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Hidden wartime Kent: The relics of the world wars which still exist today


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When a father and his young sons recently found an unexploded bomb on the beach in Folkestone , it acted as a reminder that although the Second World War ended some 75 years ago , its impact on our landscape is still being felt.

But the odd piece of washed up ordnance is just the tip of a wartime iceberg when it comes to relics in the county which hark back to the two major world wars which defined the 20th century.

Relics of the two world wars are now landmarks of the county's towns and villages. Picture: MOD/Crown
Relics of the two world wars are now landmarks of the county's towns and villages. Picture: MOD/Crown

In what is far from an exhaustive list, we take a look at some of the remains which have long since become part of the county's rich historic tapestry.

Sea forts

If you've ever stood on the shingle beaches of Islington-on-Sea - known to us county folk as Whitstable - then you will almost certainly have peered out to the horizon and been confronted by two areas of interest. The first is the Kentish Flats windfarm turbines turning wind into power. The second, and now looking rather tiny in comparison, is the Maunsell Forts .

Looking a little like alien creatures heading to shore - their concrete legs supporting rust-stained, now abandoned, steel buildings on top of them - they're are known locally as the Red Sands Sea Forts given their location.

They take their generic name from Guy Maunsell, the civil engineer tasked with designing a host of sea forts to protect the nation during the Second World War.

The Maunsell Forts off the Kent coast
The Maunsell Forts off the Kent coast

Maunsell, who also saw the construction of similar forts in the Mersey, was a man who knew a thing or two about concrete and it's hard to argue given their longevity. (After the war, his company, which pioneered the use of pre-stressed concrete, would go on build the Hammersmith Flyover - arguably not as fascinating to look out as the forts. He died coincidentally, in Tunbridge Wells in 1961).

But his forts have long outlived him.

Built in Gravesend before being towed out into position, the forts were designed to protect the Thames Estuary - both as a visual look-out for enemy aircraft, as well as a gun turret.

Originally, the seven towers in the cluster were linked by metal walkways and there had been plans to haul them back inland in the 1950s until the cost of such a venture was calculated and the decision was taken to leave them.

Today, they prove a destination for boats trips, have appeared in a music video for The Prodigy and have even been touted as a £1,000-a-night luxury hotel, complete with heli-pad.

The sea forts are popular with boat trips. Picture: Tony Flashman
The sea forts are popular with boat trips. Picture: Tony Flashman

First World War Tank

For anyone familiar with Ashford, it can be far too easy to overlook the tank which has acted as a landmark in the town centre for more than 100 years.

But the Mark IV tank has stood in St George's Square since 1919.

The vast majority of these forms of tanks, which were introduced to the battlefields of the Great War in 1917, were scrapped in the 20 years after the war, but a number were presented to towns to act as a 'thank you' for their fundraising efforts to the National War Savings campaign.

However, the tank which is today one of the last of its type to be on public outdoor display, is thought to have been used for training and not used in any battle. In fact, it's thought it hadn't even left the UK before being transported to Ashford's railway station and then driven through the town centre, to the delight of the crowds gathered to watch its progress, to the place it remains today.

Ashford's First World War tank. Picture: Andy Jones
Ashford's First World War tank. Picture: Andy Jones

Since it was presented, the tank's engine was removed and, in 1929, an electricity substation installed inside - which remained until 1968. A fact which saw it survive the fate of similar machines presented to Folkestone, Maidstone and Canterbury - all of which were scrapped to help the Second World War effort. However, by then it was an established landmark and has been maintained ever since . Today it is Grade II-listed and, since 2006, is recognised as a war memorial.

German submarine

Sometimes nature reveals a little piece of history which can be truly jaw-dropping.

So you can imagine the interest generated when low tides following a storm surge in 2013 provided a better than normal look at the remains of a German U-boat which has laid in the mud in Humble Bee Creek on marshes at the Isle of Grain for almost 100 years.

Believed to be UB122, it was one of more than 100 German submarines seized following the end of the First World War - as part of the surrender agreement - and taken to Medway for dismantling.

The U-boat which lies in the mud after being towed in 1921 to be scrapped. Picture: Alan Watkins
The U-boat which lies in the mud after being towed in 1921 to be scrapped. Picture: Alan Watkins

As was the practice, it was being towed in 1921 to be scrapped and useful parts extracted – possible at a cement works in Halling.

But its tow broke and it found itself up the proverbial creek without the prerequisite paddle.

It had only launched in February 1918 and had been on only two patrols before the end of the war saw its demise.

Armed with 10 torpedoes when she first rolled off the production line, she could cater for up to 30 crew.

Today the mud continues to act as a preservative but its structure remains fragile and visitors - who can only access the site by boat - are urged not to touch it.

Remains of U-boat abandoned on the Kentish marshes, at Humble Bee Creek. Picture: English Heritage
Remains of U-boat abandoned on the Kentish marshes, at Humble Bee Creek. Picture: English Heritage

Tunnels

Now, when it comes to underground structures , we could be here all day when it comes to the labyrinth which lurks beneath of our feet - the majority of which were constructed in the event of war. There are Cold War bunkers in Gravesend , and, of course, Dover Castle boasts tunnels constructed on the instruction of Winston Churchill which are today open to the public.

But it is perhaps Ramsgate which lays claim to some of the most fascinating.

Ramsgate Tunnels provided a refuge for the town as German bombers ditched their deadly cargo as they overhead - frequently targetting nearby RAF Manston and missing - and thousands took advantage. Built off an existing Victorian railway tunnel, the maze of tunnels - built for civilian use, not the military - proved such a safe haven during bombardments, many families decided to live there throughout the conflict with make-shift bunks constructed. It is estimated that at its peak of 'popularity' some 1,000 were living there permanently. Shopkeepers set up stalls and there was even a hospital.

Access was through a number of entry points in the event of an air raid.

Sleeping facilities along the Ramsgate Tunnels. Picture: Gary Browne
Sleeping facilities along the Ramsgate Tunnels. Picture: Gary Browne

Sealed up and abandoned when hostilities ended, apart from a few daring youngsters, few entered the tunnels until they were reopened as a tourist attraction in 2014 and are well worth a visit.

They were not the only town to make such a move.

Chislehurst Caves - now in the London Borough of Bromley but during the war still part of Kent - were used as a natural air raid shelter too. It also became hugely popular with some 15,000 using the tunnels during the Blitz which decimated so many parts of the capital. During the First World War it had been used a storage site for munitions for the nearby Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Today you're more likely to find tourists.

Secret bunker

Built undergound, this secret bunker in the Hollingbourne countryside was designed to be one of our last hopes in the event that German invaders had crossed the Channel and occupied Kent during the Second World War.

Chislehurst Caves was also a haven during the Blitz
Chislehurst Caves was also a haven during the Blitz

Accessed by a hatch, the rooms in what was known as a Zero Station were cleverly designed to appear to be a simple store room - hopefully fooling any German patrols. But a false door would reveal a communications centre.

During the war the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Organisation was established. By recruiting non-Army figures, particularly those who would be expected to move around the country for the purpose of their job, their role was to provide information to feed into a resistance movement against invading forces.

As a result, everyone from vicars to postmen, farmers to doctors were trained how to collect information and then leave their reports in 'dead letter boxes' for collection - such as discarded tin cans or trees.

Trained to help sabotage German forces if they arrived on our shores, the purposes of these buildings, which were built around the country, was for the information to be collected and then transmitted to a central unit in Wiltshire to track German troop movements and spy on their progress if the worst happened.

Today the site is abandoned.

Inside the Hollingbourne Zero Station
Inside the Hollingbourne Zero Station

Sunken bomb ship

The SS Richard Montgomery really needs no introduction. And she certainly won't wait for one if her delicate cargo decides to ignite.

And the much written-about, much-discussed and, ultimately much feared , US munitions ship is perhaps the county's single biggest reminder of the violent brute force of war and how it's impact can last for generations.

Having made a journey from Delaware, in the US, to the Thames Estuary, en route to Cherbourg, loaded with bombs, she became stranded on a sand bank off the coast of Sheerness, broke her back and sank. And despite some of her estimated 1,400 tonnes of explosives being removed in the early days, the vast bulk had to be left amid safety concerns. An excuse which continues to this day.

We've all heard the stories as to the extent of the damage caused should the explosives all go up in smoke. Safe to say, no-one really knows, but it wouldn't be pretty.

Now the ship's masts can still be seen poking out from her watery grave - and prove a popular attraction for boat trips - while the area around the ship remains a tightly-controlled exclusion zone. However, if you want to glimpse those masts time is running out to do so. The government recently announced it had put out to tender a £5m contract to cut the decaying masts off to prevent them tumbling down on the explosives which lie beneath.

Masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery off Sheerness. Picture: Maritime & Coastguard Agency
Masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery off Sheerness. Picture: Maritime & Coastguard Agency

Beach defences

It's all too often easy to think that victory in the Second World War was a foregone conclusion; that good would triumph over evil. The reality was that it seemed inevitable that the German forces sweeping across Europe would invade at some point and so plenty of steps were taken to slow their path.

In fact, had you strayed onto much of Kent's coastline during the war, you would have been greeted with barbed wire by the bucketload, armed look-outs and if the beach could have suited amphibious landing craft, the chances are there were plenty of mines hidden too (stretches between Deal and Sandwich had a network of mines, all linked, to slow any invasion; while in Sandgate, near Folkestone, a mine was recovered as recently as 1961).

One of these lines of defence were anti-tank defences at key points. Those still visible today include on the coast of Grain . They resemble a string of concrete teeth - or white chocolate Toblerones - and stretch more than 500-metres along the coast. Such is their historical significance they are now Grade II-listed.

In addition, on the beach between Littlestone and Dymchurch on the Romney Marsh are the remains of what was known as Admiralty Scaffolding. Using a combination of steel poles these were designed to be an effective defence against both boats and tanks. Although looking at them today it's hard to see how they would have provided much to slow the onslaught of invading forces.

This was the coast during wartime in Seasalter, near Whitstable, with the Admiralty scaffolding lining the waterline
This was the coast during wartime in Seasalter, near Whitstable, with the Admiralty scaffolding lining the waterline

Sited around the half tide mark they were liberally spread across the county's coastline and sold for scrap after the war ended.

Once the entire stretch of beach was lined with the contraptions.

While only remnants now remain, at low tide, the skeletons of many can clearly be seen - a reminder of how the Marsh was identified as a key landing spot for Operation Sea Lion - Hitler's thwarted bid to invade our nation .

In fact, parts of the Marsh, just over the East Sussex border, were flooded to prevent such easy landing opportunities and, had German forces arrived, it was proposed to demolish dykes along the Royal Military Canal to flood more areas to slow down the invaders.

Notable others

A remaining pillbox in Wickhambreaux, near Canterbury. Picture: Chris Davey
A remaining pillbox in Wickhambreaux, near Canterbury. Picture: Chris Davey

They may not win many design awards - and estate agents would be hard pushed to describe them as anything other than 'bijou' - but the pillboxes which remain scattered across Kent's landscapes remind us all that the Second World War really wasn't all that long ago.

Short and stout concrete boxes - often sunk into the ground - they provided look-outs and the opportunity to repel invading forces with small gaps for the exchange of gun fire. What's more, they were built during both the world wars.

Today, you can spot them in various locations - particularly around former airfields and along our coastline .

Think the First World War and trenches rather quickly come to mind. But there were plenty built in the county too during the conflict.

While not so easy to spot anymore, trenches were built to help in the protection of the nation in the event of an invasion.

You can make out the outline of First World War training trenches in Saltwood Picture: Historic England
You can make out the outline of First World War training trenches in Saltwood Picture: Historic England

The most notable snaked from Sheppey down to Maidstone and was a maze of barbed wire, pillboxes, and gun emplacements.

In addition, there were defences along the edge of the North Downs, including Sevenoaks and Westerham.

The aim was to prevent the advance of troops landing in east Kent and looking to make their way inland towards London. There are also a host of training trenches - some of which were in Saltwood, near Folkestone.

Also, in Birchington, in Thanet, there are zig-zag trenches still visible (albeit only via drone from above) on the cliff-top - believed to date back to the Second World War.

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