A military mystery at Reigate Fort - secret tunnels and wartime heroes
- Credit: National Trust
Once home to a secret network of tunnels and caves used by one of our greatest wartime heroes, Reigate Hill is now the subject of a major investigation to uncover more about the area’s mysterious military past
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2013
In the leafy heights above Reigate, a mysterious oblong structure, sunk so low into the ground that its windows are barely above soil level, is causing a lot of head scratching.
“It’s got two rooms and a kitchen range, but we haven’t the faintest idea of what purpose it once served,” says Marc Russell, National Trust ranger for the area. “It’s been conjectured it may have been some sort of observation post in World War Two, but the spot in which it stands is known as The Beeches, and although most of those trees came down in the Great Storm of 1987, they would have been large even in the 1940’s.”
Another theory is that it could have been used to store ammunition, but in amongst a tangle of vegetation and decaying logs, Marc points out two cut copper wires that look like they could once have been run down the side of the hill.
Indeed, easily the most intriguing suggestion has been that the building may have been a radio communications station linked to secret tunnels in the hillside below. It’s a little-known fact that, back in the 1940’s, the headquarters of General Montgomery’s SE Command was based in caves deep inside the chalk slopes of Reigate Hill. These tunnels and offices have long since been blocked up, but could this odd-looking structure in some way be linked to the subterranean lair of one of our greatest wartime heroes? Was it a social retreat for military personnel working for Montgomery? Did Monty himself ever step inside?
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“What amazes me is that no-one has come forward to say something like, ‘Yes, I remember my dad telling me about how he had to man this place, and what purpose it served’,” says Marc. “Surely someone must know something. Several local military historians have been up to take a look, but no-one has a definitive explanation.”
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That could all be about to change, however, with the launch of an exciting new project, of which the National Trust is a partner, called Front Line Surrey Hills. This Heritage Lottery-funded community initiative, headed by the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Board, is attempting to uncover lesser-known aspects of the area’s rich military history.
Running over two years, the project will include a programme of research and educational events for local communities to take part in, including fort garrison days, ‘living history’ events and a series of talks. Gatton Community Theatre will also be staging an open air production and Surrey County Archaeological Unit will continue to investigate the mysterious structures around the site.
“It is hoped that we’ll discover a lot more about the military history along this section of the North Downs, as much of it seems to have been forgotten over time,” says Marc. “It seems amazing that these sites can exist with us walking past them every day and yet we know so little about them. Obviously, it would be great it we are able to find out more about ‘Monty’s secret bunker’ along the way.”
There are also plans to create a themed military walk across Reigate Hill and the adjoining hills, which saw a lot of action during the German air raids of 1939-45, and with that in mind, Marc is keen to take me to another fascinating military feature on Reigate Hill.
Just a couple of minutes away from the mystery bunker, Reigate Fort has been described as the “jewel in the crown” of a series of installations built along the Surrey Hills in the 1890’s, at a time when Britain feared an attack from a different enemy – the French. With London, the cornerstone of the entire British Empire, thought vulnerable, a plan for a 72-mile defence line was hatched in 1898, including the building of 13 forts, or mobilisation centres, at key strategic points. Reigate Fort may well be the best surviving example.
“You could say this place was the birthplace of ideas about the tactics of trench warfare,” Marc explains. “This was a time when there were huge developments in the penetrative range of weapons of war, making you highly vulnerable if you had all your men concentrated in one defensive fortification. If the French had launched a shell attack, they would have been extremely vulnerable to bombardment. So the new idea was to distribute soldiers along a quickly constructed network of trenches, with these forts acting as depots to store tools and ammunition for volunteers at short notice.”
In the end, the French attack never materialised, yet even if Reigate Fort didn’t see direct action, it looks as if it would have presented a mighty obstacle had it come under attack. “The massive bank and ditch resemble an Iron Age hillfort, and there was even a smaller outer ditch, still discernible down on the ridge below, which would have had barbed wire entanglements,” says Marc. “The outer pair of gates were made of high, spiked steelwork and the inner gates bulletproof.”
By World War One, the London Defence Scheme was revived, this time against the Germans, and Reigate Fort saw further use in World War Two, when it seems likely that it was used by the Canadian Army. But if any personnel were still present on March 19, 1945, they would have had a nasty shock when, on what is now an area of mowed, open grass about 50 yards to the west of the fort, a US Flying Fortress bomber crashed into Reigate Hill, having been on its flight home from a bombing raid on the Czech border. With the clouds making visibility almost impossible at 800ft, the plane had descended to 300ft, but paid the price by colliding with the hill, an all-too familiar tragedy occurring along both the North and South Downs during World War Two.
In recent years, the National Trust has carried out restoration work on the fort, a deceptively large complex, which for years had been a neglected and overgrown tangle of vegetation and leaking structures. “There are now visitor interpretation boards, you can see inside the former tool store, and we lead regular guided tours that include glimpses into the dark, sunken tunnels of the magazine building,” adds Marc.
And, who knows, if more members of the public can be induced to come forward with their memories, the Front Line Surrey Hills initiative may yet uncover more forgotten facts – and solve a few more mysteries – from the area’s military past.
If you know anything about the mysterious structure on Reigate Hill and the part it may have played in military history, e-mail email@example.com.
A walk into history...
To find out more about the military history of the area, why not follow the National Trust’s self-guided walk, which takes in several of the places mentioned in our feature and is available to download from their website.
As well as Reigate Fort and other structures on the hill, the walk includes the elegant rotunda known as the Inglis Monument, which is a good spot to stop and take in the stunning views along the escarpment towards Box Hill and Leith Hill, and on the skyline to the south, the Sussex Downs. Originally a drinking fountain for horses en route over the hills, it was given to the Borough of Reigate by Lt Col Sir Robert William Inglis VC, ex-London Irish Rifles, in 1909.
Sir Robert had played a key role in a battle of a different kind; that of saving the neighbouring Colley Hill from falling into the grasp of developers who were after the spot for housing development. He bought some of the land, including that of Reigate Fort, to protect it, before the area was eventually passed over to the National Trust in 1924.
Colley Hill was to be in the thick of air raid action in the 1940’s, and National Trust ranger Marc Russell says researchers on the new project (see left) are also investigating leads suggesting anti-aircraft gun emplacements were present, not far from the Sutton District Water Company watchtower.
Close by the Monument, a path leading down the side of the hill, offering a spectacular view of the steep, bowl-shaped valley below (the former site of the Reigate stone mines), leads to another memorial of a military man. This is to Captain George Simpson, commander of the Reigate Detachment of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. The three-acre area of hillside surrounding it was donated to Reigate by his mother after his premature death at the age of 26 in 1909.
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