Secret Tunnels of South Heighton

Until 1993, all knowledge of an underground top secret Second World War intelligence centre was denied by the MOD, but one local resident, Geoff Ellis, knew the truth – he watched the excavations as a small boy.

In 1941, 130 miners dug 550 yards of tunnels through rock chalk and seams of hard flint 20m below South Heighton, north of Newhaven, in just 17 weeks. The purpose of the project was to house 100 or so naval personnel who monitored the sea off the Sussex coast midway between the strategic ports of Dover and Portsmouth. Staff co-ordinated and controlled shipping movements and plotted enemy ship movements in the English Channel using radar. The tunnels had a small opening at the base of the hill but the main entrance was at the top of the hill in the Guinness Trust Holiday Home that was built in 1938 but requisitioned by the Royal Navy after Dunkirk in 1940. The building and tunnels were named HMS Forward. After the war, the MOD sold the lot to a property developer which led to many houses being constructed over the tunnel.

Today, Geoff Ellis helps the Friends of HMS Forward, whose objective is to “restore the tunnels to a standard conforming to current legislation suitable for public access as a site of historical interest”. The tunnels were once used to defeat the Germans but a new enemy has now surfaced – one particularly difficult resident who lives above won’t allow visitors below his land and is trying to persuade Tony Blair to fill in the tunnels. This legal situation can be compared to that of the residents above the disused Kemp Town rail tunnel that runs from the bingo hall on Eastern Road to the school on Elm Grove. Fortunately, in June 2000 English Heritage declared these tunnels to be of National Importance.

For more information on Newhaven and the tunnels go to www.newhavenmuseum.co.uk and www.secret-tunnels.co.uk. Newhaven Museum’s curator, Peter Bailey, likes to talk and knows everything about everything! The museum has many great displays including a scale model of the tunnels. Outside is a rusty WWI U-boat gun that was pulled out of the Channel 80 years after sinking and has been on display since 2001. Sussex Police looked rather silly recently when they asked for a firearms certificate for the 16ft chunk of iron that is blocked with shale, mud and a metal stopper.

Photographs can be viewed at www.secret-tunnels.co.uk