White Cliffs Of Dover

The White Cliffs Of Dover: Why Do They Mean So Much To The Forces?

Why are the cliffs of Dover so important to the Armed Forces community?

White Cliffs Of Dover

Forces Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn sang of bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover as she once paid homage to the iconic British landmark that became a symbol of home and of our war time defences.

But what makes the cliffs such an enduring icon of British resistance?

Dame Vera’s role in cementing the cliffs into the fabric of the British psyche cannot be underestimated as, during the Second World War, her uplifting lyrics of the White Cliffs of Dover song resonated with the British people as they faced the onslaught of German bombings – giving the nation hope that, tomorrow, "There'll be bluebirds over the White cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see."

In 2017, Dame Vera praised the British public after £1 million was raised to secure the future of the White Cliffs and protect them from erosion.

She spoke after more than 17,500 people made donations to an appeal to help the National Trust secure 700,000 square metres of land behind the clifftops, which it has been looking after since 2012.

The Trust said it would work to restore habitats like the chalk grasslands, as well as preserving historical features and ensuring access routes are maintained for visitors.

But Why Are The Cliffs Such An Important Symbol To The Armed Forces?


White Cliffs Of Dover

The White Cliffs are hugely iconic in Britain - and for the most part, that's due to their place in military history.

They sit across the narrowest part of the Channel, facing towards continental Europe at its closest point to Britain and forming a symbolic guard against invasion.

On a clear day, the cliffs can quite easily be seen from the French coast.

And it was this landmark that greeted the thousands of Allied troops evacuated from Dunkirk by the famous 'Little Ships' of World War II.

Dunkirk beaches
The White Cliffs sit just the other side of the Channel from the beaches of Dunkirk, where Allied forces made their famous retreat

Similarly, the cliffs were the last sight of Britain for many travellers en route to the continent - and the fighter pilots who left Britain's shores as they set out to take on enemy aircraft over The Channel during the Battle of Britain.

The White Cliffs saw plenty of action in the summer of 1940, when people gathered at Shakespeare Cliff to watch Battle of Britain dogfights between German aircraft and the Royal Air Force.

The National Trust said during the campaign to save the cliffs in 2017 that the chalk cliffs, which reach up to 350 feet (110 m), are an "icon of Britain", with "the white chalk face a symbol of home and war time defence."

They also helped launch the hugely-successful career of the Forces' Sweetheart, Dame Vera, whose 1942 song about the cliffs stirred public emotions during the war, and ensured the vision of the cliffs became entwined with the war story.

Vera Lynn with troops in Burma

In a letter to the National Trust the singer at the time of the campaign to secure the cliffs, said:

"My thanks to everyone who embraced the campaign to protect this national icon.

"The White Cliffs of Dover are a significant landmark and it is so encouraging to know that they will now be protected for future generations.

"Over many years, I have been a supporter of the National Trust and the vital work that they do in preserving our heritage and landscapes – long may this continue."

The area also still boasts a number of Second World War features, including several buildings and two large gun emplacements, which the Trust is planning to make watertight and accessible for visitors.

One of these, the Wanstone gun battery, was the largest ever built in the British Empire.

In the Second World War, it deterred invasion, supported D-Day and closed the channel to enemy shipping.

The site also includes the D2 heavy anti-aircraft battery which played an important role in the Battle of Britain and protected the early radar towers at nearby Swingate.

Swingate transmission towers
The Swingate transmission towers today. Picture: Nilfanion

The cliff face, meanwhile, is eroding at an average rate of 1 centimetre (0.4 in) per year, making the work all the more crucial.

Large pieces sometimes fall off, so anyone who does visit is advised to remain well away from the cliff edge.

A section of the edge as large as a football pitch fell into the Channel in 2001, while another large chunk collapsed in 2012.

Dame Vera Lynn, meanwhile, had at the time celebrated turning 100  March 20, 2017, by breaking her own record and again becoming the oldest person to release a new album.

Imagery used with kind permission of John Millar, Chris Lacey and the National Trust.