St Margaret’s at Cliffe; existing houses were demolished and gun pits built in the old gardens bordered with hedges, ponds and fences. Camouflage netting hid the top of the artillery, magazines were disguised as grassy banks and soldiers sprayed creosote during building work to limit aerial visibility.

The radar revolution
At the outset of war, radar was top secret technology. South Foreland had a system allowing it to track shipping in the channel, enabling the guns to fire at night and in poor visibility. This did not endear soldiers to the locals, who thought soldiers were bored on foggy nights rather than actually targeting the enemy.

In 1942, the South Foreland's radar detected the German shipping in ‘The channel dash’. Twenty minutes after the first German vessel was detected, the battery fired, however, weather conditions and the speed of the three ships resulted in their escape.

End of an era
After the D-day landings, coastal batteries became redundant and after the war, most of them were removed. The batteries were successful as they stopped the enemy moving freely in the channel, in doing this they sank and seriously damaged 29 enemy vessels during the war.