Photo: Illustrative image for the 'WW2 SECRET TUNNELS' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'WW2 SECRET TUNNELS' page

A Tribute to HMS Forward (1939 - 1945)

By Geoffrey Ellis

In June 1940 the Admiralty requisitioned the Guinness Trust Holiday Home (a.k.a. Denton House) at South Heighton, as a Royal Naval Headquarters following the Nazi occupation of France.  An engraved commemorative stone plaque above the fireplace in the hall bears solitary testimony to this fact of which little mention appears in official archives.

From here, under the sterner title of HMS Forward, the Royal Navy commanded all shore-based RN establishments in Sussex and defended its shores. This necessitated the installation of a combined communications centre with plotting rooms that were secure against air raids - not easy on the top of a hill, so the decision was taken to dig a tunnel deep into the hillside for this purpose. The principal entrance to this tunnel was in Room 16 (the extreme right in this picture) from where 122 steps led down to two interlinked parallel chambers that contained radios, switchboards, teleprinters, plotting rooms, air conditioning, and an emergency generator, primarily crewed by WRNS and ATS personnel working 24/7/365.

The tunnel was abandoned after the war. About 1972, the green-field hillside above it was developed, necessitating the demolition of five associated pillboxes in the process. Twenty years later, it was just a memory to a handful of villagers who lived locally during the war.

One of those villagers was Geoffrey Ellis, who in 1941 had watched soldiers tunnel into the hillside as he passed on his way to school. His life-long determination to discover the unpublicised facts of the history and purpose the tunnel served led to a chain of events that resulted in an absorbing retirement pastime culminating in the production of articles for many respected historical publications, a local history book, and an hour-long video that features many former crew members who responded to his appeals.

In 2000, a Millennium Awards for All grant of £2300 helped towards the formation of The Friends of HMS Forward. English Heritage, previously totally unaware of the establishment, acknowledged this research, and carried out a pinpoint digital site survey. Their ultimate objective was to restore the tunnels as a tourist attraction for Newhaven. Sadly this pipedream fell foul of a few objecting proprietors who according to English Law own any parts of the tunnels that pass beneath their freehold. However, at least the cradle-to-grave history of this establishment has been documented for posterity.

For further details and a virtual tour of the tunnels, visit www.secret-tunnels.co.uk ; then visit Newhaven Museum to see the model, the dedicated display cabinet and the visitors' book signed by Lt.Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery.

© Geoffrey Ellis 2005

This page was added by Geoffrey Ellis on 14/07/2009.
Comments about this page

I have heard a rumour that the land containing the lower (western) entrance to HMS Forward (ie the 'cliff' face) is for sale. Is there any truth in this?

By Wolstan Dixie
On 31/05/2021

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