Bob Hunt has been fascinated by the tunnels underneath Portsdown Hill ever since he was a boy. Rachel Jones reports
To a nine-year-old boy, the sight of a tunnel curving into the depths of Portsdown Hill was irresistible.
Bob Hunt and his cousin Jim had scrambled through a hole in a fence and discovered a steel gate guarding the entrance to this mysterious cavern.
Hearing a noise behind them, the young lads scarpered but the image was firmly imprinted on Bob’s mind and years later he would return.
What Bob and Jim had discovered was the gate guarding the entrance to tunnels beneath Fort Southwick, used as a communications centre for D-Day and then as a top secret NATO communications centre in the Cold War.
But he would only find this out as an adult when, the idea of tunnels under the hill having formed its own labyrinth in his imagination, Bob embarked on years of painstaking and enthralling research.
Now 58, Bob has been inside the Portsdown Tunnels and gathered decades of photographs and research. He presents the fascinating facts and images on his own website.
He also receives queries and information from all over the world and is now producing an e-book focusing on his own story and fuel bunkers under the hill, a secret of the Second World War.
‘I think I’ve always found it fascinating because for a long time people didn’t know much about these places,’ says Bob, who lives in Paulsgrove.
‘The fuel bunkers weren’t long off the secrets list when I started looking into it. A lot of local historians collate photographs and information from museums and newspapers, and that’s fine. We should have interesting accounts like that, it’s best those pictures aren’t just left in dusty archives.
‘But I’ve had to go all over the place piecing things together, that’s the most rewarding thing.’
Bob decided to focus the book on the fuel bunkers because, of all the hill tunnels, people had the least information about them.
For several decades they were mystery caverns, but we now know they were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a guaranteed supply for Royal Navy warships in case of a German blockade of British ports.
The other tunnels with entrances in and around Fort Southwick were a communication centre where 700 decrypters, radio operatives and plotters worked during the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Decades later the communications centres received messages from the Admiralty at Whitehall and NATO HQ in Europe. Bob has a picture of a 1967 document from the National Archive identifying the fort, as well as the naval base, as likely targets for nuclear attack.
With facts like these, it’s not surprising that the tunnels held such a fascination for Bob once he had started digging for information.
In the introduction to his book he says: ‘As the years went by I absorbed information about Portsdown. If I found myself near a library I might pop in for an hour and look for any references. It was now that I realised how little information there was. A snippet here, a bit there but never any full accounts.’
Bob, who is an IT teacher at HMS Sultan in Gosport, has spent a lot of his spare time gaining access to the fuel bunkers and researching them for his e-book.
He had to find out who the owner was, discovering that technically he needed permission from the commodore of the naval base, although the bunkers were looked after by a sub-contractor. He could only gain access with maintenance staff during a regular inspection and had to be vetted. He also had to complete a course in using breathing apparatus.
The walls of the bunkers are made of concrete one foot thick and in places the roof is 22 feet thick.
‘No German bomb produced during the Second World War was capable of this level of penetration,’ Bob says in his book.
He reveals how, tragically, at least 15 men died during the construction, usually due to rock falls. And there is a grisly tale of two workers who took a nap behind some shuttering after a lunchtime pub visit and ended up with 40 tons of wet concrete inadvertently poured on them.
Bob admits there’s an eerie atmosphere in the tunnels. But he says the strangest tunnels to visit are those under Fort Southwick.
Bob was given access by the company which owns the fort. He says: ‘If I put my hand in front of me I couldn’t see it and I’ve never experienced silence like that. Straight away two of your senses have been taken away. It’s quite cold and damp, so it could be a fairly unnerving place.’
His research hasn’t just been about visits to the tunnels and gaining access to archive documents and plans. To discover more about the five-and-a-half mile pipeline that linked the fuel reservoir at Portsdown with the Admiralty Fuel Depot in Gosport, Bob knocked on doors.
‘The sites of the inspection pits for the pipeline are in people’s gardens so I knocked on their doors and asked them about it. A lot of them were happy to tell me what they knew. One lady had newspaper cuttings with information.’
Another big moment in Bob’s digging and delving career was discovering the London Road air raid shelter in Cliffdale Gardens on the hill.
The fact that there had been a Second World War shelter at Wymering was widely known, but Bob found records of the second one that had largely been forgotten.
Visiting the site, he discovered the opening which had partially been bricked up. It is now fenced off, but Bob says the shelter, which contains signs for toilets and bunks, is probably a sealed-up time capsule.
The local historian believes he has devoted thousands of hours to the subject that has fascinated him since boyhood. His website has 160 pages and 650 images and he now hopes to share more of the information in his book. Bob is looking for a publisher and is also working on uploading it as an e-book.
But he says he still doesn’t know everything.
‘When I started putting it on the web, I thought I’d get everything on there and that would be it. But I’m constantly receiving information.’
For more information, visit Bob’s website at portsdown-tunnels.org.uk