Hellfire Corner


In this week’s dip into the family album we have moved around the Kent coast from Ramsgate and have arrived in Dover. The White Cliffs, the outline of Dover Castle and the seafront make this an easy photograph to locate. The year is 1948 with the buildings along the town’s Marine Parade showing every sign of having been a bit too close to Adolf a few years previously.

During the war, which ended only 36 months before my grandparent’s visit, the Cinque Port played a significant role due to its strategic location on the southeastern coast of England. The town’s proximity to mainland Europe made it a target for German air raids and a frontline for our defensive efforts.

Overall, Dover was a vital location during the Second World War. Its strategic position, as well as its port and historical infrastructure, made it an essential hub for both defence efforts and offensive operations.

Dover served as a key evacuation point during Operation Dynamo, the rescue mission of over 300,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. This operation was a critical turning point in the war, saving many soldiers from capture by German forces.

Due to its frontline position, Dover experienced heavy bombing, earning the nickname “Hellfire Corner.” The town suffered immense damage from German air raids, with civilians often seeking shelter in the extensive network of tunnels beneath Dover Castle.

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The White Cliffs, Dover, 1948.
© Always Worth Saying 2023, Going Postal

The medieval Dover Castle, visible in the photograph above at the top of the White Cliffs played a crucial role in the war. It housed military command and communication centres, and its underground tunnels served as a hospital for wounded soldiers. The castle was also used as a radar station and an anti-aircraft gun site.

Shortly after the fall of France in 1940, the Germans installed long-range artillery guns along the French coast which could reach Dover. This led to an intense cross-Channel artillery duel between British and German forces that lasted until 1944.

Later, Dover played a supporting role in the Allied invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord, in June 1944. The town’s harbour was used to transport troops, equipment, and supplies to the invasion forces.

The White Cliffs of Dover

Above Marine Parade, the White Cliffs are part of a series of iconic chalk cliffs stretching for about 10 miles from the town and are a symbol of British national pride, natural beauty, and resilience. These cliffs are made primarily of pure white chalk, a soft sedimentary rock formed from the remains of microscopic marine organisms called coccolithophores. The chalk gives the cliffs their distinctive appearance and has been continuously eroded by the action of waves and weather over millions of years.

The White Cliffs of Dover have played a significant role in British history and culture. During World War II, they were seen as a symbol of defiance and hope, as they were the first sight of England for returning soldiers and a natural barrier protecting the country from invasion. The cliffs have also been immortalized in various forms of art and literature, including the famous wartime song telling of bluebirds over “The White Cliffs of Dover,” performed by Vera Lynn.

Today, the cliffs are a popular tourist attraction and are managed by the National Trust, which works to preserve their natural beauty and ecological significance. Visitors can enjoy stunning views, walking trails, and abundant wildlife, including various species of birds that nest among the cliffs.

Dover Castle

At the top of the cliffs perches Dover Castle, a Grade I listed medieval castle founded in the 11th century that has often been referred to as the “Key to England” due to its historical importance in the country’s defence. The site was initially fortified during the Iron Age and houses one of Dover’s two Roman lighthouses, which is considered to be Britain’s oldest standing building.

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Dover Castle. The far-right being visible from Marine Parade.
Aerial panorama dover castle 2017,
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The castle was first constructed out of clay under William the Conqueror, but it was during Henry II’s reign that the castle took on the shape recognizable today, featuring inner and outer baileys and a great keep built by Maurice the Engineer. Dover Castle played a crucial role in the First Barons’ War, during which the north gate was breached to later became an underground forward-defence complex.

Nowadays, Dover Castle is open to the public and serves as a popular tourist attraction.

Besides its role in World War II, the castle has been involved in numerous conflicts, including the English Civil War, Napoleonic Wars, and First World War.

During the English Civil War of 1642-1651, Dover Castle was a Royalist stronghold, but it eventually fell to the Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell. In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the castle was reinforced and expanded to protect against a potential French invasion.

In World War I, Dover Castle served as a military headquarters and communication centre. The castle’s tunnels were used to shelter troops and store supplies. Additionally, the Admiralty Signal Station was established on the castle’s grounds to monitor and control naval traffic in the English Channel.

Marine Parade

We can still stand on the very spot on Marine Parade and look up towards the cliffs and castle. The sorry-looking parade of buildings to the left has gone and is presently the site of an ugly Premier Inn. Tucked behind the Premier Inn should be the famous mutton of lamb battery.

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Marine Parade, Dover, in the moderd day
© Google Street View 2023, Google.com

The seafront remains recognisable as does a single bar fence held by concrete posts. Benches and a shelter still sit before the beach.

If we look to the top of the cliffs we can see a canopy. This is variously described in the guidebooks as a wartime fire command post, signal station and Admiralty lookout.

To the left of the canopy, we can see some buildings above a 13th-century section of wall. These will be the Royal Garrison Artillery Barracks and the Cinque Ports prison.

As for the Marine Parade itself, at one time a picturesque seafront, it looked war-weary by 1948. The area, characterized by its scenic views of the English Channel, has fared less well than nearby iconic landmarks such as the castle, the Garrison Church, Waterloo Crescent and the Roman Pharos lighthouse.

As with the Premier Inn ahead, the Marine Parade’s buildings directly to the left of the photographer haven’t survived either. You can have a look around here.

To the left are the disappointing Gateway Flats, part of Dover Corporation’s wartime master plan for rebuilding when peace returned.

I’m grateful to our friends at DoverHistorian.com who inform us the rebuilding of Dover was the result of the efforts of Town Planner Professor Patrick Abercrombie who, following consultations with the eminent structural engineer Dr Oscar Faber, went down the modern route of reinforced concrete, slab sides, iron balconies, flat roofs and lots of glass.

Faber’s advice amounted to, ‘All existing buildings along Dover’s seafront are examples of early 19th century ‘jerry building’, and as such unsound and unsafe so should be demolished and the sites be put to more economic use.’

His report did, however, say that Waterloo Crescent should be retained.

Opting to bring a bit of New York to Dover, the council built an apartment block of 450 flats set 180 feet back from the sea wall with an access road at the rear. The area between the flats and the seafront road was laid out in lawns and gardens. The result is pretty hideous, too big and in the wrong place.

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Surviving Marine Parade
© Google Street View 2023, Google.com

Further along, the seafront faired better. The terrace pictured below the Admiralty lookout consists of a pleasant variety of well-restored ‘jerry-built’ 19th-century dwellings. Unfortunately, the M20 dual carriage, that passes behind the Gateway Flats, intrudes to the front of these properties on land reclaimed from the harbour as it heads towards the 600 acres of concrete that is Dover Eastern Docks.

Puffins can have a scout about via this link.

Dover Western Docks

This author unknowingly followed his grandparent’s tyre tracks 36 years later albeit by train. Alarmingly further away from the present day than his early 1980s are from his grandparents’ late 1940s.

In my day one travelled from the capital across the Garden of England via one of a variety of Boat Train routes and alighted at Dover Western Docks. Spared all this nonsense with tunnels and 200 mph trains, one rattled through the countryside in slam door compartment stock making polite conversation with fellow travellers.

Dancing girls made their way to Paris. Fruit pickers and ice cream salesmen headed for the south of France. Gentlemen of adventure struck out for the Iron Curtain. More sensible souls heard the call of cheap booze from Calais. With ferries to Oostend and both ferries and the aéroglisseur for Calais Maritime and Boulonge-sur-mare, they fanned out excitedly from Dover Western Docks as if a previous generation expecting nothing but glory across the waves.

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Dover Western Docks interior, 80s/90s.
Dover Western Docks railway station,
Brian Mortimer
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0
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Dover western Docks station exterior 80s/90s.
View SE towards the buffers: ex-SE&CR terminus,
Ben Brooksbank
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

For Dover Western Docks railway station, originally named Dover Marine, was constructed on reclaimed land on the north side of the Admiralty Pier in 1909, with most of the work completed by 1914. It played a significant role during World War I as a military-only station, serving as a principal ambulance railway station and handling over 1.2 million wounded and ailing soldiers.

The station was renamed Dover Western Docks in 1979. However, it was closed down in 1994 due to the opening of the Channel Tunnel and has since been abandoned to rail services and its tracks removed. In its hay day, the station was large, spacious, impressive and located within a maze of lines upon a tight triangular junction between the routes from Folkestone and Dover.

Although it doesn’t look it on Street View, nowadays Western Docks is successfully reborn as Terminal 2 of the three birth Port of Dover cruise terminal.

This year the Port of Dover will see over 103 calls between February and December. Before the pandemic, the port welcomed an average of 200,000 local economy-boosting passengers a year. According to the guff, the port is perfectly positioned for turnaround or post-of-call visits for Norway, the Baltic, around Britain, Iceland, the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.

Landward, East Kent offers cruise passengers a wide variety of itineraries, excellent pre and post-cruise accommodation and a wealth of historic attractions. The more erudite amongst them need head no further than the interesting and informative Marine Parade.

© Always Worth Saying 2023