Front Line Kent - Coastal Defences of the Kent Coast.

Talk to the Society by Dr Peter Webster on 28 October 2014

Report by Tony Scott

This first class talk, well illustrated by slides, told the story of how the coast of Kent has proved to be the first line in Britain’s defence from Roman times to the present day.

Photo:Richborough Roman fort, Kent

Richborough Roman fort, Kent

Internet images

While much of the Kent coast lends itself to invasion with two main open stretches of beach between Folkestone and Dungeness and between Walmer and Sandown, there are a number of natural defences such as the high ground – the white cliffs – around Dover where the North Downs reach the coast. Over the centuries the natural defences have been complemented by a series of man made fortifications - castles, forts, earthworks and even a grand canal.

Romans, Vikings and Normans

The first significant invaders were the Romans who landed 4 legions in the Sandwich area in 43 AD and went on to build a fort and port at Richborough. This was developed as the port of re-supply and the starting point for Watling Street leading through Canterbury to London and beyond.

After the Romans departed some four centuries later the main action along the coast involved the Vikings but this was just one of many Viking incursions along our coasts and no archaeological evidence of them remains.

Photo:Map of the location of the Cinque Ports

Map of the location of the Cinque Ports

Internet images

Before the Normans arrived Edward the Confessor took steps to create a Cinque Ports (Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich) fleet to replace the mercenary fleets used by the Saxon kings against invasion threat. In later years Henry III brought this fleet under Royal Charter for which they obtained tax and other privileges. This fleet was under the control of the Warden of the Cinque Ports (a role later merged with that of Constable of Dover Castle) and became our main line of defence against French raids and frequently engaged in fierce sea battles. It is interesting to note that the Great Storm of 1287 changed the coastline dramatically and all harbours on the south east coast, except Dover and Folkestone, became reduced or closed by shingle.

Photo:Dover Castle - developed from Roman times

Dover Castle - developed from Roman times

Internet images

The next major invaders were the Normans in 1066 who landed at Pevensey followed by the battle at Hastings. Their first priority was to seek a secure port and the answer to this was Dover. Dover castle started out as an Iron Age hill fort, followed by the adding of a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church and then a Norman mott and bailey castle. Later many more modern military improvements took place, including tunnelling, extending over the centuries right up to and including the Cold War. An important early improvement was the building of the Great Keep by Henry II albeit to impress important pilgrims from the continent to the shrine of Becket in 1170. This castle was to prove pivotal to the defence of Britain for many centuries to come as mentioned later in the talk.

The next Norman priority was to protect the Medway crossing to London and to this end a mott and bailey castle was quickly built at Rochester later to be rebuilt in stone. The castle was besieged by King John in 1215 when sappers demolished a corner tower – this led to a redesign of the castle architecture with the replacement tower rounded to better meet the threat from the new gunpowder weapons.

From Henry VIII to Napoleon

Photo:Deal gun fort

Deal gun fort

Internet images

During the time of Henry VIII the threat from Catholic continental powers grew and invasion loomed. However, by this time a “Royal” Navy had emerged as our main seaborne defence with its safe haven ports of Dover, the Thames and Medway and the important anchorage of The Downs. On land, strongholds were no longer about high walls but were becoming increasingly based on squat gun forts and defence in depth. Two outstanding examples of Henrician gun forts, built to protect The Downs, are preserved at Walmer and Deal. Deal was designed to mount 66 guns in four tiers with 53 handguns covering the moat.

From 1588, following the failed invasion by the Spanish Armada, raiding by the French continued into the next century until a new threat emerged – the war over colonial trade against the newly independent Dutch.

In the opening Battle of the Goodwin Sands 1652 we saw them off but in the Medway Raid by de Ruyter in 1667 we lost the flagship “Royal Charles” and several other ships were captured or fired.

Photo:Tilbury fortifications

Tilbury fortifications

Internet images

This experience and the renewed French threat led to the strengthening of the Thames and Medway blockhouses along the lines of Tilbury Fort with the latest design of angular bastions and layered defences and moats.

Throughout the 18th century up to the Napoleonic wars there were spasms of hurried fortification in Kent. These included bastioned lines at Chatham, complex batteries and tunnels at Fort Amherst and new batteries at Dover Castle.

Photo:Martello tower, Hythe

Martello tower, Hythe

Peter Webster

Photo:The Royal Military Canal

The Royal Military Canal

Internet images

With the onset of the Napoleonic wars it was thought necessary to improve the defences of the beaches extending some 20 miles between Folkestone and Dungeness. This led to the construction of a string of Martello Towers and the construction of the Royal Military Canal.


Further defences were carried out post 1815 in the light of new concerns about French invasion and these continued well into the 19th century. The layout, size and scope of many of these fortifications, particularly the angular forts, were well illustrated by aerial photographs which brought out not only their defence qualities but also their artistry and beauty.

The Twentieth Century

Photo:Chain Home radar towers, Dover

Chain Home radar towers, Dover

Peter Webster

By the time of WWI, military strategy and weaponry had further developed with the need to update defences with new seaward batteries and the construction of airfields. WWII and the threat of invasion by Germany again brought Kent very much into the frontline with Dover Castle once more pivotal particularly from a command and control perspective – it played a vital role in overseeing the evacuation at Dunkirk. Another vital contribution was the construction of more airfields and a chain of radar stations that were to prove decisive during the Battle of Britain. “Chain Home” radar towers can still be seen above Dover.

Unlike the Wars of the Roses and the related Battles of St Albans the front line exposure of Kent was hardly on the doorstep of Harpenden. However, it should be borne in mind that Kent is not that far distant and any breach in their defences would have soon had a major impact on Hertfordshire and Harpenden.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 27/01/2015.
Comments about this page

This fascinating account of Kent defences would not be complete without a brief mention of the Auxiliary Units in WW2.  With the threat of imminent invasion in 1940 bunkers secretly built thoughout East Kent.  My father-in-law Dick Body was a sheep farmer on Romney Marsh.  Unbeknown to everyone including wives, he and other volunteers were recruited into patrols given innocuous names like 'toadstool' and 'mushroom'.  If the enemy had landed they would literally have gone underground behind the lines with enough bomb making supplies to last them a fortnight and to create mayhem.  By this time it was presumed they would have been wiped out.  All children were evacuated.  My wife Primrose was sent to boarding school in Wilts at the age of 3 and seldom saw her parents.

By John Wyborn
On 20/10/2015

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