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The Secret Tunnels of South Heighton

by Pete Mason

Contributed by 
Pete Mason
People in story: 
Geoffrey Ellis
Location of story: 
Newhaven 1941-5
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 July 2003

Author: Geoffrey Ellis. Secretary, Friends of HMS Forward

Subject. The abandoned and unrenowned tunnels of HMS FORWARD, Royal Naval Headquarters, NEWHAVEN, East Sussex. 1939-1945.

In 1941 when I was a seven-year- old lad, I walked to and from my school along the B2109 Newhaven to Beddingham Rd. One day in May 1941 the army arrived and started digging a tunnel into the bank at the side of the road. Some months later I frequently chatted with the sentries guarding the tunnel entrance, but they could not be persuaded to let me peep round the bend just inside the entrance. Later on, when the tunnel was abandoned at the end of 1945 I got my chance, and together with a colleague and a couple of torches we inched into the depths of the complex interior’s impenetrable darkness. Little did I realise that this was to lead to a lifetime’s fascination and hobby.

Deep beneath Heighton Hill, one mile north of Newhaven in East Sussex, lay the forgotten remains of a once vibrant maritime intelligence centre which remained undetected by the foe during WWII, and unknown to the country thereafter. Only recently has it been realised just how secret this establishment was, and how important its contribution to the war effort must have been.

Newhaven Royal Naval Headquarters originated during the tumultuous early years of the war when invasion seemed a likely sequel to the fall of France. Originally Newhaven was a casualty clearing station for the British Expeditionary Force in France, and there was some discussion whether Newhaven could be demilitarised and declared an 'open town' under the Geneva Red Cross Convention. Twelve fully equipped hospital boats plied between Newhaven and Dieppe, with special trains to carry the sick and wounded further inland. Medical supplies were conveyed by return.

Geographically, Newhaven lies roughly midway between Dover and Portsmouth and has the only river in the area that is navigable at all states of the tide. Newhaven harbour, with its Marine workshops and facilities for maintaining cross-channel steamers and vessels with tail shafts of up to 19ft, ample berthing facilities, and a marine passenger terminal with its own dedicated railway terminus made Newhaven a desirable prize for the enemy. With the fall of Dunkirk, military defence quickly thwarted all considerations of ‘open town’ status. The Army arrived, and evicted the Navy from their quarters at the Sheffield Arms Hotel. The Senior Service, in its turn, requisitioned the highly suitable Guinness Trust Holiday Home from 20 June 1940, for the duration.

The Guinness Trust Holiday Home was an architecturally pleasant building. Built in 1938, it stood majestically on Heighton Hill looking down on lush green meadows in the Ouse valley, with views to Newhaven Harbour, Seaford Bay and the English Channel. It was built to provide holiday accommodation for city-bound tenants of the Guinness Trust Estates, and had sixteen dormitory apartments with a communal dining room and sun lounge. Most apartments had access to a large sun terrace and lawn, whilst a private suite on the first floor housed a resident caretaker.

Under the sterner title of HMS FORWARD, the holiday home became a Royal Naval Headquarters. It had responsibility 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; and a naval canteen service was organised for the area. Gracie Field's former home, now Dorothy House, 127, Dorothy Avenue, Peacehaven was requisitioned to provide a fully staffed and equipped Special Sick Quarters. Numerous large residential establishments were requisitioned, locally and at Seaford, to accommodate the WRNS. It is recorded that there were eventually over ten thousand naval staff on HMS FORWARD's ledgers.

HMS FORWARD 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 reorganisation of the sub-command and the provision of maritime protection for the Sussex coastline and harbours with minefields and blockships.

In March 1941, an Admiralty direction ordered specified ports to establish and maintain naval plots in conjunction with a coastal radar chain giving surface coverage from the Dover area. The coverage soon spread to Newhaven where in order to provide adequate security for the necessary communications equipment required for intelligence gathering, interpretation, and dissemination, it was decided to accommodate it in a shelter more than sixty feet below ground deep beneath Heighton Hill.

The principal operational entrance to the underground shelter was situated in room 16 of the Guinness Trust Holiday Home. It gave access via one hundred and twenty two steps to an impenetrable fortress containing the most sophisticated contemporary communications devices. There were two telephone exchanges, ten teleprinters, two Typex machines, a W/T office with eleven radios, and a VF line telegraph terminal for 36 channels. The tunnels contained 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 and the complex was well equipped for every contingency, from failure of the public utilities to direct enemy action.

The complex was designed and built by the Royal Engineers; 172 Tunnelling Coy dug it and 577 Army Field Coy fitted it out. Excavation of the tunnel commenced in May 1941 and some 1800 ft 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 also shared the tunnel and maintained a headquarters here.

Ten coastal radar stations between Fairlight and Bognor Regis reported directly to HMS FORWARD every twenty minutes - more often if necessary. All their information was filtered and plotted before being relayed by teleprinter to similar plots at 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 means of private telephone lines. For operational security reasons each plot understudied its neighbour. HMS FORWARD understudied Fort Southwick at Portsmouth and vice-versa.

Initially, WRNS personnel staffed the W/T office, the teleprinters, the cipher office, the telephone switchboards, the Signals Distribution office and the Naval Plot on a continuous three-watch rota. They were supplemented by RN ratings for 'special' occasions, and on D-Day were joined by members of the RAF, WAAF, and ATS. These crew wore headphones, not helmets; brandished Morse keys, rather than machine guns; despatched bulletins, not bullets; and carefully contemplated the courses of clandestine convoys.

HMS FORWARD was heavily involved in the saga of the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneiseneau and Prinz Eugen on 11 February 1942, and in the Dieppe Raid of 19 August 1942. It played a crucial role in nightly naval 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, air-sea rescue was also co-ordinated from here.

The tunnel was excavated under Emergency Powers Legislation for the Defence of the Realm and as such was not recorded with the Land Registry. Upon abandonment the labyrinth passed into the ownership of the original landowner(s) although technically it remained a secret place for some thirty years. Few official records survived the Royal Navy's withdrawal from HMS FORWARD. No national body attempted to record or publicise its extraordinary history. Indeed, in 1996 the Imperial War Museum initially denied its existence.

I was a twelve-year-old lad when I first entered the tunnel and I can remember vividly the mixed emotions of exploring this seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors, galleries, rooms, and stairways. Was there anybody else in here with us? Could we get lost? What if our torches failed? Would we ever find our way out again? The sights and scenes of that initial visit remain indelibly etched in my memory. Large quantities of naval message pads and rolls of teleprinter paper covered the floor. There was complex air conditioning trunking and its fish-eye louvres, numerous cables neatly secured to endless Braby cable tray, wooden stairways, and carnage wrought by looters who sought to liberate anything they thought to be of value. Much of what I saw then no longer exists or is no longer accessible.

Following my early ‘voluntary’ retirement in 1991 from the GPO, PO Telecommunications, British Telecom (same firm, different headed notepaper!) and with some 40 years experience in all contemporary forms of communication, I decided to investigate the facts behind HMS FORWARD, merely to satisfy my continuing curiosity. When initial enquiries of the Imperial War Museum and the Public Records Office failed to produce any tangible results, I appealed through local newspapers, ‘Old Pals’ teletext pages, Charlie Chester’s Sunday Soapbox, ‘Yours’ magazine, and the newsletters of a plethora of military veterans’ associations including the Association of Wrens.

Thanks to the carefully kept autograph books, photograph albums, and other paraphernalia retained by those veterans who responded to my appeals, it has been possible to discover the purposes of the various rooms in the tunnel, the equipment that was installed therein, how the centre operated and for what purpose. We even have the names of many of the crew who served there. None of this grass-roots detail would have been available from any other source. I’m pleased to relate that my research has rekindled many former WRNS friendships that had lapsed over the years. I have been welcomed into the homes of many of my correspondents as a firm friend.

During the 1970s Heighton 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 lies beneath. Fortunately I learned of this proposed redevelopment in 1964 and took the only photographs now known to exist that show details of the derelict disguised observation post and hillside pillboxes.

Today, the only visible sign of past military activity at Denton House (formerly the Guinness Trust Holiday Home) is a granite commemorative plaque above the fireplace in the main hall. On the plaque, 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 covertly recorded by the bricklayer who built the solid wall that sealed the principal operational entrance to the tunnel. This read 21 November 1945, and is a certain indicator that the property was still in the hands of the Ministry of Works at that time. Unfortunately, the partial demolition of Denton House in 1996 precludes further use of the principal entrance of this maritime intelligence centre. The western wing of Denton House containing room 16 was razed to make way for new housing.

News of the proposed partial demolition of Denton House 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 to conduct a detailed survey of the labyrinth below. They kindly consented on condition that there would be no publicity that might increase vandalism in the vacant property.

Over the ensuing few 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, and a model of the complex is now displayed at the nearby Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum, Paradise Park, Avis Road, Newhaven, BN9 0DH.

In 1996 when local-history publisher Steve Benz learned of the revelations of my research he pressed me into writing a local history book entitled “The Secret Tunnels of South Heighton” that became an overnight success. Video footage shot during milestone research events has been added to recorded interviews with ten HMS FORWARD veterans to produce an hour-long tribute to the establishment for posterity. Their personal memoirs provide authentic corroborated first-hand information about the otherwise unrecorded details concerning the equipment, accommodation, procedures, and administration of this establishment.

In 1997 South Heighton Parish Council named a new road 'Forward Close' to publicly commemorate the existence of the Royal Naval headquarters that very nearly disappeared incognito.

In 1998 a chance enquiry resulted in the discovery of mining consulting engineer Lt. Col Dennis Day R.E., (ret’d) C.Eng., Hon F.I.M.M., F.I.Min.E., who as a 24-year-old Lt. R.E. was in charge of the Sappers who excavated the tunnel. He presented me with his retained original working plans endorsed with weekly progress and detailed notes of the methods, aids, and materials used. Another chance discovery was the finding of a series of photographs of “an underground operation control centre under construction somewhere in the S.E. Command” in the Imperial War Museum. These excellent pictures have now been positively identified as proper to this site. They present a precise picture of the state of construction on 2 October 1941.

A group called The Friends of HMS Forward was formed in 1999 with the objective of ''Restoring 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 review the results and revelations of our research. After reviewing the publications and touring the tunnels they concluded…

"In terms of its survival we would suggest that the monument could be classified as near complete (the equivalent of Class 2 in terms of the classification system developed to grade monuments of contemporary WWII date such as radar stations). We note that the internal fittings are largely missing but this is not unusual or surprising, a significant loss to the site however is the absence of the surface buildings such as the pillboxes and the "chicken shed". Had these survived the site could well have been classified as Class 1 complete.

"We are agreed that the site is of national importance and that it should be visited as part of the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) directed at examining sites of national importance across England in relation to their statutory protection.

"For future purposes in dealing with other bodies you may certainly state that there is a firm recognition from English Heritage that the site is of National Importance having performed a vital role in the forefront of both offensive and defensive operations carried out in WWII."

The Friends of HMS Forward wish to acknowledge with gratitude a grant awarded by the Millennium Festival Awards for All Scheme towards the setting up of our group, and to Newhaven Town Council for their grants towards our expenses. We also acknowledge with thanks the permissions and assistance given by Guinness Trust and various landowners. Finally we acknowledge the willing assistance given by the former HMS FORWARD crew WRNS, RN, ATS, WAAF, RE and civilians without whose memoirs and photographs the story of this establishment from its conception to its demise would never have been recorded for posterity.

Geoffrey Ellis. July 2003. (2580 words).

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