The Secret Tunnels of South Heighton

A Tribute to HMS FORWARD, Newhaven, Royal Naval Headquarters 1941 - 1945

Geoffrey Ellis, a retired telecommunications engineer, used his professional technical experience, combined with a long-standing ambition, to determine the true facts concerning the purpose of the most secret Royal Naval Headquarters accommodated in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath Heighton Hill, Newhaven, during the Second World War. He saw the excavations in progress as a young schoolboy and has retained a life-long obsession to have the establishment recognised for its contribution to the Battle of the Channel.

His research is dedicated to the crew of HMS FORWARD who wore headphones, not helmets; who brandished Morse keys, not machine guns; who used teleprinters, not torpedos; despatching bulletins, not bullets; and who contemplated the courses of clandestine convoys in secluded secrecy. They too contributed to the Defence of the Realm and the winning of the War.

During the first 9 months of the war, the Newhaven-Dieppe cross-channel service was used to ferry wounded soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force back to England for hospitalisation. The German occupation of France in June 1940 put an end to that. Suddenly the whole South Coast was vulnerable to invasion as the next stage of Hitler's objectives. Shore-based HMS Forward was commissioned as a Royal Naval Command Headquarters at Newhaven to oversee the installation of maritime minefields and block-ships for harbours along the Sussex coast from Hastings to Bognor Regis.

In March 1941 the Admiralty nominated certain South Coast ports to maintain naval plots linked to coastal radar stations. HMS Forward, Newhaven, was one such location, flanked by others at Dover and Fort Southwick, Portsmouth. Unfortunately no adequately secure accommodation existed at Newhaven. This had to be designed, excavated, and fitted-out deep in the hillside beneath the existing headquarters building under the ever-watchful eyes of the enemy reconnaissance aircraft without attracting any undue attention or suspicion.

Few documents remain in official archives to acknowledge the existence of this establishment. However, from material retained by veterans (including the original plans!) plus eight wartime military photographs held by the IWM recently identified as proper to this site, much of the mystery and rumour about it has been replaced with first-hand written accounts and personal photographs taken covertly by those who served here during the war.

One very graphic chapter in the book was written by a former HMS Forward WRNS Telegraphist. Other veterans describe their own contributions to the plotting room, teleprinter room, signals distribution office, and telephone switchboard. The Canadian Corps Coastal Artillery Headquarters, based in nearby Denton Manor House, also shared the tunnels. The book contains copies of many archived secret signals and previously unpublished official wartime photographs. More detail can be found at,,    and

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All illustrations and text on this site are 1941- Geoffrey Ellis, or The Friends of HMS Forward, or Nick Catford.

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