Site Records

SiteName: Portland underground Naval Headquarters and communications centre

Main Road
Portland Port
OS Grid Ref: SY694743

Sub Brit site visit 1st September 2004

[Source: Nick Catford]


Portland Bay has a long naval military history; during the Civil War parliamentary warships lay at anchor in the bay and Admiral Robert Blake fought the Battle of Portland in 1653 with the Dutch Admiral Van Tromp.

Work to enclose the bay with breakwaters started in 1854 and Portland Harbour was officially opened by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1872. Initially two breakwaters were constructed but two further arms were added towards the turn of the century making Portland the largest deep-water harbour in Europe.

Admiral Robert Blake

Because of its strategic position a Naval base was established in the harbour comprising a refueling depot, dockyard, hospital and shore training establishments.

Robert Whitehead, the first successful commercial manufacturer of torpedoes built his factory at Ferrybridge on the north side of the harbour in 1891 and soon special ranges to develop and test torpedoes became a feature. The advent of the weapon spurred the development of the submarine and then the technology to detect and destroy them. Thus the harbour became the centre for research into underwater warfare.

The Fleet in Portland Harbour during WW2

Great fleets came and went and for some time Portland was the base for the Channel and then the Home Fleets and a depot for submarines. Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI all reviewed their fleets there. Young seamen were trained in the old frigates anchored in the harbour, successively named HMS Boscawen.

During both World War I and II the bay was filled with neutral ships at anchor waiting to be searched for materials that might be useful to the enemy.

Violent action came in 1940 after the fall of France. Portland was now in the front line and the recipient of fierce German air attack. The anti-aircraft ship HMS Foylebank was sunk in the harbour in July after a mass attack by Stuka dive bombers.

Perhaps the most memorable event in the history of the harbour came in 1944 when it became the embarkation port for thousands of Americans of the US 1st Division (part of Force O) on their way to Omaha beach on D-day.

After the war Portland, with its quick in and out facility, became responsible for sea training for the navy.

With the advent of the helicopter and its importance as an antisubmarine weapon an airfield was built at Chesil with a fleet of helicopters stationed there. It was also a preferred base for ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who carried the supplies of the fleet.

Portland Harbour

With the reduction of the Royal Navy in the 1990s there was not enough money in the defence budget to maintain more than a few bases so the naval facilities at Portland were dispersed and the harbour became a civilian concern. 'Portland Port', a commercial company, took over responsibility with the aim of developing the ship repair, leisure and tourism potential. One of the first arrivals at the new port was an American prison ship, HMP Weare.

With the strategic importance of the Dockyard an underground headquarters and communications centre was planned in 1940. Two tunnels were driven deep into the hillside to the rear of the dockyard leading to a series of underground rooms based around a central ring. The new underground headquarters was completed by 1941 with Portland acting as a sub-command of Commander in Chief, Portsmouth at Fort Southwick

Photo:No 1 Entrance to the underground headquarters
Photo by Nick Catford

There were two pairs of entrance tunnels, each pair joining to form single tunnels after twenty yards. At this junction toilets, washrooms and a small guardroom (in the western tunnel) were located with the twin tunnels extending into the hillside for a further 150 feet to two airlocks. The control centre is rectangular in shape with a short branch on the south side housing ventilation and heating plant and a standby generator. After construction, plans were drawn up to extend the control centre with the addition of further tunnels on the north side but this plan was quickly abandoned.

Photo:Plan of the Naval Headquarters & Communications Centre as built
Drawn by Nick Catford

After the war the Naval Comcen was relocated to the Portland Heights adjacent to the ROTOR radar station, it was still in use at least until the early 1990's. The underground headquarters remained on care and maintenance until 1952 when the tunnels were refurbished as a standby operational headquarters for Portland Dockyard in the event of a nuclear attack. This involved the removal of all the original partition walls and the installation of a completely new room layout. The underground headquarters was never used but could be brought to a state of readiness within eight weeks if required. The underground headquarters was under the control of an NOIC (Naval Officer in Charge). During the 1960's some of the rooms were occupied by the RNXS for a short period before they moved to the Dockyard offices. The tunnels were abandoned some time in the late 1960's


For more information and pictures about
Portland Naval Headquarters click

[Source: Nick Catford]

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