Lighthouse at War
During the Second World War, the White Cliffs of Dover were Britain’s frontline from 1941 when 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.
The early history of the lighthouse is a result of the deaths caused by the infamous Goodwin Sands, which, for centuries had caused terrible loss of life to mariners navigating the channel.
In 1832 both the upper and lower lighthouse at South Foreland were purchased by Trinity house and they began a programme of improvements to the lights, which give the buildings that we would recognise today.
The Knott family were lighthouse keepers at South Foreland for five generations and were probably the longest dynasty of keepers anywhere in the world. During their time here they would have seen many important changes to the lighthouse as electricity and wireless communication were introduced, changing their jobs forever.
South Foreland Lighthouse was fully automated in 1969 with both the keepers being transferred to other lighthouses. The National Trust took over the care of the lighthouse in 1989 and it opened to the public for the first time in 1990.
Michael Faraday was one of the most influential scientists in the world. In his role as scientific adviser to Trinity House, he would transform their lighthouses into the most technologically advanced in the world.
Guglielmo Marconi did some of the world's first radio experiments at South Foreland Lighthouse including the first ship to shore wireless transmission and the first international wireless transmission in 1899.
James Walker was an eminent Victorian engineer who worked on many civil engineering projects across Britain, he also designed both lighthouses at South Foreland and was chief engineer for Trinity House for 38 years.