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.
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.
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:
“Dear Mrs. Finch,
I did indeed have my Corps HQ at No. 10 Broadwater Down in 1941, from 12th April to 17th November. On return from Dunkirk with my Division. I was given command of 5 Corps, commanding all the troops in Hampshire and Dorset. That was in 1940.
Then in 1941, the War Office became alarmed about a possible German invasion in Kent, so I was transferred to command 12 Corps and had under my command all the troops in Kent, which was then known as ‘Invasion Corner’.
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.”
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.
Interview with Mr. Harry Blakeway. 2nd May 1976 Mr. Blakeway is a Tunbridge Wells Borough Councillor and served with 20 Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers in the 1939-45 war.
“The Wilderness was built by Royal Engineers, a Royal Engineer Tunnelling Company dug it out. My own Company, 20 Bomb Disposal Company was based on The Pantiles and in 1942 we were taken off bomb disposal for two week’s “rest”. During this period we installed two large diesel generators in The Wilderness for lighting.
We were not told what it was, but formed the idea that it was one of a series of forward HQs built in case D-Day failed and Hitler came back across the Channel. I think it was wired back directly to London.
In wartime it is like planning a bank robbery, nobody tells anybody anything more than they need to know. While we were installing the generators the whole area was swarming with Military Police. I think it took about 18 months to build, and work probably started in 1940.”
Interview with Mr. Richard Hayward
Mr. Hayward from Tunbridge Wells works for Seeboard and was a member of the 172 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers in the 1939-45 war. “172 Tunnelling Company was a war-time specialist company formed by people connected with mining and tunnelling. Our C.O. Major Foss was a tunnelling engineer in Canada before the war, and there were also South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders in the Company. I had been a coal miner in Wales and at the outbreak of war I joined the Welsh Regiment but was then transferred.
We came to Tunbridge Wells in 1940 and were stationed at Mount Edgecombe: before that we had been tunnelling in Dover. While we were stationed at Tunbridge Wells, one section worked at Dover, one at Canterbury and a section of about 20 men worked on The Wilderness.
We started work in 1940. It took about a year to build. It was a pretty dodgy job because it was sandstone rock all the way down and the drill bit kept getting stuck in cracks and fissures in the rock. We blasted our way in to begin with, but a lot of blasting powder fell into cracks in the rock and we had a lot of misfires - it was quite dangerous.
Broadwater Down itself was out of bounds, we just got onto the work site and stayed there. If it was raining we had to leave our vehicles on the road so as not to leave any tracks on the forest that could be seen from the air.
All our materials came to the West Station in Tunbridge Wells and all the earth we excavated was taken away in lorries to be dumped.
We had a lot of rock-falls and water trouble, one group continuously manned pumps to keep out the water. We worked in three shifts of eight hours, but only blasted in the daytime. We finished the job in late 1941 and left Tunbridge for Gibraltar in early 1942.”
Interview with Mr. Wally Churn 9th May 1976
He worked for the Tunbridge Wells Electricity Department during the war and was given the job of fitting power supplies to The Wilderness. “I was a cable jointer. I fixed all the main supply cables to The Wilderness from the street and fixed all the joints down below. I was on that particular job for about a month. As far as I know it was never actually used.”
Interview with Mr. Herbert Taylor 9th May 1976 - Mr. Taylor from Tunbridge Wells was Mr. Churns mate or ganger.
“I laid a high tension cable from The Wilderness back to the mains in the road and then a low tension cable actually down inside The Wilderness. I had 14 soldiers from the Lincolnshire Regiment working with me digging a trench for the cable across the road. While we were doing this, Montgomery happened to be passing. He came up to me and. seeing that I had soldiers working under me, asked how they were doing. I said they were doing very well.
I was only actually working there for three or four days, but the whole of Broadwater Down was a mass of Army lorries from end to end. I was told by one soldier that it was going to be an invasion HQ for Montgomery.
I went down there again after the war in 1946 to retrieve the cables. I don’t think it could ever have been used. There was no equipment, heating, lighting or anything down there, but it was still basically in good condition. There was already quite a lot of mud and sludge on the floor where water had seeped in.”
Not all the information that I had been given by various people seemed to tie up and after all my enquiries I still did not even know the size of The Wilderness.
I had been told by Mr. Sydney Brickman, a local builder who recently erected some houses in the forest, that there were 27,000 square feet of tunnels. He said that he had conducted a magnetic survey of the area before building and that was how he arrived at that figure. However Mr. Brickman also claimed that the tunnels were 200 ft deep.
When Mr. Brickman organised a small expedition through the tunnels in 1969, two of his foremen used a rubber dinghy, because the water level was so high. After a short distance the water reached the roof, so the expedition did not get very far,
I decided to organise my own “Expedition” in May (1976) and, because of the recent drought it was possible to get all the way through without using sub-aqua equipment. Using wet suits the water was still shoulder deep in places and very cold. I and two friends were able to get all the way through and we drew a plan.
The Wilderness consists of two parallel tunnels about 120 yards long, with eight rooms joining them like steps in a ladder. The rooms are about 5 yards long. We found no equipment: just a lot of sludge and slime.
In concluding this project I am still not certain why The Wilderness was built. I know that it was built between 1940 and 1941 and that it was probably never used.
My theory is that it was planned when the invasion scare was at its peak and was simply one of a series of forward HQs each with a direct link back to London. Britain had no fixed land defences at the outbreak of war - The Wilderness was just one of many fortifications that were then quickly planned and built when the invasion seemed imminent. It seems that written evidence to support that theory, if it ever existed, has by now been destroyed.
Ian Todd’s view that the tunnels had no connection with Montgomery is open to speculation. It seems inconceivable that Montgomery was not aware of the existence of the tunnels as they were situated only 500 yards from his headquarters at 10 Broadwater Down. This is confirmed by Mr. Taylor who remembers Montgomery passing and speaking to him about the tunnels.
Montgomery mentions in his letter to Mrs. Finch that he moved to a new headquarters in Reigate in November 1941. By coincidence there is a similar network of tunnels half way up Reigate Hill that are know locally as ‘Monty’s Hideout.’
When asked about the tunnels perhaps Montgomery was being economical with the truth, after all it was only 24 years after the end of the war and the papers relating to this period hadn’t yet been released to the public.
Subsequent to Ian Todd’s report it has been established that the site was used by a small unit from the Royal Corps of Signals as a Communications Centre during the Allied Invasion of France. Unfortunately the historical officer for the Royal Corps of Signals Institution could supply no further information stating that “Most likely this would have been staffed by the GPO because they would have supplied all the equipment and wiring. Half the Post Office put Royal Signals badges on during the last war and that would explain why so many people saw Royal Signals people in the area.
We do not have any relevant records. Either people didn’t bother to keep records or else they were destroyed after the war finished”
So the Wilderness remains a mystery to this day. It may have been built as a ‘Battle Headquarters’ for Montgomery in the event of an invasion and it was for a period, perhaps after Montgomery moved to Reigate used as a communications centre. Nothing else is known for certain.
The brick walls built by the Abergavenny Estate across the entrances to the three blockhouses have all been breached as have the substantial steel bars at the top of each stairway. The tunnels however are flooded at the bottom of the stairs. The water level varies depending on the time of year and long term weather conditions but for much of the year it is almost up to roof level in the tunnels.
When inspected in the autumn of 2002 the water level was found to be two feet deep at one entrance rising to five feet deep further into the system.
It should be pointed out that the tunnels are on private land and should not be entered without permission from the Abergavenny Estate.
Thanks to Chelsea Spelaeological Society and Kent Underground Research Group for permission to reproduce Ian Todd’s report.
SITE VISIT REPORT
Following a long dry summer in 2003, the water level had dropped sufficiently to allow most of the tunnel system to be explored. Since the last visit to the site in 1996 the whole area has become heavily overgrown and the entrance blockhouses are no longer so easy to find.
Entrance A is closest to the road so we entered the tunnel complex through this blockhouse. In the past the, Abergavenny Estate, who own the tunnels, have attempted to prevent access with a series of wide steel bars at the top of each stairway and a brick wall half way down. One bar has been partially cut away at each blockhouse and it is now possible to climb through with some difficulty; the brick walls have also now been breached.
At the bottom of the stairs, the water was under a foot deep but on turning into the eastern 120 yard long tunnel the water soon deepened to two feet. The tunnel is of similar construction to the numerous deep level shelters found in the Dover area with an arched roof section and corrugated metal lining throughout. Despite the fact that the tunnel has been flooded virtually up to the roof for most of its life the lining is in remarkably good condition with little damage to the lining and no evidence of roof falls anywhere in the system.
The tunnel dips slightly and halfway along it the water became deeper, up to three feet in places. The high water mark is clearly visible along the whole length of the tunnel and was four feet higher than the level at the time of this visit. It was clear that some sections of the tunnel, close to the roof, had never been under water while others had been flooded right up to the roof. Reaching entrance B the water became shallower again. At the bottom of the entrance B stairway a steel gas door is still in place.
There are eight cross passages linking the two parallel tunnels each five yards in length, six of these are lined with corrugated sheeting and two of them are lined in concrete, one with end walls and doorways but no doors. At a high level alongside the doorways there is a circular hole in the concrete, probably for ventilation trunking that has never been installed. This supports the theory put forward by several people that the tunnel network was never completed or used. A second theory suggested that two of the cross passages might have been used, if this is the case then it is likely to be the two concrete lined tunnels.
The cross passage with the doorways has a rifle rack fixed to the wall suggesting this was intended as the armoury. There is also cable conduit and light switches fixed to the end wall. All the cross passages dip down towards the western parallel tunnel with the water deepening by about a foot.
The water in the western tunnel is deeper and close to entrance C reached five feet in depth so no further exploration was undertaken.