By Grace Filby, Surrey, England
On March 14th, in National Science and Engineering Week with the British Science Association, I gave a talk to members of the Monday Group of St Paul’s Church, Dorking in Surrey. This is immediately next door to the extensive estate known as The Deepdene, where Winston Churchill’s aunt Lily, Duchess of Marlborough, and her 3rd husband Lord William Beresford VC lived until their deaths, assisting his career. Churchill later wrote: “They bade me visit them continuously … thus I paid frequent visits to Deepdene with its comfort and splendour”.
With the area’s renowned natural beauty, stunning views and fresh air, access to the south coast and historic links to nobility dating back to Queen Edith in Saxon times, then William 1st’s son in law, de Warenne, the Howard family of Henry VIII’s reign and Spanish Armada fame, my research has highlighted the engineering achievements over the centuries. There are man-made caves and tunnels underneath Deepdene, the old Reigate Castle and Reigate Priory where WSC also stayed on various historic and social occasions. Royal Engineer General Sir George Chesney in 1871 published his fictional story anonymously, which he called “The Battle of Dorking”. He foresaw the possibility of a German invasion and it was not long before a series of 13 forts was constructed along the North Downs chalkland. Decades later, WSC himself was awarded the Chesney Gold Medal – a rare achievement. He did not mention The Battle of Dorking in his acceptance speech though, but he was good at keeping secrets!
Reigate Priory, about seven miles to the east, dating back to the 13th century and by now a private family home for the nobility, was a suitably relaxing and inspiring location for him to make the momentous decision to switch the Navy from coal to oil. It was also a place where WSC could hide the royal princes during the Sinn Fein murder plots of the 1920s. He would have known about the trap door and the tunnels to neighbouring properties.
In my talks under the auspices of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Probus, Rotary and small community groups such as St Paul’s, I have explained my hypothesis that WSC and his close allies also saw the great potential of an underground bunker, to be mined into the chalk of an old quarry in Reigate Hill. Hence many years later in WW2 it became a fortified area, a top secret Battle HQ and military headquarters of General Montgomery in planning D Day etc., and a pleasant meeting place for key people including Churchill, Montgomery and Eisenhower. The WW2 Reigate Hill bunker was also the inspiration for other Royal Engineers such as Colonel John Foster, who then constructed the underground complex at HMS Forward, South Heighton in the South Downs chalk. Years ago the MoD denied the existence of Reigate Hill’s bunker to my mother, but I have seen the evidence with my own eyes, and my camera.
The centrepiece in the photo above is a patchwork quilt comforter which I designed to commemorate 70 years since WSC became Prime Minister and the Battle of Britain over this area. The central insignia is that of Surrey 615 Squadron, known as “Churchill’s Own”.
Towards the end of the evening we moved on to medical science and the continuous war against infections which WSC cared so much about. As a Churchill Fellow of 2007 I was able to provide some good news that probably never reached his ears despite all attempts, and the audience with all their years of experience, immediately recognised the significance. I didn’t need to say much about that.