History explorer: the Second World War home front
As part of our series in which experts nominate British locations to illustrate historical topics, Juliet Gardiner visits Chislehurst Caves in Kent, home to thousands of people fleeing aerial assault between 1939 and 1945.
In many ways, Kent found itself on the front line throughout the Second World War. The county lay on the direct path of German bombers heading for London, with the planes frequently jettisoning bombs on their return journeys from raids elsewhere in the UK. Aircraft repair sheds and planes on the ground were also subjected to continual attacks as the Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority over the RAF.
On the ground, meanwhile, evacuees had been sent to ‘safety’– which, of course, turned out to be a relative term – in the Kent countryside upon the outbreak of the war in September 1939.
But the war’s effects reached underground, too. Thirty metres beneath an area near a small, leafy, well-to-do Kentish commuter town lay the site of the largest public shelter in Britain equipped for permanent residence. Known as Chislehurst Caves, these tunnels were, in fact, man-made caverns in which chalk and flint had been mined for centuries, creating commodious spaces and some 22 miles of tunnels. They were to prove hugely useful during the conflict: one local family, the Trokes, lived there for five years.
The caves were no stranger to the demands of military combat, however. During the Napoleonic wars, flint for muskets had been hewn from their walls, while in the First World War they had been used as an adjunct to the Woolwich Arsenal to store ammunition. The caves also proved useful in peacetime: in the 1930s, for instance, they were used for growing mushrooms, with their dark, damp conditions ideal for cultivating the crop.
But when the Second World War broke out, their potential as a capacious air-raid shelter was clear. At first only a trickle of people sheltered in the caves, and, in compliance with local authority civil defence regulations, a trench capable of sheltering 50 people was dug at the entrance.
Within weeks of the start of the Blitz on 7 September 1940, this band of locals had swelled to a group of more than 15,000 people fleeing the aerial assault on London. At first the shelterers had only what they could carry, sleeping in deck chairs or on blankets and cushions on the cold earth floor, fortified by a bottle of tea and buns or sandwiches. Oil drums or dustbins containing creosote served as lavatories, while flickering candles or oil lamps provided the majority of the lighting (there were some torches, although batteries proved increasingly hard to buy). Despite all this, the caves proved so popular that special trains from Cannon Street were laid on to bring workers from London in the evening and take them back to the capital the next morning.
Soon, largely due to the efforts of a small self-appointed committee – consisting of a clergyman, a mushroom-grower and a retired rubber-planter – a small underground town had emerged, complete with electric light, proper sanitation and ventilation. Bunk beds were provided from January 1941, and hooks were driven into the walls so that curtains or sacking could be hung to create a degree of privacy. A ‘cathedral’, so called because of its domed chalk ceiling, was used regularly for religious services, with chairs for the congregation and an altar.
The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) set up a canteen selling tea and buns and hot food, while the Red Cross ran an underground hospital to provide first aid and care for the sick, elderly and pregnant. One baby was born in the caves and, following the suggestions of fellow residents, her parents gave her a middle name reflecting the circumstances of her birth: Rose Cavena Wakeman.
It was not until January 1941 that civil defence authorities designated the caves as a public shelter, but by the May of that year the Blitz was effectively over and few people felt the need to shelter underground. However, exactly a week after D-Day, on 13 June 1944, the first of Hitler’s long-expected ‘secret weapons’ – the V1 pilotless missile – launched from the coasts of the Netherlands and France and fell on London. It was followed in September by the deadly ballistic missile, the V2 rocket.
The exodus from the capital resumed and, soon, more than 2,000 people sought safety in the caves. One section was reserved for service personnel – particularly members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) from nearby Biggin Hill airfield – to ensure that they could get a good night’s sleep before resuming their duties the next day.
There had always been rules for shelterers, but these were tightened up in 1944 to cope with the renewed influx. No admission to the dormitory areas of the caves was permitted after 9.30pm, or 10.30pm during ‘double summer time’ – which had been introduced in May 1941 to make it possible for farmers and gardeners to dig and plough for longer during daylight hours, to cut down on the accidents and inconveniences caused by blackout regulations, and to save on electricity. Children were required to be in their pitches by 9.30pm and stay there; all music had to cease by 9pm.
The rules on absence were also made more rigorous: while previously a pitch could be left vacant for 20 days before it was reclaimed, it was now presumed that if a site had been left empty for four days it was due to its occupants having been killed or seriously wounded by a V1 or V2 attack.
Just five days after VE Day, on 13 May 1945, the caves were officially closed as an air-raid shelter. Some residents lingered: as a result of the bombardment that Britain had suffered, they no longer had any other home to go to.
Since the end of the Second World War, Chislehurst Caves have been used for various purposes: as a music venue, a tourist attraction, and the location for various films and television series. They are well worth a visit, with scenes of what life would have been like for the shelterers authentically recreated throughout.
The caves remain an important monument to the civilian experience during the Second World War, and indicate the natural human desire to dive underground when attacks come from above. But resolve and courage would have been needed during those long months of aerial attrition, living in the dark and cold in minimum comfort.
While the inhabitants were there, night after night, unaware of what was happening outside, a genuine community sprang up: a piano was brought underground and there were concerts, sing-songs, even dancing. All of this ably demonstrates the courage, and ingenuity, with which the British people sought to ‘take it’ during the relentless bombardment of the Blitz and V attacks.
Second World War home front sites: five more to explore
Many places of worship were destroyed or badly damaged during the Blitz, most famously Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed in 1940. Indeed, its devastation was shown in newsreel cinemas around the UK to exemplify the extent of Germany’s barbarism. Basil Spence, the designer of its Grade I-listed modernist replacement, insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral were kept alongside as a symbol of remembrance and reconciliation.
Other churches were also left in ruins as a memorial to Britain’s wartime suffering, including the 13th-century Christchurch, Greyfriars, in the City of London and St Luke’s in Liverpool.
Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks
A V1 flying bomb – known as a ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzz bomb’ – hit the Royal Military chapel in St James’s Park during morning service on Sunday 18 June 1944, killing 121 people, both civilians and military personnel, and seriously injuring 141.
The Guards Chapel, as it is called, is just round the corner from Buckingham Palace and is the spiritual home of the Household Division.
Balham tube station, London
From the start of the Blitz, Londoners swarmed down to London’s underground network when the siren went. At first there were no facilities, but gradually sanitation, bunks and canteens were provided for the 70,000 people who slept on platforms most nights. But even the tube was not safe.
The worst incident was at Balham station on 14 October 1940 when 66 people died, most of whom suffocated or drowned when gas, water and sewage pipes fractured. A plaque in the station’s booking hall marks the event.
Liverpool was a major port and Britain’s main link with the US, with 90 per cent of all war supplies passing through it. As a result, Merseyside was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Britain. It was first attacked on 28 August 1940 and endured 50 raids in the next three months.
The ‘Christmas Blitz’ of 20–22 December killed 365 people, while on 3/4 May 1941 some 300 Luftwaffe bombers converged on Liverpool. The SS Malalkand, carrying 1,000 tonnes of bombs and shells bound for the Middle East, was hit: the explosions lasted for 74 hours. Half the port’s shipping berths were rendered unusable, 57 vessels were destroyed and the dock’s entrance blocked.
The Italian chapel, Orkney
A number of Italian PoWs, captured in the Western Desert, were sent to the Orkneys in 1941 to build barriers against attack by German U-boats. Strictly speaking this was war work, and against the Geneva Convention: prisoners led a hard life, hewing rocks in the bitter cold.
To keep up morale, some decided to build their own Roman Catholic chapel: two Nissen huts were joined up and an interned artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, recruited fellow craftsmen to transform the corrugated iron huts into a beautiful place of worship with paintings, a campanile and a carved head of Christ.
Juliet Gardiner is a social historian, writer and broadcaster. Her most recent books are The Thirties: An Intimate History and The Blitz: The British Under Attack (both HarperPress, 2010)