HMS Forward, Sussex

On the 20th June 1940, the Guinness Trust Holiday Home at South Heighton (Newhaven) became a Royal Naval headquarters under the formal title of HMS Forward. Under its command was HMS Marlborough at Eastbourne, HMS Aggressive and HMS Next at Newhaven, HMS Vernon at Roedean, HMS Lizard at Hove, and the two Resident Naval Officers at Shoreham and Littlehampton. Naval Stores depots were established at Lewes and Burgess Hill to supply permanent, consumable, and after action stores; and a naval canteen service was organised for the area. Numerous large residential establishments were requisitioned both locally and at Seaford to accommodate the WRNS.

In March 1941, the Admiralty ordered specified Channel ports to establish and maintain naval plots in conjunction with a coastal radar chain in order to provide surface coverage around the Dover area, eventually spreading to Newhaven and Portsmouth. They also ordered the construction of a protected facility in Newhaven to house the plotting and communications equipment. This was constructed sixty feet below Heighton Hill and housed the equipment required for intelligence gathering, interpretation, and dissemination of shipping movements within the area. The principal operational entrance, situated in room 16 of the Guinness Trust Holiday Home gave access via a staircase to an impenetrable fortress and the most sophisticated contemporary communications devices.

In order to fulfil the operational requirements,  the tunnel complex contained two telephone exchanges, a W/T office with eleven radios, a VF line telegraph terminal for 36 channels, ten Creed 7B teleprinters, two Typex machines, a stand-by generator, an air-conditioning system with gas filters, a galley, toilets, cabins for split shifts, and the recently invented ‘daylight’ fluorescent lights. The tunnels were protected by two pill boxes and a machine gun next at the bottom of the main stairs; the ventilation intake/exhaust was disguised as a hen house. HMS FORWARD maintained a comprehensive maritime surveillance of everything that moved on, under or over the English Channel from Dungeness to Selsey Bill. Ten coastal radar stations between Fairlight and Bognor Regis and reported directly to HMS Forward. All information was filtered and plotted and also relayed by teleprinter to similar plots at Dover and Portsmouth.

Col. FH Foster DSO OBE TD RL RIBA CRE 4 Corps Troops Royal Engineers disclosed how he designed the subterranean labyrinth after visiting Montgomery’s headquarters at Reigate. It was excavated by the 1st Tunnelling Engineers Group, No 172 Tunnelling Company, (No 2 Section), under Major Lindsay Foss. No 577 Army Field Coy Royal Engineers was engaged in the fitting out under Major R Hawker. Excavation of the tunnel commenced in May 1941. It was completed by 14 November 1941 and used until decommissioned on 31 August 1945. The Canadian Corps Coastal Artillery who also maintained a headquarters here shared the tunnel [Information taken from the Subbrit Website].

Geoffrey Ellis, who saw this establishment being excavated, spent four years diligently researching the history of this site. A book and a seventy-minute video entitled The Secret Tunnels of South Heighton detail the revelations produced by site surveys, official archives, and military and civilian veterans who served here during the war, revealing authentic information about un-archived details concerning the equipment, accommodation, procedures, and administration of the establishment. Previously unknown to English Heritage, EH now recognises that ‘the site is of National Importance having performed a vital role in the forefront of both offensive and defensive operations carried out in W.W.II.’

A group called ‘Friends of HMS Forward’ was setup in 1999 with the objective of restoring the former HMS Forward tunnels to a standard conforming with current legislation suitable for public access as a site of historic interest. It was discovered that the 1970’s urban development of the hillside had resulted in ownership of the tunnels becoming fragmented under English Law. This complication led to the abandonment of the project and the tunnels have laid derelict since.

Modified: 14th Jun 2019