Earlier this month, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, an observance that originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.
One hundred years after the first Veterans Day, I found my thoughts skimming across the Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern coast of England and the humble little town of Dover.
During my second summer of teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to take a day trip from London. I considered my options and chose Dover for two reasons: One, the city is home to the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover and, two, I wanted to learn more about the community’s role in World War II.
I wasn’t disappointed on either count.
The White Cliffs are part of an 8-mile-long ridge of chalk hills along the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. They don’t make the list of Seven Wonders of the World, but that doesn’t mean they are any less impressive.
From Dover, you can walk along a national trail that takes you up and above the seaport town, providing stunning views of the Strait as well as a path leading to Dover Castle, an 11th century fortress where the Brits first housed troops and equipment in a complex of barracks tunnels during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). During World War II, the tunnels were converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command center and underground hospital. Amazing.
You’re only 21 miles from the European continent when you’re in Dover. With the naked eye, I could barely make out the distant coastline.
I was captivated during the few hours I spent there, touring the city on foot and meeting a few people. I vowed to learn more and bought myself a book written by a couple of locals: “Dover in the Second World War.” (More on that later. Bear with me as I share more on one day in Dover.)
I left London’s Victoria Station early on a Sunday for a relaxing train rise that would take me about 67 miles east in roughly 90 minutes, allowing for several stops along the way. I brought along a book and a journal, looking up occasionally to catch glimpses of the pastoral countryside once we got beyond the city.
Arriving at mid-morning, I joined a gaggle of other passengers walking toward the center of Dover. The town had a working class feel, with mom-and-pop restaurants, tattoo shops, discount variety stores, and posters slapped onto walls and telephone poles advertising a pro wrestling event.
Near the town center, there was a church with an adjoining cemetery on the main street. It was St. Mary’s Church, one of several that would be mentioned in the book I bought. Nearby, the central plaza known as Market Square had a visitors center and museum, where I began to appreciate the historic significance and geographic vulnerability of Dover to invading armies over the centuries. During WWII, Market Square was bombed relentlessly.
From there, I headed to the seafront, where I observed new construction alongside older residential buildings, dipped my hands in the seawater at Harbour Beach, and met a young couple out for a walk on the esplanade with their charming niece.
I made my way to the White Cliffs, passing through a picturesque neighborhood and soon found myself among a passel of international visitors on the national trail.
The hike was an easy one along dirt trails and I welcomed the quiet after a week of being in London. Afterwards, I sought out a policewoman to ask for the best fish-and-chips place in town, only to discover it was closed. I settled for a tasty lunch of roast lamb that I consumed at an outdoor table as I watched townspeople and visitors alike pass by on Cannon Street.
I would have liked to stay longer but with time running short, I bought myself the aforementioned book and headed to the train station.
Back in Portland after the end of my study-abroad program, I, ahem, dove into the Dover book. I loved it.
At just 147 pages, co-authors Terry Sutton and Derek Leach do a masterful job of describing the hell-on-earth that Dover residents experienced during the Second World War. Though I’ve been exposed to stories of wartime loss in Britain and other countries, I have to say, somewhat sheepishly, that I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of death and destruction until I read this account.
Drawing on the first-hand descriptions of survivors, as well as newspaper accounts and historical archives, Sutton and Leach vividly recreate the terror of those times. And the assault was staggering.
Beginning in July 1940 and continuing for the next four years, 2,226 shells landed on the town of Dover with many more in the harbour waters, in the Dover Strait and in the nearby countryside. In addition, around 464 high-explosive bombs, 1,100 fire bombs, three highly damaging parachute mines and three V1 flying bombs dropped within the town’s boundaries.
No wonder, the authors said, Dover became known throughout the world as “Hellfire Corner.”
Dover’s population fell from about 40,000 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000 in 1940-41 before some of those who evacuated began to drift back to the town. Imagine a similar-sized community in Oregon — Lake Oswego, Keizer or Oregon City — sustaining that kind of damage and losing two-thirds of its population.
Owing to its location, Dover had felt the wrath of war before, going back to the days of Roman invaders and up to World War One, when German planes dropped bombs on the town and enemy destroyers in the English Channel shelled the city.
King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both visited Dover during WWII as regular troops and reservists arrived in the port city in the early days of the war. As the fighting grew more fierce, schoolchildren were evacuated to the west to South Wales, and town councilors feared the city and its remaining shopkeepers would go bankrupt.
In 1941, Dover played a huge role in the evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The majority of them — 220,000 — were landed at Dover’s western docks, and local hospitals were swamped by hundreds of badly injured soldiers and sailors. So many died that mass graves had to be dug at the town-owned cemetery.
The book is filled with black-and-white photographs showing before and after shots of bombed-out buildings as well as soldiers, civilians and children. What’s especially haunting is reading the names of ordinary people who were perished in the attacks.
One of the worst incidents came in 1941 when a parachute mine floated down onto a row of working-class homes, causing 16 deaths.
The authors soberly reported: “Those who were killed were Mr. and Mrs. John Willis, their sons Horace and Brian, their 16-year-old daughter, Vera; and a married daughter, Hilda Mills (six out of the seven in the family); Mr. and Mrs. Fred Moore and their two-month-old son, Frederick, and Minyon Elise (aged four); Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cock; Doris Smith (aged three), and Charlie Talbot, whose wife Minnie died in Maidstone Hospital three weeks later from her injuries. The damage was so bad that more than forty houses on Randolph Road and Union Road had to be demolished.”
Every other page, it seems, there is a similar listing of three people killed here, five people there, 10 soldiers perishing in combat.
Reading about the pummeling that Dover took during both World Wars, and especially the Second, made me appreciate the resilience of the city and its people. To walk those streets in the present day, knowing that 70-plus years earlier they had been bombed into oblivion, is to behold the legacy of unbelievably courageous people who’ve rebuilt their city by the sea.
Dover’s population today is about 30,000. It’s almost beyond my ability to imagine a time when nearly every day brought air-raid sirens, low-flying planes and devastating shells.
As best as I can tell, nearly 500 civilians died in Dover and nearby towns and another 2,500 were injured, according to a tally by the volunteer-run Dover War Memorial Project. Never again will I join in honoring America’s armed forces without thinking of this scrappy little city on the other side of the ocean.