Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dover Castle: Digital dispatches from the underground

Dover Castle significantly improved our opinion of the city today. Ryan posted separately about the Great Tower, which dates to the 1180s and should resonate with anyone who has watched the Walt Disney version of Robin Hood (it was one of the homes of Richard the Lionhearted and his evil brother, King John. I believe they were both played by lions*). 

A brief history of the casemates (tunnels).
I was fascinated by the secret War Tunnels. Although they date to the Napoleonic Wars, they featured prominently in World War II as the point from which Admiral Bertram Ramsey launched Operation Dynamo. The goal was to save 45,000 of the more than 200,000 British soldiers stranded in Dunkirk following the Battle of France in May-June 1940. Instead, the combination of the British naval fleet, merchant ships, and “little boats” saved more than 338,000 British, French and other Allied soldiers. The Daily Mail has an excellent article about preserving the tunnels and the role they played in the Dunkirk rescue.
What stands out from viewing the military headquarters in the tunnel, as well as the underground military hospital built next door, is how long it took the United States to get involved in the war. Or as Ryan said, “Where the heck were we?” France fell in May 1940, and yet it took 18 months and the attack on Pearl Harbor for America to fully engage.  We probably owe a debt to the British Empire for holding the line as long as it did.
In late 1940, Dover became the frontline for Nazi resistance. The town was bombed 2,226 times, and more than 10,000 buildings were hit. Amazingly, the castle was never hit, leading many Brits to speculate that Hilter wanted it in one piece to use it as a trophy headquarters once he invaded Britian. Fortunately, he never had the chance to show it off.
The hospital bunker was a fully immersive experience; in addition to the sights and sounds of the war, it actually replicated the smells of the mess hall (beef and potatoes) and the operating room (antiseptic). It was a truly enlightening – if slightly claustrophobic -- experience.  The tour ended with a fantastic view of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from the Admiral’s Overlook.

A view of the White Cliffs of Dover above the docks. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear enough to see France on Tuesday.
No photographs were permitted in the tunnels or the hospital due to copyright restrictions. However, Ryan and I emulated a famous photograph of Churchill and the mayor of Dover in front of the tunnel entrance. 

Ryan and Elizabeth in front of the entrance to the secret wartime tunnels. It was cold and windy.

*Corrected from bears on July 14, 2011.

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