Step by step, a group descends into the pitch black of a narrow subterranean tunnel, the walls sweating. Reeking of old creosote and wet earth, the air is dank and sticky. But the adventurers finally arrive at their destination, more than 100 steps into the Earth. A year and a half of hard work has paid off. And after committing some 3,000 hours to excavate a long-abandoned World War II tunnel network, 50 volunteers and experts get to explore it in full…
The Fan Bay Deep Shelter lies some 75 feet beneath the ground. Held in place by metal supports, its warren of tunnels spans an area of 3,500 square feet. The shelter is located in Southeast England deep within the so-called White Cliffs of Dover – a line of high chalk cliffs that overlook the English Channel.
But according to the National Trust – the esteemed heritage charity that manages the site – the tunnels aren’t for the faint of heart. Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian in 2015, one of its representatives described the shelter as “a dark, dirty and wet environment… not suitable for those who are claustrophobic or unsteady.” One also needs to be in “good health” to complete the descent.
As tour guide Gordon Wise explained to the Australian channel ABC News in 2015, the shelter was strategically positioned to defend against an invasion. “You can actually see France, 34 kilometers away, just 70 seconds’ flying time for a shell,” he explained. “You get some idea that this was really the frontline. This was where the defense of Britain had to start.”
Today, the tunnels offer an unnerving snapshot of daily life in a World War II bunker. The eerie subterranean complex is punctuated by spooky relics that hint at the routine dread endured by the soldiers stationed there. After all, the Germans were fully intent on conquering the United Kingdom, just as they had numerous other nations in Africa and Europe.
The United Kingdom might even have yielded to German occupation but for its isolated island geography. The White Cliffs of Dover have long provided a wall against aggressive forces. In fact, England hasn’t been invaded and occupied since 1066. So the cliffs are a national symbol, much like the Statue of Liberty in the United States.
The 300-feet-high cliffs stand sentinel over some 8 miles of coastline in the English county of Kent. Their distinctive white faces – so handy in wartime – are composed of exceptionally fine, soft chalk that formed over millions of years. They actually started life as green algae and other organisms underneath the water. These then died and compressed into layers of calcium carbonate. And when sea levels descended, the cliffs became visible.
One of the earliest historical records of Dover was provided by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who attempted to invade England first in 55 B.C. and then again a year later. Believed to be the oldest record of the country, his Commentaries on the Gallic War described how the early Britons used the White Cliffs to attack his war party by throwing weapons from the summit.
Centuries later, the English crown ordered the construction of Dover Castle, which was later referred to as being “key to England.” Speaking to the BBC in 2012, Gareth Wiltshire, the manager of the White Cliffs of Dover Visitor Experience, explained that the fortification was used for diplomatic purposes. “Dover was a key place for royalty,” he said. “Overseas visitors would be greeted there, and the castle would provide accommodation.”
Naturally, the cliffs that have kept Britain safe during wartime have been represented countless times in English culture. Perhaps most famously, William Shakespeare depicted the cliffs in the finale of King Lear, when the despondent Earl of Gloucester considers taking his own life. He says, “There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me to the very brim of it, and I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear…”
Today, the cliffs are still often associated with their defensive and symbolic role in World War II. During this global crisis, gun batteries were constructed on the cliffs at South Foreland, Wanstone and, of course, at Fan Bay. These managed to sink some 29 enemy ships between them. Collectively known as “the fortress,” Britain’s coastal batteries were also used to test pioneering radar technology.
Fan Bay Deep Shelter and its sister defenses were constructed after the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, came to Dover in the summer of 1940. Using his binoculars, he observed the unimpeded movement of German vessels in the English Channel. The sight apparently made him furious, and he resolved to install artillery guns on the coast.
Churchill stressed the strategic urgency of the guns in a note addressed to his joint chief of staff. “We must insist upon maintaining superior artillery positions on the Dover promontory, no matter what form of attack they are exposed to,” he wrote. “We have to fight for command of the straits by artillery, to destroy the enemy batteries and fortify our own.”
The need for coastal batteries became acute after September 2, 1940. On that day, German artillery shells targeted Dover town. And after defeating France, the German military machine installed massive batteries along the French coast. The batteries were intended to be used during Operation Sealion – the codename for the planned invasion of England.
The 172nd Tunnelling Company’s Royal Engineers began work on Fan Bay Deep Shelter during November 1940. But the dismal English weather proved a hindrance to their work. According to the Kent Archaeological Society website, an engineer wrote in his journal, “Construction continued slowly in a sea of mud.” By the turn of the month, though, 6-inch artillery guns were stationed at the site.
The engineers gradually carved the shelter and its tunnels and fitted the walls with durable metal supports. To transport the earthen waste out of the tunnels, they constructed a railway. The waste was then loaded onto carts, steered to the edge of the cliffs and dumped into the sea.
Troops moved into the complex long before it was finished. On December 10, 1940, more than 100 soldiers belonging to the 203rd Coast Battery of the Royal Artillery, including four officers, took up stations in its muddy tunnels. Construction of the complex was completed by the end of February 1941, some 100 days after it commenced. And in June, Churchill himself toured the facility.
Considered a pioneering installation at the time, Fan Bay battery featured a host of useful amenities including a hospital, generator, radar, washrooms and accommodation areas. Its deepest levels were home to the so-called deep shelter – a complex of bomb-proof chambers complete with bunks and weapon stores. Fan Bay had the largest deep shelter of England’s coastal batteries.
The battery fired its guns for the first time on February 28, 1941. Its weapons were short-range and purely defensive, though. The only battery capable of long-range attacks was the nearby Wanstone Battery, which was home to a pair of 15-inch guns with the playful nicknames of Winnie and Pooh. Eventually, Fan Bay, Wanstone and South Foreland were merged under a single command, known as the 540 Coast Regiment.
The batteries served their country well, and Hitler ultimately failed to secure a foothold in England. Instead, he turned east and opened a disastrous second front against the Soviet Union. And on September 2, 1945, the Allies finally defeated the Axis powers and emerged victorious. Yet although at peace with Europe, the British military still kept hold of the batteries throughout the 1950s. Then they became the property of private individuals.
But the old batteries had been defaced over the years and were now considered blots on the landscape. During the 1970s, local communities even lobbied for them to be demolished and for the White Cliffs to be returned to their pre-war state. So Fan Bay Shelter was packed full of earth and debris. And except for a discreet metal plate on a cliff-top, all traces of its existence were removed.
The National Trust subsequently raised $1.6 million to purchase a section of the Dover Cliffs in 2012. Initially, however, the charity had no idea the property contained the remains of Fan Bay Deep Shelter. But when it realized it had unwittingly procured the facility, it set about excavating the complex.
The National Trust had discovered the shelter one day almost by accident. The only clue to its existence had been a little crack in the land. Kent Underground Research Group specialists then conducted some surveys. The tunnels, they discovered, were still intact. And so with the help of numerous volunteers, the trust cleared the primary stairwell of debris weighing some 30 tons.
Of course, this was only the start. In the end, some 100 tons of debris had to be removed by hand. Technicians and experts from a wide range of fields contributed, including carpenters, electricians, geologists and builders. And 80 railway sleepers were installed to facilitate repairs to the tunnels. As ever, though, the task was hampered by inclement weather.
But the hard work was worth it. Speaking to ABC News in 2015, site manager Jon Barker said the project had drawn attention to an otherwise obscure part of the nation’s history. “[The shelter] is an important piece of wartime heritage, and it’s also a piece of forgotten history,” he stated. “The story of the cross-channel guns was largely forgotten.”
Ultimately, the tunnels served as a kind of time capsule, its relics and artifacts offering intriguing details about daily life in the shelter. Early on, for example, volunteers found some needle and thread, probably Khaki, nestled inside a tunnel wall. Brown-colored Khaki has been present in British military uniforms from the 1840s onwards.
Naturally, the tunnels concealed discarded military supplies, including stocks of live ammunition. Volunteers found American .30 caliber rounds and British .303 cartridges hidden within small openings between metal supports, suggesting the troops had been liberally armed. After all, they’d needed to be ready to repel a surprise attack at any given moment.
Known as “latrinalia,” vulgar graffiti has adorned washrooms since Roman times. In Fan Bay Shelter, volunteers found latrinalia etched upon the broken fragments of the toilet blocks. One charming limerick read, “If you come into this hall, use the paper, not this wall. If no paper can found, then run you’re a*** along the ground.”
Scrawled in chalk on a piece of shuttering, another message had vaguely communist undertones. It read, “Russia bleeds while Britain Blancos.” Originally a newspaper headline, this popular slogan was a reference to the British military and their supposedly lax support for their Soviet allies. The word “blanco” – used here as a verb – refers to a cleaning substance that troops employed to polish their gear.
Hidden on top of an air duct was a 1903 adventure book, Shadow on the Quarter Deck by Major W.P. Drury. Although somewhat obscure, the author penned several military-themed books during his lifetime including Men at Arms and The Peradventures of Private Pagett. His most famous and popular work is The Flag Lieutenant, which was made into a movie on three separate occasions.
Additional finds included a wealth of everyday objects: makeshift wire clothes hooks, telegrams, packets of cigarettes, a tic-tac-toe game and a Unity Pools soccer coupon dated February 20, 1943. As much as the troops were entrusted with a hard and dangerous task, they may well also have endured great boredom and loneliness.
Among the most valuable discoveries were some acoustic mirrors from World War I. Before the invention of radar, acoustic mirrors were used to detect incoming enemy attacks. Resembling enormous concrete bowls with diameters of 15 feet, the mirrors worked by focusing approaching sound waves. At Fan Bay, a pair of acoustic mirrors were installed in the cliffs.
The Fan Bay acoustic mirrors were part of an early warning system that included a chain of similar devices at North Foreland and Joss Bay. The system represented the culmination of more than 20 years of experimentation by the British Air Ministry. They found that the size and shape of acoustic mirrors changes how they focus sound.
By the onset of World War II, though, British scientist Sir Robert Watson-Watt was already close to developing radar technology. This would allow the military to pinpoint enemy movements with unprecedented accuracy. The sound mirrors weren’t entirely obsolete, though. After the German air force launched attacks on Britain’s radar stations, they continued to be of useful service.
The National Trust began excavating the sound mirrors in May 2014. The task was mammoth. It required the removal of 600 tons of debris, which was enough to fill 50 trucks. Fortunately, carefully positioned heavy machinery helped the excavation considerably. The acoustic mirrors were then fully uncovered in under a month.
Additional work on the shelter’s original entrance also exposed a hidden generator room. Unfortunately, the chamber appeared to have been destroyed, but archaeologists were able to identify an adjoining network of stairs and corridors. And with the help of the blueprints used in the 1940s, engineers and builders were able to carefully reconstruct them.
In the first half of 2015, engineers took away the last of the debris from the tunnels and entrances adjacent to the newly excavated acoustic mirrors. All that remained were some final cosmetic tasks – the construction of benches, the treatment of woodwork, some painting and other minor tasks. Then in July 2015 the work was completed.
Speaking to the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2015, volunteer Gordon Wise expressed his gratitude and delight. He said, “Seeing the tunnels in their raw state when they were first encountered, handling artifacts and giving tours is like standing in the footsteps of history… To be part of the digging team, mirroring the work the Royal Engineers originally took to excavate the shelter, was very special.”
Today, visitors can experience the shelter for themselves – with a few minor provisos. No high heels or sandals. No children under the age of 8. No claustrophobes. With 125 steps, the descent should not be attempted by those in poor health. All tours are guided and hard hats are mandatory. For those who meet these criteria, though, an unforgettable experience awaits.
The White Cliffs of Dover are a quintessential symbol of Englishness. Unlike the national borders of Europe, which have shifted countless times over the centuries, these chalk cliffs signify an enduring physical boundary that can never be moved. As much as the Fan Bay Deep Shelter offers rich historical insights, it also reflects the identity of an island nation.
Speaking of tunnels, in Brazil – just north of the border with Bolivia – you might stumble across some enormous caves. Yet while they’re big enough for a man to stand upright in them, they weren’t created by any geological process. And scientists now think they’ve discovered exactly what it was that carved these incredible holes into the ground.
In a Brazilian state called Rondonia, deep in the Amazon, researchers found an enormous complex of strange caverns. In fact, it stretches more than 2,000 feet into the ground, with the roof standing 6 feet from the floor – and this discovery led to a heap of questions that scientists are only starting to get their heads around.
For one, it isn’t just the size of the caves that’s strange; indeed, their composition is nothing like that of other caverns which have been discovered in the region. The floors are smooth, while the tunnels are round. And scientists have inspected other caves in the area that were created by water and can see that they’re completely different. Then there are the marks on the walls.
These marks in fact gave the researchers their first clue as to what had created the mammoth underground structures. Gouged into the walls of the incredible caves are deep gashes, and closer examination showed that they could only have been made in one way. By the claws of a now-extinct giant animal.
However, even this theory posed far more questions than it answered. These so-called “paleoburrows” are, after all, enormous. So the first question that researchers had to ask themselves was just what creature had made them. And the explanations they came up with centered on creatures that are long-since dead yet have ties to animals still living today.
Some scientists believe that the enormous burrows were dug by giant ground sloths. These massive creatures, much larger than today’s tree-dwelling sloths, died out around 9,000 years ago. However, other experts have suggested that it was another beast which took it upon itself to create these underground lairs.
Scientists believe that giant armadillos could have been responsible for the burrows. For while these creatures weren’t as large as the giant ground sloths, they were still more than capable of digging into the ground. Either way, though, there are other questions that scientists still can’t answer – and these might be even more intriguing.
Indeed, there are species of giant armadillos still alive in South America now, and while they’re much, much smaller than their extinct cousins, they still make burrows. These underground hideaways are far smaller than the paleoburrows, though. And even comparatively, relative to the surviving armadillos’ size, they’re of nowhere near the same dimensions.
Speaking to Discover, Heinrich Frank, one of the team who found one of the paleoburrows, said, “So if a 90-pound animal living today digs a 16-inch by 20-foot borrow, what would dig one 5 feet wide and 250 feet long? There’s no explanation – not predators, not climate, not humidity. I really don’t know.”
In other words, these gigantic burrows are still incredibly difficult to explain. They’re much larger than would have been necessary to shelter even the enormous animals that scientists believe built them. Indeed, the spaces would have provided far more protection than a giant armadillo or ground sloth would ever have needed.
And this isn’t the only problem facing researchers who are, sometimes literally, looking into the caves. Right now, one of the biggest issues they have is figuring out just when the paleoburrows were made – in other words, determining how old they are – and this is thanks to a combination of circumstances.
What scientists do know is when the giant creatures that they think built the caverns disappeared. However, their research has yet to yield any firm conclusions. They could date material in the sediments found in the burrows, although that would only reveal when those sediments entered the burrow. Meanwhile, they could also get an approximate date from mineral deposits in the walls of the caves.
As it stands right now, though, neither of those tests have yet been completed. So the age of these incredible structures remains yet another of the various mysteries that surround them. What’s more, if that weren’t enough confusion, there is a third important question that’s baffling scientists as well – and if anything, this one is even stranger.
Right now, the geographical positioning of the paleoburrows is also leaving scientists confused. They seem to only exist in a narrow band of territory in Brazil, and there are hardly any of them further north in the country. It doesn’t look like there are any deeper south in Uruguay, either, and yet some may have been discovered in Argentina, which is to the south of both countries.
Furthermore, even though there were giant megafauna in North America, none of the paleoburrows have been discovered there, either. Why? It could be because the soil types in different areas have led the burrows to collapse over time. Yet there may be another, even simpler explanation for why scientists haven’t found burrows elsewhere.
There’s a chance that no paleoburrows have been found in these other areas because people just haven’t been looking. This particular field of research is in its infancy, and that means the paleoburrows could be hiding in plain sight. So the thinking is that no one has seen any of the structures simply because they’ve not yet tuned in to the possibility that they are there.
As more and more burrows are discovered, though, researchers are increasingly likely to understand the patterns behind them. And while some of the structures are small, there are many other massive ones. These spread out across multiple levels, too, and sometimes even open out into huge chambers deep under the soil.
There are so many questions about the paleoburrows that it will certainly be intriguing to see where the information that scientists can extract from them leads us. For example, the biggest paleoburrows were obviously dug over multiple generations, and right now we have no idea why.
Yet Frank isn’t deterred by the mass of questions that still surround the new discoveries. What’s more, he’s pinpointed other possible paleoburrow sites using web searches of pictures that people have taken in caves. There is, in fact, a chance that people have unknowingly discovered more examples of the phenomenon without even realizing it.
Finally, speaking to Discover, Frank said there’s an incredible atmosphere down in the caves. “In these burrows, sometimes you get the feeling that there’s some creature waiting around the next curve – that’s how much it feels like a prehistoric animal den.” Perhaps, then, the prospect of being in such an extraordinary environment will inspire other researchers to get out there and find even more of these remarkable structures.
But as some workers in southwest China discovered, you don’t need to be deep in the Amazon jungle to uncover incredible remnants left behind by prehistoric creatures. Yes, when they tried to build a new road, they found that an ancient relic was blocking their way – and it had lain buried there for 65 million years.
In April 2015 a road was being upgraded in Heyuan, a city in China’s Guangdong province. With a thriving economy that ranks among the biggest in the world, this region beside the South China Sea has seen much investment and development – and the city of Heyuan is no exception.
So, using heavy machinery on the streets of this city, workers made light work of the concrete covering the existing road. But as they uncovered the older earth and rubble beneath, they were in for an incredible shock.
Buried in a slab of red rock, the workers discovered a strange, round object. Then they spotted another. And another. There were 43 in total, all grayish-blue in color, and the biggest measured some 5 inches across.
Unsurprisingly, as workers pulled these mysterious objects from the ground, a crowd gathered to watch. But although the discovery was impressive, Heyuan locals may well have had some inkling as to the true nature of the finds.
Back in 2005, the city found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records with a rather singular claim. Yes, it was declared to be the home of the largest collection of fossilized dinosaur eggs in the world. Astonishingly, at the time more than 10,000 had been found, but the total unearthed there now stands closer to 14,000.
It all started in 1995 when a group of youths were playing on a building site. When one of them tripped over a rock, he took a closer look and realized that it bore a remarkable resemblance to an image of a dinosaur egg that he had once seen.
The boys told their parents and teachers about what they had found, and Huang Dong, a local dinosaur expert, was informed. Moreover, since that first discovery, thousands more eggs have been uncovered – earning Heyuan the nickname “Home of Dinosaurs.”
And as well as fossilized eggs, researchers have also discovered fossilized dinosaur skeletons and footprints. So, in 2008, local authorities allocated the equivalent of $7 million to build Heyuan’s own dinosaur museum.
In fact, Heyuan is so well known for its dinosaurs that it has a species named in its honor. Heyuannia, a type of oviraptorid, are known for their parrot-like beaks and large crests.
Authorities now estimate that around 17,000 whole or partial eggs have been discovered in Heyuan and its surroundings. Not all, however, have found their way to the museum or into scientific hands.
In 2004 a Heyuan farmer got into trouble with the police after failing to declare a stash of dinosaur eggs that he had found. And when they searched his home, they found 557 of the ancient relics.
Then, in summer 2015, a vast collection of fossilized eggs was discovered at a Heyuan construction site. However, before researchers could arrive to properly document the find, locals had stolen most of them.
Later that year, a police raid on a house in southern China revealed a hidden stash of 213 dinosaur eggs, and they were believed to be the same eggs as those stolen from the construction site. What’s more, police also uncovered a complete Psittacosaurus skeleton in the same house.
Now although the idea of keeping dinosaur fossils as souvenirs is clearly tempting, experts insist that the authorities should be notified of any finds. So when the Heyuan construction workers made their amazing discovery in April 2015, they got in touch with local officials.
Workers from the Heyuan Dinosaur Museum were subsequently sent to recover the objects, which were buried just a few inches beneath the road. As many must have suspected, they were indeed dinosaur eggs.
According to experts, the eggs are thought to date back to the late Cretaceous period, which occurred approximately 65 million years ago. And of the 43 eggs uncovered, 19 were in perfect condition.
Moreover, although dinosaur eggs had been discovered in the region before, this was the first time they’d been retrieved from a central, urban area. And with development in Heyuan showing no signs of slowing down, there could well be more finds to come.
Du Yanli, Heyuan Dinosaur Museum’s director, certainly believes that conditions are ripe for a similar discovery. “The eggs were found in the rock strata of red sandstone, [in] an environment in which other dinosaur egg fossils have previously been found,” he told CCTV news.
Now, experts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences are attempting to determine what species of dinosaur might have laid the eggs millions of years ago. So as Heyuan’s far-distant past continues to clash with its bright future, Yanli and his colleagues shouldn’t have too long to wait until the next prehistoric treasure trove reveals itself.