Since first visiting the Kent seaside town in 2003 I’ve wondered what happened to Folkestone during WW2? Surely it was important. Dab in the middle of Hellfire Corner during the Battle of Britain, it surely must have been fortified like most other towns along the British coast. It didn’t take me long to learn just how important Folkestone was to the war effort.
When Britain declared war on Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 nothing much happened initially. But, by such time as Germany invaded Belgium and threatened to push the British Expeditionary Force into the French side of the Channel at Dunkirk, Folkestone — like all seaside towns — fortified. Exclusion zones were set up by the WD (War Department), requiring all civilians not directly involved in the war effort to evacuate. Of course this was not strictly enforced, but frontline towns like Folkestone saw their beaches sowed with land mines and beach obstacles, and town access and beach exits barricaded with reinforced cement pillboxes, concertina wire and dragon’s teeth. All the plum hotels were requisitioned for billeting of officers, whilst other ranks bunked mostly in private homes or flats.
Over my twenty years of visiting Folkestone, I’ve toured near every WW2 bunker remaining. And there are many still existent. Although some have had the inglorious misfortune of being converted into loo’s. It wasn’t until I began to delve deep into wartime Folkestone that a clear picture of its importance emerged from the history books. I decided late in the writing of “The Gift” that Folkestone should be central to the story. As a result I bought every reference I could suss up, both fiction and non, period and contemporary, whilst also digging into the regimental journals of units stationed in the Hawkinge area of the Hornchurch Sector. I thought I’d read it all and poured through all the images available. Images of sea facing hotels blown to bits by long range German artillery and gasworks destroyed by bombs. Folkestone is even referenced Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan” when Tom Hanks mentions his Rangers departed Folkestone by transport ship for Normandy.
It wasn’t until a few days back an image I’d never seen before popped up on social media. An old photograph which brought home just how worried the WD was about invasion. I knew very well about the big guns from the RMS Hood plunked down on The Leas and fortified with iron casemates and sandbags, but what I saw in the new-to-me photo was intriguing. Both for its content and also the fact I stood on the location of the photo innumerable times, as have many of my contemporaries. How many of them knew how it was so heavily defended? I can’t say.
But look at this then. Here is where Clifton Gardens meets the Leas today. Lovely Edwardian seaside with a touch of modern polish. Old William Harvey looking over the English Channel as he has done for over a century in his current location. Compare this contemporary photograph I took in 2022 with one dated on social media as 1944. I have lingering doubt to the accuracy of this date. Whilst it is definitely wartime, in my opinion it’s during the threat of invasion, 1939-40. Once the Battle of Britain was won and threat of invasion had past, most obstacles were cleared. Bunkers remained. And most coastal artillery was replaced with ack-ack.
To me, this image is equivalent of Goering’s mythical gold train. The photo makes it clear the WD feared invading German forces attempting to come up from Folkestone Harbour and up onto The Leas. The exit points — for which Clifton Gardens is one —has been barricaded with piled up razor sharp concertina wire, lain in depth to ensnare advanced parties of engineers as well as the aforementioned Dragon’s Teeth. What are Dragon’s Teeth? It’s a cement obstacle, pyramid in shape, planted in staggered rows, impassable for armoured vehicles. Typically there would be an anti-tank position set further back, consisting of hand held PIATS or plinth mounted Spigot mortars. Although I’ve never found remnant of these plinths on Clifton Gardens, I have seen these positions elsewhere along the Folkestone to Dover defensive positions.
Although the period photograph was taken of the opposite side of the street from where The Clifton Hotel is situated, there is none-the-less loads of interesting Edwardian architecture going on here. All of the townhouses on this row are still existent today, but in use as a Hotel 10 to 12, The Windsor Hotel and lastly Portland Hotel. What was the Langhorne Hotel opposite to The Clifton was blitzed during the war and cleared post-war. The Langhorn moved just up the street to what is now the Hotel 10 to 12. It lasted until 2014 when it was sold on. The original location for the Lanhorne is now the Scuba Bar. I lively pub with a beautiful terrace and garden area over-looking the English Channel.
I can imagine the amount of military activity scurrying about The Leas in these early desperate days of
World War II. It was an exciting if not uncertain time. I cannot imagine though, what they would make of Folkestone today. Although Folkestone has had a renaissance, it’s not quite where it was in the halcyon days pre-war when The Leas was filled with holidays makers dressed in there summer best. Still, Folkestone. The Leas. And Clifton Gardens where it meets it, has become a centre of rejuvenation. I’m pleased to have seen it come full circle.
As always, take care of each other.