Wartime entertainer from Northampton kept secret of White Cliffs of Dover tunnels for 70 years

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A wartime entertainer from Northampton said she nearly fell off her chair when tunnels she’d helped keep secret for more than 70 years featured on the television news.

The labyrinth of forgotten World War Two tunnels, which hit the headlines after being reopened this week, were hollowed out of the chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover on Winston Churchill’s orders so the military could monitor the Channel.

Frances Mawby, who now lives at St Crispin Retirement Village, said she couldn’t believe it, but was thrilled that she could now tell her family about her night down there in 1941 performing a variety act.

Daughter Valerie Holt said: “She and my late father were a double-act of entertainers with ENSA (Entertainmnts National Service Association) and were signed up to entertain the soldiers.

“They walked on stilts, rollerskated, tap-danced and sang and they performed down there in 1941.

“Mum still remembers it all, but just wasn’t able to tell us because they both signed the Official Secrets Act.

“When she saw it on TV she nearly fell off her chair but she’s loved telling us now.”

The tunnels, called the Fan Bay Shelter, were dug 25 metres deep as part of the cliffs’ defensive battery in just 100 days by a tunneling company of the Royal Engineers.

Mrs Mawby recalls seeing the underground hospital and the carved graffiti.

She also remembers being taken by a “lovely officer” deep into the tunnels to see the “big machine” of which they were very proud, which was in fact a telescope that could be used to watch and record troop movements across the Channel to France.

Army staff did not use a lift so they carried all the couple’s equipment down the steps.

Mr and Mrs Mawby entertained everyone involved there with songs and dances, accordions and the stilt act for most of the afternoon.

Mrs Mawby said they got the boys to whistle for accompaniment as there was no piano.

After remaining bricked up for more than 40 years, the tunnels opened to the public following an 18-month project and 3,000 man hours.

Following their rediscovery, 100 tonnes of rubble and soil were removed by hand from the tunnels in a project involving more than 50 National Trust volunteers, archaeologists, mine consultants, engineers and a geologist.

Officials at the National Trust said the tunnels were a “time capsule” with discarded ammunition and even a pools coupon found.

Mrs Mawby said: “I couldn’t believe it after all these years, but I have enjoyed being able to talk about that night.”