Short Brothers Aviation Pioneers

Rochester Shorts Tunnels | WW2 Air-raid Tunnels

The white bricks, ordered by Oswald Short, still show the pencil drawings of wartime aircraft and columns of figures thought to relate to some kind of game workers played during air raids

The white brick lower lining of the personnel shelters, comprising 12 courses. The curved roof is made of corrugated asbestos cement. All are in remarkably good condition.

The tunnels were well supplied with toilets, clearly labelled according to gender. These were housed in recesses, with cloth curtains for doors, cut into the main walls of the tunnels.

There was an electrical system and water for industrial processes such as cooling.

Most of the equipment has been taken out.

Here and there are old pieces of machinery, for example the rusted remains of a battery powered vehicle.

At the far end are the larger caverns with curved ceilings, about twenty feet wide and twenty feet high, built for the finer industrial processes.

There would have been workbenches, lathes and other equipment for building gyros, compasses and some of the more expensive items of equipment.

Mostly the tunnels were for personnel with benches down each side.

An annotated plan of the northern end of the tunnel complex, [see one of the ‘ROCHESTER’ panels] reveals some of the functions carried out in various areas.

There was a decontamination room, rest rooms for ARP [Air Raid Precautions] wardens, a stores area and central control room.

How would Short Brothers protect its [11,000] employees when the German bombs began to rain down? This was a problem anticipated by the company as far back as 1938 when the Munich Agreement was signed.

Oswald Short, the sole survivor of three brothers who started the firm in 1908, was among those who thought Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” declaration was falsely optimistic. There would be war.

Together with his engineers Oswald devised a plan whereby in the event of an air raid, all his workers would disappear into the steep chalk banks that descended towards the River Medway from St Margaret’s Street, Rochester. They would do this by means of a system of tunnels, two miles of them, possibly three if you count the various spurs and shafts that run off the main galleries.

In 1960, Oswald Short told the local ‘Observer’ newspaper the story of the tunnels. He had been in America studying aviation techniques when Britain declared war on Germany, and took the next flight home.

On arrival, he was met by his general manager Mr. Arthur Gouge and the company secretary Mr. J. H. Wood.

“Straight away we began to plan protection for our employees when the bombs came, as surely they would,” Oswald recalled.

“So important was it that we began work without delay,” he said. “I did not seek permission to tunnel under roads and under government property. I have never asked permission to do what I know must be done for the safety of employees, or to do what was right in the design of aircraft.”

Arthur Gouge suggested spending £5,000 on the tunnels but Oswald immediately ordered that £60,000 should be made available. The company secretary pointed out that this was more than the company could afford, but his boss said he would pay the money out of his own pocket if necessary.

Because of the steepness of the hill behind the Seaplane Works, the tunnels did not have to go far before there would be at least 50 feet of protective chalk between the tunnels and any bombs that fell.

“At first it was suggested that the chalk would be solid enough for the tunnels without re-enforcement,” said Oswald Short. “I vetoed that. There was sure to be a fault. For thousands of years that chalk must have been gradually slipping, causing in some parts a shear. In fact, we did come across a cave about 30 feet high.

My instructions were that the tunnels should be lined with cement and white bricks, then grouted with cement.

The men worked with great energy, so much so that I had to stop them going too far into the chalk without bricking and cementing the tunnels as they went along. I did not want a pit disaster.”

On one occasion during the construction he was talking to the foreman when a piece of flint fell from the roof and landed at their feet. After that he gave instructions that the tunnellers should wear steel helmets.

Eventually an electric light system ran through the entire labyrinth, although hurricane lamps were also installed in case of power failures. There was a water supply and fans kept the air circulating from ventilator shafts. Water tanks were installed in case the mains supply was cut.

The tunnels are still there [but at a secret location not open for public viewing]!

The logistics of getting so many people into the tunnels quickly when the alarm sounded took some organising. There were about eight entrances, and employees were drilled to form orderly queues outside their nearest one.

“No bombs were dropped after the first alert,” said Oswald Short. “Once, however, while I was standing in an office, I saw a stick of incendiary bombs fall into the River without warning. They must have been aimed at the Works but they missed by about 100 yards.

[See SHORTS BOY Ronald Lamb’s account of picking out bombs from the Medway mud.]

“The first real attack soon came. I was living at Meopham about six miles away, but because of the tremendous din made by an anti-aircraft battery alongside our house we heard nothing of the raid on Rochester.

When I visited the Seaplane Works next morning the roofs of the drawing office and the mess room were on the ground, the garage and the cars inside had disappeared, and the board room, clerical offices and my own office were badly damaged.

Only one man had been killed, a van driver who had just returned from London. Ignoring the advice of the guards at the gate when the siren sounded, he went to the mess room for a cup of coffee.

He was never seen again. But he was the only man killed at the works during the whole of the war. Thus, I thought construction of the tunnels was amply justified.

[editor: Well justified and demonstrates the genuine caring of Oswald for his workforce]

Today there is just one entrance to the tunnels, which is kept securely locked to prevent vandals getting inside. Its location is secret and even people who live close by have no idea of its existence.

Reproduced from an article by Peter Cook published in the Medway Messenger November 2016.