World War I
In WWI the Straits of Dover became a frontier against invasion. They had to be shut off from the Germans positioned on the Belgian coast whilst keeping open the supply line to our Army in France.
This heavy responsibility lay with the Dover Patrol, a force comprising some 300 vessels of 24 different types manned by men from a variety of professions and walks of life.
The Downs was of greatest importance to the Dover Patrol because it was selected as an examination base for vessels passing through with supplies to London. Between 1915 and 1917 a reported 121, 707 vessels entered The Downs to be checked for contraband and enemy subjects, with up to 80 – 100 ships lying at anchor there day and night. According to records, only one vessel was attacked between the Goodwin Sands and the coast because it was anchored in an exposed and prohibited anchorage.
One tragedy of WWI was that of the tug Char, part of the Dover Patrol, which was run down at night by the steamer Erivan and sank with the loss of all of its 17 crew.
World War II
During WWII, the Goodwin Sands lay right in the firing line between Britain and Occupied France. The presence of airfields at RAF Manston, Lydden & Hawkinge lead to fierce dogfights taking place over the sea with many airmen crashing and being killed in the English Channel.
Research by the Curator of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum, David Brocklehurst MBE, found that nearly 60 aircraft from Britain, Poland and Germany crashed into the Goodwin Sands area during 1940 alone, with the loss of over 100 aircrew
One of these brave young men was Pilot Officer Keith Gillman from River near Dover, who died in his Hurricane aged only 19 and whose photograph was published on the front cover of Picture Post just one week after his death.
The wrecks of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Dorniers litter the seabed around the Goodwins but only one Dornier 17 has been identified and recovered. This was raised in 2013 and is now undergoing careful restoration at RAF Cosford in Wiltshire.
Six American B17 bombers are thought to have crashed in the area. The remains of one of these appears regularly in Sandwich Bay and another one was discovered recently during the installation of the Nemo cable from Ramsgate to Belgium. The location of the others remains unknown.
Collisons,lurking German submarines and mines were responsible for the recorded loss of 80 vessels around the Goodwin Sands. Two more German submarines sank around the Goodwins during WWII, the midget Seehund and U-16.
Several American steamships delivering supplies to the Allied forces in Europe just after the War met their end on the Goodwins, on account of their reluctance to employ local pilots to safely navigate the shifting Sands.
Channel Dash Heroes
In February 1942, three German battleships, Gneisnau, Prinz Eugen and Scharnhorst appeared in the Straits of Dover, causing great consternation at the Royal Navy Command Post in Dover Castle. Six Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers, led by Lt Commander Eugene Edmond DSO RN from 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm based at RAF Manston, were scrambled to attack in the expectation that they would be backed up by five Spitfire squadrons. However, only one squadron appeared.
Not one of the Swordfish came back; only five of the 18 airmen were rescued with only one of them being unhurt.
Over a period lasting a mere 20 minutes these young airmen undertook what was essentially a suicide mission. Although it was flawed in planning, the manner of its undertaking was brilliant. Their remains could well lie in the Goodwin Sands.
This action marked the beginning of the end of the three German battleships that had sunk so many merchant ships in the Atlantic Convoy.
Lt Commander Esmonde was awarded a posthumous VC for his role in the Channel Dash. The bravery of all the airmen who took part is recognised on a memorial stone at Ramsgate Harbour outside the Maritime Museum as well as on the Memorial Board in the museum at RAF Manston.
The full story can be found in the booklet Channel Dash Heroes written by Ted Powell and published by The Swordfish Heritage Trust.
The Goodwin Sands contain the final resting places or what are often colloquially termed ‘War Graves’ of sailors lost in battle and servicemen from both World Wars as well as the remains of the ships, submarines and aircraft they died in.
Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 it is a illegal to tamper with or disturb them in any way.
Anyone wishing to dive such a site must first obtain permission from the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre of the Ministry of Defence. This will not be granted if it is thought that human remains may be present.