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The Blitz families who built a city underground

Whist drive in Chislehurst Caves Image copyright Mary Evans Picture Library
Image caption War-time whist drive in Chislehurst Caves

Seventy five years ago the Luftwaffe started its attempt to bomb Britain into submission. As explosives rained down, residents in many cities sought shelter underground. Thousands headed to the Chislehurst Caves in Kent, which over time became a subterranean city, writes Claire Bates.

The caves were not natural caverns but a disused chalk mine, with 22 miles of man-made tunnels 100ft under the ground.

When war broke out in 1939 anxious locals had broken in to use it as an emergency shelter. By the time of the Blitz the caves had electric lights, running water and an air ventilation system. A team of men were paid as a "sanitation squad" to empty the latrines.

An American journalist described the scene for his readers in October 1940: "In little niches decorated as rooms, they [families] put up beds with spring mattresses, light their portable stoves and cook the evening meal," he wrote.

"Afterwards the dishes are stacked, the wife knits; the father reads the newspaper and the children play in the street."

During the Blitz more than 5,000 people from east London made the caves their home. Over eight months the German air force dropped 30,000 tonnes of bombs on Britain. While cities from Glasgow to Portsmouth were targeted, more than half would fall on London.

The government hadn't made adequate provision for shelters in the capital. Some of the first communal surface shelters were built without cement due to shortages and collapsed with their occupants still inside. Residents took to the Tube network and basements in their quest for safety.

Image copyright Dave Miller
Image caption Dave Miller, 12, at the time he went to live in the caves

Dave Miller, 87, was fortunate because his family had an Anderson shelter in the back garden of their council home in Bromley. "We would hear the drone of the planes as they came over," he says.

"They would drop any they hadn't used on the centre that night over us on the way back. The next day we'd see demolished houses on the way to school. And sometimes we'd find out one or two of our schoolmates had been killed."

After months of broken sleep and some near misses, his mother Cath decided they too would head to the Chislehurst Caves. "My father Alfred had to stay as he had fire-watching duty," he recalls.

"But my mother, three brothers and I heaped our bedding into our old Swan pram and walked for an hour to the shelter."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Residents of Hastings queue for shelter outside St Clements Caves

Finding shelter in The Blitz

  • The Blitz was a German campaign in World War Two designed to bomb Britain into submission
  • Between September 1940 and August 1941, the Luftwaffe dropped 30,000 tons of bombs in 127 raids
  • Residents with gardens could build an Anderson Shelter made from corrugated iron sheets
  • In 1941 people could shelter inside their homes in a steel cage known as a Morrison Shelter
  • Others preferred to go underground. Tens of thousands sheltered in tube stations and tunnels

BBC iWonder guide: What would you have done in the Blitz?

The caves opened at 19:00 each evening. Families were charged sixpence a week for adults and thruppence for children. Regular visitors were allocated their own pitch.

"We had our own spot that we went to," Miller says. "We had candles and would but a niche in the chalk and put the candle there. We had a double mattress that we all slept on.

"There was a strange smell in there- it was the smell of the chalk, a kind of cold and dank smell. It was horrible. But you couldn't hear the bombs down there. I slept like a log.

Image copyright Topfoto
Image caption Dover residents get much-needed rest, sheltered from the sound of bombs

"Each morning mum would roll the mattress, tie it up and leave it there. We'd leave the caves around 7am and get on with our day."

Many middle-class locals now chose to shelter at home instead of mix with the East End and were labelled "snobbish" by the new working-class residents.

Miller wasn't aware of any class friction. He simply remembered the joy of exploring this subterranean world as a 12-year-old.

"We would skylark around until it was time to go to bed. A bunch of 20 or 30 of us would run amok. We didn't feel scared as down there we felt safe."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Caves, such as this one at Dover, were considered one of the safest places to shelter
Image copyright Twm/flickr
Image caption War-time reconstruction at Chislehurst Caves

With so many families living cheek by jowl, minor disputes arose about noise and cleanliness. But these were resolved by cave captains who enforced a list of rules in each section.

These included orders to put rubbish in bins and stop music by 21:00. Stoves of all kinds were later banned for safety reasons. However, the 21:30 curfew wasn't strictly enforced to allow residents to head over after last orders at the local pub.

Other cave networks, such as at Dover and Hastings, were also used as emergency shelters. These had sleeping pitches, toilet facilities and first aid posts.

Image copyright Chislehurst Caves
Image caption Cave shelters had first aid posts, and the one at Chislehurst had a staffed hospital

However, none evolved as quickly and to such an extent as the caves Chislehurst, which accommodated 15,000 visitors at its height. By 1941 it had a cinema, a barber and three canteens where people would queue with their teapots for tea.

Those who fell ill could be treated at the fully functional hospital. It had seven wards and an isolation unit manned by a Red Cross doctor and two nurses. One birth even took place - a baby girl called Rose Cavena Wakeman to mark her unusual start in life.

Others seeking spiritual support could pray at the cave chapel that had been consecrated by the Bishop of Rochester.

A Mrs Hamilton Grant attended one of the regular services while staying overnight at the caves. "There were 300-400 there," she wrote in her war diary.

Image copyright IWM
Image caption Residents brought in furniture to make the caves more homely. Painting by Henry Carr

"There was a natural dome resting just above the improvised altar. There was a small organ… it gave out a good sound. Strangely the first hymn was - 'Rock of ages, cleft (split) for me.' I thought, how true."

The caves would be used until the end of the war. They were officially closed shortly after VE Day in 1945 and now serve as a tourist attraction.

During the Blitz 43,000 people lost their lives and more than two million homes were destroyed. However, the Miller family came out of it unscathed.

"We spent two years living in those caves," Dave Miller says.

"It was wonderful as it provided us with a sense of security at such a terrible time. It probably helped save our lives."

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