During the Second World War, the White Cliffs of Dover became the focus for an unprecedented land-based artillery installation. After the war, some sites were demolished, others covered up, while many were left derelict for nature to reclaim. Our project aims to conserve Wanstone, the most important and well-preserved part of the site, and to create an experience that can be enjoyed by generations to come.
Defence, attack and disuse
Since before Roman times, the coast of southeast England has been the subject of many hostile invasion attempts. In the early days of the Second World War, with German forces just 20 miles away, the section of coast to the east of Dover now presented unique opportunities for the British. Previously used mainly for defence, land-based heavy artillery would be used for attacking shipping across the entire width of the Dover Strait and could duel with enemy positions in France. The gun batteries at Wanstone, on the White Cliffs of Dover held the largest, longest-range weapons ever installed on mainland Britain. These huge guns could fire a shell weighing 1980 lbs (900 kg) 26 miles (41 km) and saw much action during the War. They were installed along with an extensive network of anti-aircraft artillery, that protected a key air route for attacks on London, as well as the batteries themselves.
When peace returned, many of the guns fell silent. A few were initially kept for training duties but by the mid-1950s, those remaining had either been put into storage, or were cut up for scrap and the sites returned to agricultural use. Although the guns had been removed, much of the infrastructure remained. Some of the military roads were broken up to allow ploughing, but many of the massive, reinforced concrete and brick structures were too costly to demolish. These were buried where possible, or were left to ultimately be reclaimed by nature, often becoming vandalised in the process.
A hidden treasure awaits
In 2017, the private land upon which the Wanstone cross-channel guns, the D2 heavy anti-aircraft and the Fan Bay batteries were sited, was acquired by the National Trust. A series of surveys and exploratory excavations revealed 25 military structures, across an area of approximately 0.4 sq. miles, (1 sq. km), some in a remarkable state of preservation.
Since acquiring the site, we have cut back and removed damaging and invasive vegetation in a way that is sympathetic to the resident wildlife. We are committed to managing the countryside within the battery sites to improve the ultimate habitat and biodiversity.
A project to stabilise the visible structures and to rediscover those that had been buried was proposed. Despite delays due to Covid-19, in January 2022, the National Lottery Heritage Fund kindly awarded us a substantial grant and with donations and support from local business, the project became viable.
The project officially started on 1 July 2022 and will be delivered by existing and new volunteers who will be recruited locally.
Latest news – 18 July 2022
Our ‘big dig’ of the Wanstone no. 1 gun emplacement took place from 11-17 July 2022. With help from our partners, Rhino Plant who supported us with some very skillful excavator work; and Isle Heritage who guided us through the archaeology and carried out aerial and ground surveys, we uncovered the entire foundation for Wanstone no.1 gun. Known as Jane, after the wartime cartoon character, Just Jane, we knew that the gun itself had been cut up and sold for scrap in the late 1950s. From a previous exploratory dig, we knew that some of the foundations remained, but how much? Over the space of a few days, the grandeur of the massive concrete foundation was revealed.
Not only was the gun base (the holdfast) found almost completely intact, but the steel training rail that supported the rear of the gun was also found, along with an original ladder to the gun pit still fixed in place. Ducts that would have carried electric cables and pipes with compressed air and hydraulic oil to the gun were found and in the centre of the gun base, the site of the pivot point or pintle around which the gun would turn was clearly visible.
Despite careful sorting of the material that was removed, few artefacts from the service days of the gun remained. We found plenty of evidence of the demolition process, with many lengths of wire rope, flame cut rivets and nuts and much iron oxide slag from the barrel cutting process.
The background to our project
Wanstone Rediscovered is a project that concentrates on the area where many wartime structures remain substantially intact. Wanstone battery is a time capsule from the darkest days of the Second World War and it is a rare survivor from an eyesore clearance programme in the 1970s.
From neglect to a new future
Led by the National Trust and supported by a £199,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, local businesses, donors, and volunteer effort, the project aims to excavate and stabilise this important site. We'll achieve this whilst working with and upskilling volunteers from the local community. This is aimed to be mutually beneficial, both to the National Trust, and to candidates who need extra support and experience.
The three key aims of the project are:
Archaeological – excavation on three clusters of structures
Conservation – urgent work targeted on waterproofing and stabilisation
Participation – a community / volunteer led project offering training and experience
Visiting the site
The site is currently fenced off - please don't attempt to access the site yourself as there are deep excavations and surface obstructions, many left from the 1950s, which may cause injury. We will host a series of open days during the project where we will welcome you, share the history of the site and the progress we have made. Access for special interest groups can be arranged - please contact us well in advance using the 'Get in touch' details on the White Cliffs of Dover homepage.
Heritage Open Day - Wanstone behind the scenes. 15th September & 18th September, 10am to 3pm. Come and see how work is progressing on our two final open days for 2022. There is more information and directions here
This is an initial phase of a much larger scheme to bring the gun batteries back to life, not in a literal sense, but through the powerful histories these structures will reveal. Today we can only marvel at the speed and craftsmanship of those who did so much, in so little time, to defend our country. Uncovering and conserving these remains will help us to tell the story of a momentous time in the history of this corner of England. We hope that some permanent public access will eventually follow in the future, and in this way, the memories of those who served here can live on.
Our Project Partners
Can you help us?
All the work so far has only been possible due to the efforts of local volunteers. We are always looking for people to join our friendly team. Our plans are ambitious and will use many hours of volunteer time as well as a wide range of physical skills and knowledge. Could you give some of your knowledge, time and energy?