If you were to visit the pretty seaside town of Ramsgate in Kent today, you'd see little evidence of the town's dramatic wartime past. For that, you have to go underground.
There you'll see what's left of an underground city with shops, street signs, even dances halls, where at least 300 families took up permanent residence underground for the duration of the war and where the whole town's population could shelter from German bombs.
The Ramsgate Tunnels - Wartime Secrets Revealed
But First, a Little Background
Ramsgate is one of three towns on the Isle of Thanet, a spit of land extending into the North Sea on the southeastern corner of Kent. Close to France and exposed to the sea on three sides, Ramsgate, along with its neighbors Margate and Broadstairs, were long the most vulnerable to war from the air from Europe. Before World War II the people of Ramsgate had already experienced war from the air. In 1915 and 1916, during World War I, the town was subject to aerial bombardment from German Zeppelin raids.
An Underground Solution
Under the town, about a mile of tunnels from an abandoned Victorian railway station seemed a natural place for shelters. And when the winds of war began to blow in the late 1930s, town officials petitioned the central government for funds to extend the tunnels and create new entrances. They were turned down on the grounds of the expense. In 1938, they applied to the government and once again were turned down - this time on the grounds that building such shelters was premature.
Next: The Situation Becomes Urgent
The Situation Becomes Urgent
A Threat that Cannot Be Denied
In 1939, when Hitler took over all of Czechoslovakia, occupied Austria and invaded Poland the situation became urgent. Local officials again pressed the government and were eventually given permission to extend the tunnels. The aim was to create an underground system of shelters cut into the chalk, 60 feet beneath the surface, with entrances scattered around the town so that no one was more than a five minute walk from an entrance.
Work began at once an on June 1, 1939, the first section of the tunnels was officially opened by The Duke of Kent. Eventually, there were three and a half miles of tunnels dug.
Then the Blitz
On August 24, 1940, Ramsgate on the southeast corner of England, became the first UK town to feel the destructive fury of the Blitz. More than German 500 bombs rained down on this English seaside resort in less than 5 minutes and 1,000 people became homeless.
Yet remarkably, thanks to the foresight of town officials - sometimes working despite opposition of the national government - only 28 civilians died. Almost everyone else - as many as 26,000 people at times - was able to shelter in Ramsgate's three and a half mile underground city, Ramsgate Tunnels. At least 300 families, many made homeless by the bombing, lived there throughout the war.
Next: Visiting the Ramsgate Tunnels
Visiting the Ramsgate Tunnels
In 2014, a local organisation of friends of the Ramsgate Tunnels opened part of the tunnels as a historic visitor attraction. The current Duke of Kent, whose father originally opened the tunnels in 1940, was there to do the honors for the grand opening of the attraction.
It's still something of a work in progress, staffed and run by volunteers but their ultimate vision includes a reception area with a shop and café, an exhibition that will include audio presentations captured in the town's Oral Histories project, and a virtual reality theater - The Tunnels Time Machine - which will explore the history of Ramsgate and Kent from Roman times through the Battle of Britain and beyond.
Phase I of the project, The Tunnels Explorer provides guided access to the actual Ramsgate Tunnel Deep Shelter System and opened exactly 75 years from the original tunnel opening at the outbreak of WWII.
Visitors are shown a short film and given a safety briefing before being led on a hard hat tour of some of the tunnels considered safe to use. Some areas of the tunnel will be equipped as they were during World War II. Visitors are equipped with hard hats and torches (that's Brit for flash lights)
Entrance for the tours is on Marine Esplanade adjacent to Ramsgate beach. The tour, which includes a visit to a shelter and a reconstruction of a living "cubicle", lasts an hour and (in 2016) cost £6 plus a 50p online booking fee. Only twenty people at a time can be accommodated on each tour.
A schedule of tours, as well as an online booking facility, is available on the Ramsgate Tunnels Website. Tickets can also be purchased at the door if available but I've been told it's wise to phone ahead, on +44 (0)1843 588123, to make sure a tour is actually scheduled.