“If all of England is a Castle, Dover is the main gate”

Situated in the southeast of England is a small town called Dover. It’s famous for its dramatic White Cliffs along the beautiful English coastline and is also the closest crossing point to continental Europe. This little town not only plays a vital role in modern Britain by facilitating the daily crossing of thousands of goods and people to and from the continent but also played a crucial role in England’s history. Dover is the key to England and was therefore protected by one of the greatest castles in Britain. Today we had the opportunity to visit Dover to learn about the castle and the deep secrets buried underneath it.

The castle itself was built between 1179 and 1188 as a massive symbol of King Henry II’s (great-grandson of William the Conqueror) power and consists of 14 stone towers, gatehouses and a wall that is over a mile long. The main tower, however, was built almost 2000 years ago when Julius Cesar and the Romans landed in England. The Romans primarily used the tower as a beacon to guide the Roman navy across the English Channel.

In the 12th century, Dover Castle had its first test when Prince Louis from France tried to invade England and take the throne from King John. Prince Louis set foot on the shore and battered the walls with catapults, but the walls held firm. Frustrated with the failed attack, Prince Louis had to change his approach and came up with a plan that would later give Dover Castle a great defensive advantage – instead of going over the wall, the French decided to go under them. The idea was to dig enough tunnels through the white chalk cliffs of Dover to weaken the castle’s structure. If they could get the walls and gates to collapse, the French would be able to access and even destroy the castle. When the English learnt what the French were up to, they came up with a controversial plan to counter the attack – they started digging their own tunnels. Very soon, an English tunnel would break into a French tunnel and troops from both sides would have had to battle it out underground with little or no light. This kind of battle was often referred to as a ‘Blind Bloodbath’. The French managed to bring down only one tower with their tunnelling strategy which gave their troops access to the inner grounds of the castle but the strength of the English resistance inside the castle forced the troops back and the English maintained control of the castle. When Prince Louis decided to withdraw his troops, English engineers had to repair the damage to the castle and decided to extend the tunnels even further for any new attacks but the castle only saw action again about 600 years later.

By 1803, Napoleon pretty much destroyed his enemies across the whole of Europe and was ready to invade England. With a massive army, the French Emperor was ready to attack. Dover Castle was once again at the heart of it all not only because it’s the most logical invasion point to England but Dover also had a port where the French could resupply their army. Meanwhile, the English expected the invasion almost on an hourly basis but had one massive problem to solve – England had its own troops, but had nowhere to put them. The only viable option to keep the troops close to the battle line was to place the troops inside the tunnels underneath the castle where they remained on permanent standby. After the troops were placed inside the tunnels, English Commanders realised they had one more weakness – if Napoleon did manage to land his army on the coast, how would they get the English troops to the beach? The Cliffs of Dover is only 92 metres from the top to the bottom straight down but on horseback, the shortest route was one and a half mile. An English General, William Twiss, came up with the Grand Shaft. The Grand Shaft was designed as an express route from the castle at the top to the beach at the base of the cliffs. It was basically a massive well with 3 flights of stairs and is seen as one of the most brilliant designs of its time as you could move troops 3 times faster than usual. With the completion of the Grand Shaft, Dover Castle was fully ready for the invasion but never faced an attack from Napoleon. The Royal Navy was too strong and controlled too much of the English Channel that the French were forced back time-and-time again to the point where Napoleon had to cancel the invasion in 1805.

The Grand Shaft

A 134 years later, in 1939, Dover Castle once again came under threat of invasion – this time again from France but not from the French. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it was the start of World War II and Dover Castle had to defend England against a German invasion of Adolf Hitler.

In May of 1940, over 400 000 Allied troops were surrounded by German forces on the French coast of Dunkirk. The German army was more than twice their size and slowly moving in for the kill. The British Prime Minister at the time, Mr Winston Churchill, needed a rescue mission and a military Commander as close as possible to Dunkirk. The tunnel network of Dover Castle was more than three and a half miles long and still a secret to the outside world – making it the perfect location for his military Commanders. On the 20th of May 1940, the first planning meeting took place to come up with the evacuation plan for Dunkirk, also known as Operation Dynamo. Deep underneath the castle, Churchill had Commanders for his army, navy and airforce as well as a military intelligence centre. From within these rooms, the command was given for Operation Dynamo to begin and with that command 35 Destroyers and Troop Carriers set out to Dunkirk. Once they arrived in France, the ships would drop anker and use landing craft to rescue the troops. The British Commander responsible for Operation Dynamo knew the task of evacuation was close to impossible and believed that only 45 000 of the 400 000 men would be saved. In the end, thanks to his plan, they managed to save 338 226 men from being killed by the German army.

By the end of 1940, the Germans were closing in on invading England so Churchill ordered to expand the tunnels at Dover Castle even further. The new additions included an annexe, living quarters, bathrooms and showers, a BBC radio studio, a hospital and operating theater fully equipped to handle any emergency. From here, Churchill also created a team to deliberately broadcast disinformation to the outside world, specifically to confuse the Germans. Dover was also the “dummy run” for the D-Day Landings so the coastline was filled with landing craft and other boats that confused the Germans even more. The command centre sent out thousands of fake orders and military communication messages across the enemy lines and looking back, it worked. The work done at Dover Castle was a crucial task in the run-up to the Normandy landings.

During the final stages of the war, Allied Forces called for Japan’s unconditional surrender but Japan simply ignored this call. The United States, with Britain’s consent, dropped two nuclear warheads in Japan, one in Hiroshima (that we plan to visit later this year) and another on Nagasaki. After dropping the second bomb, Britain and the United States wasn’t sure if Japan would retaliate with a nuclear strike and Churchill and his top team used Dover Castle’s underground network as a nuclear bunker. Luckily, the Japanese surrendered only 6 days later.

Dover has always been at the heart of Britain, today it’s the key to flexible trade whereas in the past it was the key to keeping Britain and its people safe. Visiting the castle today, walking through the underground tunnels, seeing the war rooms and nuclear bunkers was indeed an eye-opening experience. The castle’s story is a remarkable one, one that I hope will be told for many more years.


“We shall defend our island,
whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender.”

– Winston Churchill