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Rediscovered: Ramsgate - Britian's Secret Underground City


Mother Lode Found
Sr Site Supporter
Mother Lode
Mar 31, 2010
[h=1]The secret city hidden under... Ramsgate! Rediscovered, a vast underground labyrinth - with its own hospital and orchestra - that saved thousands from Hitler's bombers[/h]
  • Far-sighted mayor built the network at outbreak of the Second World War
  • Three miles of tunnels built in a matter of months for just £40,000
  • It proved its worth when Ramsgate became first town to experience the blitz
ByRobert Hardman
PUBLISHED: 17:35 EST, 30 January 2014 | UPDATED: 18:47 EST, 30 January 2014

The rusty remains of a bicycle still lean against a wall. A distant but insistent drip, drip, drip rings out clearly. What must it have sounded like when an entire dance orchestra performed here?

Occasionally, my torch lands upon a set of initials carved into the chalk face but, otherwise, there are few clues to the extraordinary story behind this dusty, forgotten labyrinth.

For this was not merely a hiding place. This network of tunnels was an underground metropolis where many people lived for months on end without seeing the light of day. There were canteens, concerts and even a barber’s shop and hospital in this human beehive — not to mention copious latrines.

People heaved all their worldly goods down here and set up home behind blankets and curtains 60 feet below ground. Some even attached a house number or name to their little dwellings.

For hundreds of free-range children, this was a vast and exciting playground where it was never really bedtime because life was just one long, dark night. At least they were safe.

Blitz spirit: Frank the fiddler brightens up life in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the town of Ramsgate in Kent which saved hundreds of the town's residents from German bombs during the Second World War

As Gwendoline Langridge, then a 12-year-old girl, recalls: ‘Every day was an adventure. We made a lot of friends and we made our own entertainment.’

Once word spread, some of the most famous faces of the day came to look around.

But I am not standing in the ancient catacombs of Rome or Istanbul. I am in Ramsgate, Kent, exploring a series of tunnels no older than some of the residents around here.

Yet this vast burrow, more than three miles of it built in a matter of months by a far-sighted mayor, saved hundreds — if not thousands — of lives. To this day, there are many locals like Gwendoline who feel a profound debt of gratitude to that crowded, smelly underworld they once called ‘home’.
Within government, there had been those who never wanted these tunnels built, fearing that they would undermine wartime morale.

But Ramsgate had been bombed during the First World War. As another showdown with Germany seemed likely, the mayor, Arthur Kempe, knew that Ramsgate — less than 30 miles from the Continent — could soon be in the firing line again.

He enlisted the help of the local Tory MP, Captain Harold Balfour, to get the necessary permits to start work on new civilian air raid tunnels. For three years, the Home Office had dismissed the idea as ‘impracticable’, but Kempe persisted.

Balfour was a friend of air raid minister Sir John Anderson, the man who would become synonymous with shelters at the bottom of gardens up and down the land. And in March 1939, Kempe got the thumbs-up. By June of that year, the first section had already been finished and the Duke of Kent did the honours at the official opening.

Bolthole: Bedtime in the bunker for a young boy sleeping safely in the vast burrow, which was built on the instigation of the town's far-sighted mayor Arthur Kempe, who remembered the raids of the last war

Once the war had started, Ramsgate evacuated more than 3,000 children to the Midlands. But many were miserable and had returned by August 1940 when this town suffered something it would never forget: the first Blitz of the Second World War. Thankfully, the tunnels were there to keep young and old secure.

Come peacetime, the whole network was sealed up. And apart from a brief plan for a Cold War bunker, the tunnels were simply forgotten. Until now.

For a small band of determined volunteers are preparing to open up this lost city again — albeit on a shoestring — in time for the 75th anniversary of its creation. And I am enjoying an exclusive preview of what the outside world can expect.

The first thing which hits me is the sheer scale of it all. I am ushered in through an unmarked, steel door in the side of a cliff just above the beach. Inside is a substantial old 19th-century railway tunnel which once brought Victorian holidaymakers from the main station down to the sea. But after 200 yards or so there’s a turning in to another tunnel and, suddenly, I am in the wartime labyrinth.

It runs for mile after mile, one tunnel branching off another but all of them wide enough for a bunk bed and two passers-by. And every 25 yards, a recess has been dug in to the rock. Screened off by a blanket, each one of these would have housed a chemical loo.

It’s so extensive that project leader Phil Spain has to leave a lookout — his wife, Dorothy — at the main entrance with a walkie-talkie and instructions to summon help if we do not resume contact within half an hour.

‘It’s amazing to think they could have got the whole town down here with room to spare,’ says Phil, 64, a former policeman whose grandfather, Owen Spain, a gunner in the First World War, was very happy to sit out a lot of the Second down here. Having written a book on the tunnels and the battle to get them built, Phil points out that Ramsgate was very lucky to have just the right geology for this sort of project.

A cliff-side entrance: A Home Office official who visited in 1941 reported on 'what I can only describe as the equivalent of a gypsy squatters' camp'

But many Whitehall civil servants feared that it would cost too much and that once Ramsgate’s bolthole was built, then every town would demand something similar. Of greater concern was the prospect that, once safely

ensconced, people would be very reluctant to leave. Some certainly were, particularly a shell-shocked First World War veteran known as ‘Shell’ who spent several years down here until he was finally coaxed up to the surface — whereupon he collapsed and died.

There was a rich cross-section of life down here. I try to picture ‘Jumbo’, the walking department store who would come through the tunnels each day selling everything from razorblades to shoelaces from a cinema usherette’s tray hanging round his neck; or Frank the homeless violinist who lived under a blanket stretched between two deckchairs and burst into tears when Gwendoline presented him with a bowl of Christmas pudding in 1940; or poor little six-year-old Denis Rose, so traumatised by the horrors of the first air raid of the war that he would wet his bunk bed every night and get ‘a hiding’ from his father, who slept on the bunk below.

A Home Office official called E. J. Hodsoll visited these tunnels in February 1941 and reported on ‘what I can only describe as the equivalent of a gypsy squatters’ camp’. He was appalled by the makeshift homes he found.
‘The smell and the general atmosphere becomes pretty nasty at times,’ he wrote to his superiors. ‘It is a shocking state of affairs to have a considerable body of people leading this sub-human existence.’ The residents, on the other hand, were very proud of a feat of engineering completed in a matter of months by a local construction firm for the sum of £40,000. There were doors to the tunnels all over Ramsgate, each built with an L-shaped entrance hall so that an explosion at the top would not send shrapnel down the shaft. Electric lighting and a water supply were installed, along with a natural ventilation system.

People had good reason to stay put, too. The wartime experiences of neighbouring Dover might be more famous. But at perhaps the most pivotal stage of the Second World War, Ramsgate was at the very heart of the action.
First, as 330,000 troops came through the disaster-cum-miracle of Dunkirk in May 1940, it was to Ramsgate that many of them escaped.

Then, as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above, the town gained another claim to fame on August 24, 1940. It was a relatively quiet Saturday lunchtime when the air raid sirens suddenly wheezed in to life. Moments later, Ramsgate became the first place in Britain to experience the full force of the Luftwaffe’s ‘Blitzkrieg’.

In the space of five minutes, a formation of Junkers Ju88 bombers dropped more than 500 bombs in what elderly locals still call ‘the murder raid’.

Even after the bombs were dropped, fighters returned to machine gun any survivors they could find, including the firemen struggling to douse the flaming gasworks.

Fireman Edward Moore would later receive the George Medal from the King for his heroics. More than 1,200 homes were destroyed. American correspondent Hubert Knickerbocker called it ‘the worst raid in history’.

No one is entirely sure why Ramsgate was singled out. One theory is that the Germans were en route to bomb nearby RAF Manston when an armed trawler in the harbour shot down the leading aircraft and the enemy turned on Ramsgate instead.

Yet the civilian death toll amounted to just 29. The tunnels had very quickly proved their worth.

Value for money: Despite the opposition from Government officials, the residents were very proud of a feat of engineering completed in a matter of months by a local construction firm for the sum of £40,000

Safe: There were doors to the tunnels all over Ramsgate, each built with an L-shaped entrance hall so that an explosion at the top would not send shrapnel down the shaft to where the town's people were staying below

Ramsgate would be eclipsed the following month as the Luftwaffe began its assault on the capital. The London Blitz had begun and, by the end of the war, would have claimed 20,000 lives.

Still, Ramsgate continued to be a regular target. Gwen recalls that the ‘murder raid’ was soon followed by the ‘cemetery raid’ when bombs landed on a local graveyard and disinterred hundreds of its residents.

As one of the closest points to occupied France, Ramsgate was well within range of heavy guns, which could open up without warning and land 1,000-pound shells on Kentish homes. And homebound German planes would often dump any surplus explosives on Ramsgate before setting out across the Channel.

Throughout the war, though, the loss of life was relatively low.

According to local historian Marjorie Woodward, only one child died in the countless air raids which followed that devastating opening attack.

And if anyone deserves the credit, it is that energetic wartime mayor, Arthur Kempe.

The drawings detailing the tunnels dug at the start of the war: This vast burrow, more than three miles of it built in a matter of months by a far-sighted mayor, saved hundreds - if not thousands - of lives

The substantial old 19th-century railway tunnel which once brought Victorian holidaymakers from the main station down to the sea, but which was recycled as an entrance to the labyrinth of tunnels beneath Ramsgate

The people of Ramsgate certainly had a better idea than most about the threat to civilian life. During the First World War, the town was the target of some of the earliest Zeppelin raids. After one attack in May 1915, a Daily Mail appeal raised £50,000 for the town.

A year later, the Zeppelins struck a Sunday school outing with horrific results. By 1917, people had started sleeping in the existing railway tunnels and caves beneath the town.

As a second war loomed just over 20 years later, grim memories were fresh in the mind. Hence the huge popularity of Kempe and his grand plan.

But the result did not do much for local educational standards.

‘We went down there in 1940 and didn’t really come up again until 1941,’ says Gwendoline. ‘My parents went up every day to go to work, but we just stayed down below and had fun.

‘I remember going outside once but there was an air raid on and the warden sent us back down again. And we went back to our house for Christmas. Dad reckoned we’d be all right on that particular day.’

Eventually, for the sake of their schooling and education, Gwendoline and her brother were evacuated to Staffordshire for the rest of the war.

Mail writer Robert Hardman explores the forgotten network on his exclusive preview of the tunnels

The tunnels did not just save the people of Ramsgate. They even protected Winston Churchill himself. During a prime ministerial visit shortly after that August raid in 1940, the sirens heralded another attack. Arthur Kempe quickly ushered Winston Churchill to the Queen Street tunnel entrance whereupon he had to remind the great man that smoking was, er, banned.

‘There goes a good one,’ the PM is said to have sighed as he stubbed his cigar underfoot — whereupon the locals fought for the remains.

Now 75 years later, with a £20,000 grant from the council, Phil Spain and his team hope to get the lights back on and the doors open for a small number of visitors this summer. But health and safety is, inevitably, the main stumbling block.

If an ongoing National Lottery application is successful, the Ramsgate tunnels might then be opened to a wider audience.

And so they should be. They protected nearly 20,000 people from death and destruction in 1940. They can probably cope.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/art...-thousands-Hitlers-bombers.html#ixzz2rwCDaqVA
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Gold Member
Gold Chaser
Apr 1, 2010
Massive WOW factor............................I never knew about those until I read this article....................Truly historical.........really deserves a grant in my most humble opinion.



Gold Member
Gold Chaser
Apr 1, 2010
Looking comfier than the poor Londoners crammed into the underground during the blitz of ww2 I spoke to an old West end lady who told me of the experiences. The smell of a certain brand of disinfection used to keep away the potential cross contamination used to freak her out even 50 years after the war finished. The conditions were dire. Ramsgate looks more homely.