30th September 1994
It’s not much more than fifty years later, but a Roman centurion returning to Hadrian’s Wall after two millennia might have less of a problem in recognising his surroundings. To say our fortifications are in ruins would be an understatement. It is true that the location of one of the 15-inch guns of Wanstone Battery can be deduced, but the other is buried in rubbish; the four 9.5-inch emplacements at South Foreland are represented by chalky indentations amidst the scrub; the 6-inch guns of Fan Bay Battery have vanished into rough grassland as if they had never been.
Tomorrow, though, it will be time to go back to our erstwhile home – my own home for six months in 1943 – the headquarters of 540 Coast Artillery Regiment at the Low Lighthouse. This building at least is still clearly visible on the cliff edge at South Foreland, its distinctive tower rising above the trees, although the twin parabolas of B(p)8, the radar station installed in the former lamp room and one of my wartime charges, will long since have been removed.
17th October 1943
540 is behind me now, but it is indeed a regiment of which to be proud – certainly the crack coast artillery regiment in the country, with equipment far in advance of any other. Strict discipline and shining brass do not make life too happy for the men, but the appearance of the place and the drill in action is grand.
Everything about the regiment is first class. The mess an old lighthouse perched on the edge of the white cliffs, converted into a luxury villa with beautiful gardens some time ago and taken over by 540 in toto.
The anteroom bay window and the adjacent dining room both look out across the sea. B(p)8 is installed in the lighthouse part of the building; a curious and awkward arrangement, but it is the only fire control radar which can operate in high winds.
1st October 1994
The dogs. There were two of them. Light brown in colour, and with hair which managed to be both dull and gleaming at the same time, rising in their state of fury into a sort of spiky ruff. It was the size and weight of the brutes, though, which was the problem; this and their healthy sets of teeth.
The wooden gate between us looked secure enough, but shuddered erratically under the frenzied impact of these hounds from hell, barking, biting the wood, snarling, drooling and physically forcing their paws and snouts into every available crevice of the gate in an orgy of hatred. How was a legitimate visitor supposed to get past – go for some poisoned meat, or ram the gate down from within the safety of the car?
Certainly not open it, and no human face – friendly or otherwise – appeared in the windows of the house despite the noise and the presence of a couple of expensive looking cars in the driveway. What sort of person, anyhow, takes such draconian steps to guard his home, even if it does give the impression of undue wealth and stand semi-isolated on a cliff top?
The National Trust man had said he believed the disused Lower Light to lie in the grounds of the house of the lunatic dogs, but on reflection it began to seem he may have been mistaken. A leafy avenue led straight past them, and through an adjoining gate uncompromisingly labelled ‘Private’. A few paces beyond the private sign it became apparent that the dogs were being left behind, and indeed had decided that as far as they were concerned entry here was a matter of indifference. The only defence of this private place was its notice board.
At the end of the avenue was another gate, newly painted a sticky green. ‘Dolphin’s Leap’ it said. Dolphins do indeed leap. What a piffling suburban name, though, to apply to so gracious a building as the Low Light!
Opening one half of the green gate caused the clanking of a cow bell – also green – mounted strategically at the inner edge of the other, followed by a deep silence.
Through the tracery of the branches I could now make out the shape of the lighthouse tower close by. I moved cautiously forward.
3rd May 1943
540 RHQ party started at 12am. Mess crowded with officers of all batteries in regiment and about half a dozen lady friends. Snowdon brought a rather wise looking but sociable girl of 28 or so from Canterbury. Stockman brought his wife – blonde, 30, sweet, sociable. Adjutant brought several rather tough hard-eyed females. Everyone drinking free spirits and cocktails fairly rapidly for one and a half hours. Seemed to be no shortage of pastries, trifles, drinks, chocolate, cigarettes.
Party went to a pub in St Margaret’s for dinner leaving only myself (Duty Radio Officer) and Slee (Duty Fire Control Officer) to dine amidst the wreckage of the mess. Slee had had too many ‘gimlets’ and complained of being drunk, although he answered the telephone with a sober enough voice when called to it. Hot thick gravy-like soup and a heavy dinner did not seem right after jam tarts, trifles, lettuce sandwiches and sausage rolls.
17th October 1943
The requirement of 540 was not to fire at the French coast but to do its best to deny the Channel to enemy shipping. During my time there the Germans confined themselves to one coast-hugging convoy per month, on a moonless night and at the highest available tide. It was a tribute to the deterrent effect of the radar-controlled gunfire that successive convoys tracked closer and closer to France – hence the significance of a high tide.
Moon and tide times being known it was possible to predict action nights in advance and warn the Dover Civil Defence when the town was likely to be shelled. The procedure was routine. German shipping appears on the radars, it comes within range, 540 guns open up, ten minutes later German coastal guns commence punitive shelling of Dover.
The next day the inhabitants of Dover express irritation that 540 had unaccountably chosen to initiate and exchange of gunfire in the middle of a dark and often misty night.
At such an extreme range shells descended with a steep trajectory and it was not easy to hit any specific target, but in early summer we were allocated a brand new ‘fall of shot’ radar which displayed the area under observation as a plan instead of in the conventional line format. On the PPI (Plan Position Indicator) screen we could see the French coast with the cliffs showing up strongly; any ship appeared as a cigar-shaped blip of light. A splash thrown up by a shell produced a similar blip. On action nights the endeavour of the gunners was to cause the two types of blip to coincide.
7th May 1943
After supper Snowdon, Emmett and I started a discussion which went on until 12.10am, and we got so deep into it that we did not bother to leave the supper table.
We discussed many things, but mainly the decay of civilisations with particular reference to this one, means of forestalling decay, and the relative importance of individuals and social trends in determining the course of history. I expounded my theory of the need to educate people to understand and control the historic trends. Snowdon believed this would be propaganda rather than education, and would lead to an authoritarian state. I explained that the spreading of facts is education, not propaganda, but the difficulty, as Snowdon pointed out, is first to educate the educators.
The discussion was stopped by the entry of the CO, who stood with his heels on the fender as he drank his late night whisky, breathed noisily, ate biscuits noisily, talked in the CO manner, and generally brought us back to the realities of life.
17th October 1943
The Colonel – so knowing, dignified, self important, Lord of all he surveyed. A benevolent dictator. Stout, red faced. How he loved to puff out his chest, fully attired with peaked cap, Sam Browne, gaiters, gloves and stick. Long may he live, but may his race perish from the earth!
30th September 1994
Our guide from the Kent Defence Research Group – ‘This depression is Fan Hole. Fan Bay Battery was originally Fan Hole Battery, but Colonel Richards changed its name. He said none of his men was ever to find himself in a hole; he would not allow them to use the deep shelters either.
‘Oh yes. He is dead. He became Brigadier Richards, but died after the war without ever going back to 540 Regiment. It would have broken his heart.’
January 1993. ‘Note on the Development of the English Channel’.
The broad tectonic configuration of south east England dates from the Alpine Orogeny of around 30 million years ago, and the resultant chalk ridge connecting the Dover area to north east France remained in place until well into the Pleistocene Period. It was probably first breached around 500,000 years ago during Glaciation Stage 12, the Elsterian/Anglian, by far the most severe of the glacial episodes.
The initial breach, possibly catastrophic, is believed to have been caused by the overflow of a lake fed by the proto-Rhine and proto-Thames, which became dammed back between the ice-filled North Sea and to the north and the chalk ridge to the south.
The subsequent history of the English Channel has been complex and some aspects remain controversial. In general, however, it has been open and subject to widening by marine erosion during the warm interglacial periods but occupied by a land bridge joining Britain to the continent during the low sea level intervals associated with successive glaciations.
Since the initial breach there have been at least four periods prior to the present during which the Channel has been occupied by the sea. The high sea level of the present interglacial has so far lasted some 8,000 years, but the total time during which marine erosion has been able to regress the cliffs has been of the order of 100,000 years. Regression will have been at an irregular rate, but has averaged out at around 15cm per year on each side of the Channel.
1st October 1994
When the Low Light came fully into view through the trees it was obvious the tower was a near ruin, unkept, shuttered and bricked up, the latticework of the lamp room glassless. Of the main part of the house, including the dining room and the anteroom with its magnificent bay window, there was no sign other than the ragged imprint of its roof where it had leaned against the side of the tower; the place where it had stood had been absorbed into the lawn of an untidy bungalow – no doubt Dolphin’s Leap – farther back from the cliff edge. A dozen pigeons roosting in the tower made off in alarm as I approached. The National Trust man had told me that notices warned of an unstable cliff edge.
3rd May 1943
After dinner Snowdon was in the mess and we talked for about an hour and a half I suppose. Started on music and attempted to analyse the origins of the human appreciation of the beautiful, but wandered considerably in space and time. Snowdon’s geological and zoological knowledge is small but he wishes to learn. He maintained that environment could be a direct cause of evolution.
Adjutant entered half way through discussion, sat silent and left after about ten minutes saying, ‘And I think it’s all rubbish’ as he departed.