SiteName: Tunbridge Wells - Underground Battle Headquarters
Sub Brit site visit June 1996
[Source: Nick Catford ]
Between 1940 and 1941 a network of tunnels was excavated sixty feet below Hargate Forest on the south side of Broadwater Down in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. No documentary evidence relating to these tunnels survives although there is a strong local rumours that the tunnels would have been used as an underground operations room for Lt. General Montgomery (later Field Marshall) in the event of an invasion.
Ian Todd researched the history of the Broadwater Down Tunnels and produced the following (edited) report in May 1976.
Entrance to the system is by any of three small blockhouses on the surface of the forest. Inside each blockhouse there is a steep flight of steps leading down to the tunnels.
Usually the tunnels are flooded but at certain times of year or after a dry spell, it is possible to enter the system. Because of the recent drought (1976) the water level is very low and it is possible to wade through the complete system.
Drawn by Stuart Goldsmith
I will refer to this system as 'The Wilderness' because the people I have spoken to, who helped to build it agree that, for some forgotten reason, that was its nickname. The surface plan shows the position of the three blockhouses marked A, B & C.
In the text reference will be made to Broadwater Down, which is the name of the road which borders the forest and St. Mark's Church, which is situated half way along Broadwater Down. Reference will also be made to Sidney Brickman, a local builder, who recently built houses in the forest forming a small cul-de-sac called Strawberry Close.
Throughout my enquiries into this subject I have consistently been told that The Wilderness was an underground operations room for Lt. General Montgomery. I now believe that this is totally untrue and it had nothing to do with Montgomery.
The most obvious sources of information for this project have proved useless. Firstly the land on which The Wilderness is built is private land owned by the Marques of Abergavenny and therefore all the local authorities deny any knowledge of it. Secondly, as far as any military sources are concerned, the story of The Wilderness finished in 1945. The Marques of Abergavenny was paid compensation for the use of his land and any military records were then destroyed. The Marques was serving abroad at the time and cannot shed any light on the history of the tunnels. The Abergavenny Estate foreman Stanley Curd added "I don't know a lot about it. It was Montgomery's command post during the war but I don't think it was ever actually used. We have tried to seal off the three entrances a number of times. We blocked them off at a depth of 30 feet from the surface and at the top but they keep getting broken into again.
Photo:Blockhouse A, the main entrance
Photo by Nick Catford
It is us who have to keep doing this; we get no help from the Council. It is a liability; we would love to find someone to give the land to.
When the place was handed back to the Marques after the war, compensation was paid and the War Office, Ministry of Defence and local authorities just didn't want to know, including the local council.
We often get phone calls from the police and schools, telling us that they have been broken into again and that children have been playing in the entrances. Then it is up to us to block them off again"
As stated in the introduction, the popular theory about The Wilderness is that it was an underground H.Q. built for Lt. General Montgomery. In this section I will try to remove this myth and lay the way clear for the facts.
A local resident, Mrs. Hilary Finch, who has lived at 10,
Broadwater Down since 1961 wrote to Montgomery in 1969 because she was "fed up
with residents in Broadwater Down claiming that their houses had been used by
Montgomery as his HO." Montgomery replied on 7th October:
I arrived in Tunbridge Wells on 12th April 1941 and King George VI came and had lunch with me there one day. On 17th November I was promoted to command the south eastern army, all the troops in Kent, Surrey and Sussex and left that day for my new headquarters in Reigate.
I hope these details will give you the information you need. Yours sincerely, Montgomery of Alamein.
She also lent me a copy of the Kent Messenger picture of Montgomery and King George VI leaving 10, Broadwater Down on 13th June1941.
Following an expedition into The Wilderness in 1969 by Mr. Sydney Brickman, the Kent and Sussex Courier carried a story about it on 21st March 1969. What follows are the first three paragraphs of that story.
"The underground H.Q. built in Tunbridge Wells for the use of Field Marshall Montgomery while supervising D-Day was reopened last week for the first time since the war. (NB This underground facility did not feature in any D-Day planning nor was it built for same)
The labyrinth of passageways and chambers was tunnelled out in 1941 almost l00ft feet beneath land belonging to the Abergavenny Estate.
When overall command was given to General Eisenhower, the D-Day operation was no longer Montgomery's sole responsibility and the HQ was never actually used by him. For a short time it was occupied by members of the Royal Corps of Signals."
Mr. C.A. Symonds, editor of the Kent and Sussex Courier then wrote to Montgomery enquiring about The Wilderness and Montgomery replied, "I know nothing whatsoever about the underground D-Day command HQ. It was not built for me, and I never gave any orders for it to be built. At no time during the 1939-45 war did I ever have an underground HQ. I do not believe in such HQs; they are wrong and bad for morale."
I then wrote to General Sir Neil Ritchie, who commanded 12 Corps from 1942 to 1943 to see if he knew anything about The Wilderness. He replied:
"The operations room, to which you refer was not, to the best of my knowledge, in use during the period I commanded 12 Corps. I never heard of its existence. It was probably constructed during the period of threatened invasion 1940 to 1941 when the late Sir Andrew Thomas commanded the Corps."
It would seem therefore that The Wilderness was completely separate from 12 Corps. This does seem strange when 12 Corps' HQ was situated only 500 yards away. So what was it?
This final section of the report is based upon interviews with four men who helped to build The Wilderness and on a recent expedition through the tunnels by myself.
Following Dunkirk, Churchill, both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, delivered his now famous speech: "We shall not flag or fail, we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, and we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, 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."
Churchill's prose did not mention however that in the field of fixed fortifications little had been done to prepare Britain for such a battle. Before the war the Government had thought that the cost of such a defence was prohibitive. The only defence that did exist in any magnitude was air defence, and Britain's defence plan was based on this.
By the time of Churchill's speech however, events in Norway and France had cast doubt on this supposition. The German navy and air force had managed to carry out an invasion of Norway under the very nose of the British navy, and the bombing of naval vessels had proved a thorough disappointment. Dunkirk had similarly showed the ineffectiveness of the Luftwaffe in interfering with naval operations. The Chiefs of Staff came to the conclusion that the country must be "organised as a fortress on totalitarian lines."
As a result the building of ''emergency fortification became a matter of urgency. The first thought was to prevent the enemy from getting a foothold and so the coast was strengthened and the central reserves brought forward. With the British Expeditionary Force back it was argued that the situation had improved greatly. Up to a point this was true, but although the men of the B.E.F. were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk, their tanks, artillery and other equipment were abandoned. Despite this the B.E.F. and the central reserves were moved to cover the forward positions immediately behind the beach and on the coast itself construction of gun emplacements and pill boxes went on feverishly.
General Ironside, who had become Commander-In-Chief of Home Forces, soon realised that this thin crust of coastal defences could not hold a powerful enemy offensive. Once they had penetrated it, he argued, the Germans would be free to "tear the guts out of the country."
Photo:The top of the stairs in Blockhouse A
Photo by Nick Catford
The plan worked out in 1940 called for a continuous rear line, known as the General Headquarters Line, behind which the GHQ was to be organised. The line was to be formed by building obstacles and pill boxes wherever possible following natural obstacles. It was to run from Richmond in North Yorkshire to The Wash, then through Cambridge to the Thames at Canvey Island, then through Maidstone, Basingstoke and on to Bristol. In front of this a series of "stop lines" would be erected. Three such lines crossed Kent, Sussex and Surrey, delaying approach from the south towards London. Tunbridge Wells came between a forward stop line and the GHQ line. The troops in front of the GHQ line would be able to break up and confine the enemy, while the mobile troops from the GHQ line could organise the counter-attack, which was to deliver a killer punch.
An unfortunate feature of this form of defence was that initial planning had been undertaken in the beginning of June and by the third week of June 150,000 civilians, besides troops, were engaged in building these defences. Instead of a central control, a local group would often be asked to fortify an area.Further information and pictures about this site continues here
[Source: Nick Catford]