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The Secret Tunnels of South Heightonicon for Recommended story

by Pete Mason

Contributed by 
Pete Mason
People in story: 
Geoffrey Ellis
Location of story: 
Newhaven 1941-5
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 January 2004

This story, written by Geoffrey Ellis, Secretary, Friends of HMS Forward, is about the abandoned and little-known tunnels of HMS Forward at Newhaven, East Sussex, which, between 1939 and 1945, was a Royal Navy headquarters. The account that follows has been compiled from what he told Peter Mason.

A desirable prize

Newhaven was originally a casualty clearing station for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France. Twelve fully equipped hospital boats transported the sick and wounded to the east Sussex port from Dieppe, with special trains to carry them further inland on arrival. Medical supplies were loaded on to the boats for the return journey.

Newhaven, lying roughly midway between Dover and Portsmouth, features the only river in the area navigable at all states of the tide. Its harbour had marine workshops and facilities for maintaining cross-channel steamers and vessels with tail shafts of up to six metres (19 feet). There were ample berthing facilities and a marine passenger terminal with its own dedicated railway terminus. During the war, all of these benefits made the town a desirable prize for the enemy.

My first visit

In 1941, when I was a seven-year-old lad, I used to walk to and from school along the B2109 Newhaven-to-Beddingham road. One day, in May 1941, the army arrived and started digging a tunnel into the bank at the side of the road by Heighton Hill, just north of Newhaven.

Some months after the tunnel was completed, I frequently used to stop to chat with the sentries that guarded its entrance. They could never be persuaded, however, to let me take a peep around the bend that turned away enticingly, just inside the entrance.

When the tunnel was abandoned at the end of 1945, I finally had my chance to take a proper look. Accompanied by a friend and with the aid of a couple of torches, I inched into its depths. The complex interior was swallowed up by the seemingly impenetrable darkness.

An indelible impression

I remember vividly the mixed emotions of exploring the apparently endless labyrinth of corridors, galleries, rooms and stairways. Was there anybody else in there with us? Could we get lost? What if our torches failed? Would we ever find our way out again?

That initial visit remains indelibly etched in my memory. Large quantities of naval message pads and rolls of teleprinter paper littered the floor. There was a myriad wooden stairways and complex air-conditioning trunking with fish-eye louvers. Numerous lengths of cable were neatly secured to endless Braby cable tray.

The tunnels had been ransacked by looters, who’d wrought carnage in their attempt to liberate anything they thought might be of value. Much of what I saw then no longer exists or remains accessible.

An extraordinary secret

Unbeknown to me at the time, this visit was to mark the start of a lifetime’s fascination with what I later discovered was a once vibrant naval intelligence centre built deep beneath Heighton Hill.

During World War Two, it remained undetected by the foe. After the war’s end, it was destined to remain equally unknown in the country in which it was built. Upon its abandonment, the labyrinth passed into the ownership of the original landowner(s), although, technically, it remained a secret place for some 30 years. Just how secret it was, and how vital its contribution to the war effort, I had yet to realise.

Deciding to investigate

In 1991, I took early so-called voluntary retirement from British Telecom. With some 40 years’ experience in all contemporary forms of communication, I decided to investigate what lay beneath Heighton Hill, largely to satisfy my continuing curiosity.

What I discovered was that few official records survived the Royal Navy's withdrawal from the complex. Indeed, no national body had ever attempted to record or publicise its extraordinary history, to the extent that, in 1996, even the Imperial War Museum in London, initially, denied its existence.

My early enquiries of the Imperial War Museum and the Public Record Office produced no tangible results. I appealed for further information through local newspapers, ‘Service Pals’ teletext pages, Charlie Chester’s Sunday Soapbox show, Yours magazine and the newsletters of a plethora of military-veterans’ associations including the Association of Wrens.

Response to my appeals

I received a wealth of information, from carefully preserved autograph books, photograph albums and other paraphernalia, all of which had been retained by the veterans who responded to my appeals. As a result, I learnt almost everything there was to know about the naval headquarters’ intelligence hub. I discovered the exact purpose of the various tunnel rooms. I found out exactly what equipment was installed there and even learnt the names of many of the crew.

None of this grass-roots detail had been available from any other source.

I’m pleased to relate that my research had other, unexpected consequences, in that it rekindled many lapsed WRNS friendships. On a personal level, too, I was encouraged by the ways in which I was welcomed as a friend into the homes of many of my correspondents. What follows is a résumé of my research.

Origin of the naval headquarters

Newhaven Royal Naval Headquarters originated during the tumultuous early years of the war, when invasion seemed a likely sequel to the fall of France. There had been some earlier discussion about whether the town might be demilitarised and declared open under the Red Cross Geneva Convention. With the fall of Dunkirk, however, military defence quickly thwarted any consideration of open-town status.

The army arrived and evicted the navy from their quarters at the Sheffield Arms Hotel. The Senior Service, in turn, requisitioned the highly suitable Guinness Trust Holiday Home from 20 June 1940. There they remained for the duration of the war.

The Guinness Trust property was an architecturally pleasing building. Built in 1938, it stood majestically on Heighton Hill, looking down on the lush, green meadows of the Ouse Valley, with views to Newhaven Harbour, Seaford Bay and the English Channel.

It was used as holiday accommodation for city-based tenants of the Guinness Trust estates and had 16 dormitory apartments with a communal dining room and sun lounge. Most apartments had access to a large sun terrace and lawn, and a private suite on the first floor housed a resident caretaker.

Requistioning Gracie Fields’s house

Under the sterner title of HMS Forward, the Guinness Trust house became a Royal Naval headquarters. As such, it was responsible for HMS Marlborough at Eastbourne, HMS Aggressive and HMS Newt at Newhaven, HMS Vernon at Roedean, HMS Lizard and HMS King Alfred at Hove and the two resident naval officers at Shoreham and Littlehampton.

Naval-stores depots were established at Lewes and Burgess Hill to supply permanent, consumable and after-action stores. A naval-canteen service was organised for the area. Gracie Field's former home, later known as Dorothy House, at 127, Dorothy Avenue, Peacehaven, was requisitioned to provide a special, fully staffed and fully equipped, sick quarters.

Numerous other large residential establishments were also requisitioned, both locally and at Seaford, to accommodate the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service). There were, eventually, over 10,000 naval staff on HMS Forward’s ledgers.

Protecting the Sussex coastline

The naval headquarters was always commanded by a captain (often an admiral serving in the rank of captain), who occupied the conveniently appointed caretaker's suite. In 1940, his immediate responsibilities included the reorganisation of the sub-command as well as provision of maritime protection for the Sussex coastline and harbours with minefields and blockships.

In March 1941, an Admiralty directive required specified ports to establish and maintain naval plots in conjunction with a coastal-radar chain, giving surface coverage from the Dover area. This coverage soon spread to Newhaven.

Adequate security was necessary for the communications equipment required for intelligence-gathering, interpretation and dissemination. A decision was made to accommodate the equipment in a shelter more than 20 metres (some 60 feet) below ground, deep beneath Heighton Hill.

For this purpose, under the Emergency Powers Act (EPA) for the defence of the realm, and, as such, not recorded with the Land Registry, a tunnel was dug into the hillside.

Prepared for any emergency

The principal, operational entrance to the underground shelter was situated in room 16 of the Guinness Trust house. Via 122 steps, it gave access to an impenetrable fortress, one that contained the most sophisticated and contemporary communications devices then available.

There were two telephone exchanges, ten teleprinters, two Typex machines, a WT or wireless telegraphy office with 11 radios and a VF-line (voice-frequency) telegraph terminal for 36 channels. The tunnels housed a stand-by generator, an air-conditioning system with gas filters, a galley, toilets, cabins for split shifts and the recently invented phenomenon of 'daylight' fluorescent lighting.

No expense was spared. The complex was equipped for every contingency, from failure of the public utilities to direct enemy action.

Designed and built by the Royal Engineers

The complex was designed and built by the Royal Engineers. The 172nd Tunnelling Company dug it, and 577th Army Field Company fitted it out. Excavation of the tunnel commenced in May 1941, and some 550 metres (1,800 feet) of tunnel was dug in the chalk over 13 weeks. It was commissioned later that year and used, until decommissioned, on 31 August 1945. The Canadian Corps Coastal Artillery shared the underground complex and maintained a headquarters there.

Ten coastal-radar stations between Fairlight and Bognor Regis reported directly to HMS Forward every 20 minutes, more often if necessary. All their information was filtered and plotted, before being relayed by teleprinter to similar plots in Dover and Portsmouth.

HMS Forward plot maintained a comprehensive maritime surveillance of everything that moved on, under or over the English Channel from Dungeness to Selsey Bill. Further intelligence was obtained from military airfields by private telephone lines. For operational-security reasons, each plot understudied its neighbour, with HMS Forward standing in for Fort Southwick at Portsmouth and vice versa.

Morse keys not machine guns

Initially, WRNS personnel staffed the WT office, teleprinters, cipher office, telephone switchboards, signals-distribution office and naval plot on a continuous three-watch rota. They were supplemented by Royal Naval (RN) ratings for special occasions. On D-Day, they were joined by members of the Royal Air Force (RAF), WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service).

The crew wore headphones, not helmets; brandished Morse keys, rather than machine guns; dispatched bulletins, not bullets and carefully contemplated the courses of clandestine convoys.

HMS Forward was heavily involved in the saga of German battle cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen on 11 February 1942. It played a major part in the raid on Dieppe of 19 August 1942. Its role was crucial in the nightly naval motor-torpedo-boat (MTB) harassment raids on enemy-controlled harbours and waters, frequent SAS commando 'snoops' on the occupied French coast, the D-Day landings and, ultimately, the liberation of France. For a while, it also co-ordinated air—sea rescue.

Everything was obliterated

After the war, the centre was abandoned, then neglected and ignored. In 1964, I learnt of the proposed redevelopment of the Heighton hillside and took the only photographs now known to exist. They show details of the derelict and disguised observation post and hillside pillboxes.

During the 1970s, the hillside was redeveloped. All five internally accessed hillside pillboxes (including one cunningly disguised as a chicken shed, complete with hens) were demolished. Cable and ventilation shafts were also obliterated, leaving only the bricked-up western entrance as evidence of what lay beneath.

A detailed survey

News of the proposed and partial demolition of Denton House (formerly the Guinness Trust holiday home) inspired members of Newhaven Historical Society to approach the Guinness Trust with a view to reopening the former principal (east) entrance in the floor of room 16.

The idea was to conduct a detailed survey of the labyrinth below. They kindly consented, on condition that there was no publicity that might draw attention to their vacant property and thereby increase the likelihood of vandalism.

A complete inventory

Over the ensuing months, every passage was measured, every step and stair counted, every room plotted and every remaining artefact recorded. The entire complex was photographed using prints, transparencies and professional-quality video photography.

The data obtained has enabled detailed, scale drawings to be produced. A model of the complex is displayed at the near-by Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum, Paradise Park, Avis Road, Newhaven, BN9 0DH.

Unfortunately, the partial demolition of Denton House in 1996 precludes further use of the principal entrance of the former maritime-intelligence centre. The western wing of the house, containing room 16, was razed to the ground to make way for new homes.

The only visible sign of past military activity at the house is a granite commemorative plaque above the fireplace in the main hall. On it, carved in relief, is a crown, flanked by the dates 20 June 1940 and 31 August 1945. The words Royal Naval Headquarters appear beneath.

One other date was recorded covertly by the bricklayer who built the solid wall that sealed the principal, operational entrance to the tunnel. This reads 21 November 1945 and is a certain indicator that the property was still in the hands of the Ministry of Works at that time.

A slice of local history

In 1996 when local-history publisher Steve Benz learnt of my research, he pressed me into writing a book. Happily, this slice of local history became an overnight success.

Video footage of milestone moments that occurred during the research and recorded interviews with ten HMS Forward veterans were combined to produce an hour-long tribute to this historic centre. The personal anecdotes and memoirs provided authentic and corroborated first-hand information about the complex. Without them, details concerning the equipment, accommodation, procedures and administration, otherwise unrecorded, would have been lost for ever.

In 1997, South Heighton Parish Council named a new road Forward Close. This was a very public commemoration of the Royal Naval headquarters that very nearly disappeared not just without trace but without its existence ever having been generally acknowledged.

Some chance finds

In 1998, a chance enquiry led to the discovery of mining-consultant engineer Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Day, RE (retired), C.Eng., Hon. FIMM, FIMin.E. As a 24-year-old lieutenant in the Royal Engineers (RE), he was in charge of the sappers who excavated the tunnel. He presented me with his original working plans, endorsed with the weekly progress reports and detailed notes of the methods, aids and materials used.

Another lucky find was a series of photographs in the Imperial War Museum of what is described as ‘an underground operation control centre under construction somewhere in the SE Command’. These excellent pictures have been positively identified and present a precise picture of the state of construction on 2 October 1941.

Forward with Newhaven

The Friends of HMS Forward was formed in 1999. Our objective is, and I quote, ‘to restore the former HMS Forward tunnels to a standard conforming with current legislation suitable for public access as a site of historical interest'. Our slogan is 'Forward with Newhaven'. Visit our website to see some unique pictures of the site and its artefacts, and for further information.

In 2000, English Heritage accepted an invitation to visit the tunnels and take a look at what we’d come up with in the course our research. After reviewing the publications and touring the tunnels, they wrote a report on their conclusions, stating that the monument be classified as near complete — the equivalent of Class 2. They also agreed that the site should be visited as part of the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP), having performed a 'vital role in the forefront of both offensive and defensive operations carried out in WWII .'

Saved for posterity

The Friends of HMS Forward wish to acknowledge, with gratitude, a grant awarded by the Millennium Festival Awards for All scheme for the setting up of our group. We should also like to thank Newhaven Town Council for their grants toward our expenses. We also acknowledge, with thanks, the visiting rights and assistance given by the Guinness Trust and other landowners.

Finally, we should like to convey our appreciation of the willing assistance of the former HMS Forward crew, WRNS, RN, ATS, WAAF, RE, and civilians. Without their memoirs and photographs, the story of this establishment, from its conception to demise, would never have been recorded for posterity.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Ownership

Posted on: 07 February 2004 by Pete Mason

This piece, whilst submitted by me, is the work of Geoff Ellis of Newhaven, who has dedicated many years in researching HMS Forward and working towards its preservation.I am mearly the messenger. If you are interested try searching "HMS Forward" and see our website. Pete Mason

Message 1 - Guinness Trust Holiday Home

Posted on: 14 May 2004 by mike miller

I've just read the very interesting account of the secret tunnels under this building at South Heighton.
When I was a kid, in the mid to late 50s, our family spent every summer at this holiday home, because our aunt Rose lived in the Guinness Trust Buildings in Brixton, at the end of Sussex road, off Coldharbour lane.
It was atop a hill with, as has been said, lovely views across the downs, no buildings on the slopes of the hill, apart from another block just a bit further down that I think was old peoples acconmodation, I can't be sure.
The funny thing is, that one of my young friends at the time spoke of secret tunnels under the building and within the hill, but I didn't take it seriously.
Ive got loads of photos taken at the time, some of the swings and paddling pool on the slopes of the hill, our family feature prominently in the photos, of course!
I've very fond memories of this lovely place, its a shame its gone, and the hill built upon.


Message 2 - Guinness Trust Holiday Home

Posted on: 29 May 2004 by Geoffrey Ellis

Hi Mike

Thanks for your comments. If you care to look at the Friends of HMS Forward web site you may find some pictures of interest to you. Drop me an email via the web site if you have any more questions.

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