Channel Islands and Dover Straits Coast


Channel Islands and Dover Straits

Neil Oliver is in the Channel Islands and kayaks over to Les Ecrehous before heading to Sark. Sue Daly talks about diving in the Islands.


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If you really want to know about the tug of love between Britain and France over the Channel Islands,

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there's one place you've got to go... Les Ecrehous.

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A spectacular island group just eight miles off the French coast.

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There's no regular boat service, so you've got to improvise.

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Slide the boat in.

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OK.

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Local kayaker Derek Hairon is an old hand at this six-mile paddle to Les Ecrehous.

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So, is this crossing a sort of sea kayaker's Mecca?

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It certainly seems to be. We do see a lot of people from all over the world coming to Jersey to kayak.

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Also, all round the Channel Islands.

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Shall I be first?

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Yes, I think you'd better be.

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Well, I feel just like Captain Cook making first landfall in Australia,

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out of a slightly smaller boat, right enough, but I don't think this is

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really my colour.

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So, if you give a minute, I'll change into something more appropriate.

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Les Ecrehous is little more than a granite reef but it looks like a toy town by the sea.

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These dolls' houses were originally fishermen's huts.

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The accommodation might be Spartan, but the setting is idyllic.

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The downside? Well, there's no running water, so you have to bring your own.

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And there's only one toilet, so you get to know your neighbours rather well!

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Strange, then, that this wee place was the scene of a diplomatic incident.

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In 1994, French fishermen and a small group of militants

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mounted an invasion of Les Ecrehous.

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Their plan - to claim exclusive fishing rights

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in the surrounding waters and to demand the return of Les Ecrehous to France.

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CHANTING

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Of course it wasn't a real invasion - there were no guns, fighting or genuine unpleasantness.

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In reality, it was more of a publicity stunt.

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Threats of repeat action never really materialised.

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So obviously, it didn't turn into another Falkland Islands or anything.

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These islands have been loyal to the Crown for over 800 years.

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In 1953, Britain's sovereignty was upheld by the International Court of Justice.

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The French did win guaranteed fishing rights, but the dispute was always about more than business.

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Pierre Muzzard was one of the fishermen on the "invasion" committee.

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Does it cause you pain thinking this belongs to

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Britain rather than France?

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As a Frenchman, do you feel a real personal connection to this place?

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But while everyone seems to love Les Ecrehous no-one actually lives here, not full-time anyway.

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Jersey fishermen use a couple of the huts, the rest are kept as holiday homes and weekend retreats.

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Suzanne Blackstone owns one of them.

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Hello, Neil.

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How are you doing?

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Good to meet you.

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It's a wee bit special here.

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Oh, it is! A very special place, yes.

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How much does this place mean to you?

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We've been coming ever since I was a baby.

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My brothers too and my children also.

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It means everything to me. I dream about it in the winter and...

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-Really?

-Yes.

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When the invasion happened did you know in advance that they were coming?

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Most hut owners came out that weekend if they could to make sure the windows weren't broken.

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The State sent policeman.

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On the day of the invasion, more policemen were sent over

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and we had two burley policemen linked around each and every flagpole around the island.

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-So the flagpoles were really the issue?

-They were. There were, yes.

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And does it still feel British?

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Most certainly it feels British. We feel very strongly about that here.

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Even with the French boats coming in - a huge number of Jersey boats come too.

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-So the French are the visitors and the Brits are the residents?

-Indeed. Indeed.

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For me, this handfuls of rocks seem to represent what Channel Islanders are all about.

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Les Ecrehous may have a French name, they may even be within spitting distance of France,

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but for Channel Islanders, they're British through and through.

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The odd dispute with the neighbours aside, there's plenty of

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breathtaking shoreline for everyone to enjoy.

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I'm Sue Daly and I'm an underwater photographer.

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I've been diving here in the Channel Islands for the past 18 years.

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The advantage we've got here, above water and under water, is that we're that little bit further south.

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We've got some of marine life that you won't see, or you'll rarely see, around the British mainland.

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Even in this really shallow little bay here, there are an amazing variety of things to see.

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One of my favourites is a tiny little prawn that lives among

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the tentacles of a beautiful green and purple snakelocks anemone.

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As far as I know, this is one of the southern species we get here that isn't found on the British mainland.

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My favourite piece of behaviour that I've seen,

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and probably the hardest thing to film, are the dragonettes.

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In June and July the males do this really wonderful courtship display.

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They are like little peacocks. They parade in front of the females, they flash their fins.

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They are absolutely irresistible.

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If I was a fish, I would definitely be impressed.

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We get another species here that isn't found at all on the British mainland

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which is a type of mollusc called an ormer.

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It is only found here in the islands and around the adjacent coasts of France.

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One we get here in the bay is black-face blenny.

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The male does this wonderful mating dance around the female before she allows him to mate with her.

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And we've got some wonderful corals here.

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The fan corals are the big orangey pink ones which reach across the current.

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I think my favourite has got to be the sunset corals.

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There are a lot of people in Britain who are divers, or who would

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like to dive, but they never dive in our own seas and it's a shame.

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They think its going to be too cold or too murky, there won't be anything to see.

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You've just got to give it a little bit more time and know where to look.

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You're missing out on so much otherwise.

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The tiny Isle of Sark, just nine miles off

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the coast of Guernsey, is one of the smaller inhabited islands.

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Accessible only by foot passenger ferry, it's a 45 minute crossing to reach the craggy outcrop.

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When you get here, there are no cars, no rush.

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Just a tractor and trailer to take me up the 295 foot high hill.

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-Hello, there.

-Hello.

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Can I have one of these bikes for the day?

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Yes. Just try that for size. We can adjust the saddle as required.

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It's been a while.

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Oh, yeah. It's all coming back to me.

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It's like riding a bike!

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Sark has escaped the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.

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Its resident population, around 600, enjoys a rather tranquil and peaceful existence which

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has hardly changed since the first families arrived here 500 years ago.

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Joining Sark, the main island, to Little Sark, is a razor-edged isthmus know as La Coupee.

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What a spectacular connection!

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For generations, children from Little Sark had

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to crawl on their hands and knees to avoid being blown over the edge on their journey to school.

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You're not allowed to cycle across here, and you can see why.

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One good, strong gust of wind and you'd end up in France.

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That's a 300 foot sheer drop.

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And in the old days these railings weren't even here.

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These ones were added by German prisoners of war in 1945.

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Thanks to their labours,

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the perilous journey across La Coupee is no more.

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Today, it's still a breathtaking place.

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From container ships to ferries,

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boats of all size criss-cross this narrow waterway day and night.

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To us, it's the English Channel. If you're French, it's "La Manche", meaning the sleeve.

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Interesting that they don't call it the French Channel!

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Managing the 500 ships which navigate this stretch of water each day

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depends on close co-operation between Dover Coastguard and their French counterparts.

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But relations with our coastal neighbours haven't always been so cordial.

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Nick Crane is on a journey back to darker times.

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Over 60 years ago, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Germans had occupied Northern France.

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From their commanding positions on the French coast over there,

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the enemy was able to strike at passing convoys

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not just from land but from the air as well.

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I've got a recording here from a BBC wartime correspondent

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reporting live from Dover on 14th July 1940.

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REPORTER: Now the Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea.

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There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive bombers,

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Junkers 87s... There's one going down on its target now.

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Bomb... No, missed the ships.

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He hasn't hit a single ship.

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There are about ten ships in the convoy but he hasn't hit one.

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EXPLOSIONS

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There you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them.

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There are about ten German machines dive-bombing a British convoy

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which is just out to sea in the Channel...

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That's absolutely incredible.

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This was just six weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

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For the seamen trapped down there on the Channel, it must have been absolutely terrifying.

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This was a suicidal bottleneck!

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In July 1940, the 21 miles between Dover and northern France

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was the frontline of our war in Europe.

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It became known as Hellfire Corner.

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You might think that merchant shipping

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would have avoided the Channel but it became more vital than ever.

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Most people will have heard of the Transatlantic convoys.

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But this little book tells another extraordinary story

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of something that came to be called the indestructible highway.

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I'm off to meet Nick Hewitt from the Imperial War Museum.

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He's been researching the role of the convoys during this crucial stage in the war.

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-Hello, Nick.

-Hello.

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Can you tell me why it was that these ships were running

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the gauntlet through the English Channel just here.

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This is all about strategic resources.

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What we've got is things like coal that are vitally required on the south coast of England and the only,

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not just the easiest, but the only way to move them is by sea.

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And to get there in the most efficient way possible

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-means forcing them through this incredibly narrow, dangerous strip of water.

-Between here and France.

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But why not just put all this coal on lorries and take it through the inner part

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of Britain overland, out of sight of the German air force and out of range of coastal batteries?

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The land movement infrastructure,

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the rail and road network, can't cope with that volume of material.

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The south coast ports need 40,000 tons of coal a week.

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That would take more trains and more trucks than Britain has and a far better developed road

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and railway network than the country has at this time.

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So you're saying we had the ships already. We had the sea already.

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You can't actually damage the sea unlike you can a canal or a railway line or road.

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-Absolutely.

-So it was actually the least difficult option.

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And it's Britain's lifeline. It's the way we know. It's how we know how to get things around.

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We move things by sea because we're an island. It's the way we've always done it.

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Who were the men on these ships that were running this incredibly dangerous blockade, effectively?

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These were a wonderful mix of people. The merchant ships are small, old, colliers and coastal vessels.

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These are manned by the men of the merchant navy.

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These are experienced sailors.

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These are grizzled seafarers who'd spent their careers going around Britain's coastal waters.

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Their escorts, the Royal Navy warships, are not your greyhound destroyers and big battleships.

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These are things like armed trawlers, motor torpedo boats,

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ancients warships from the First World War.

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These convoys of merchant and naval ships

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were part of a large supply network which sailed around our coast.

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They're a forgotten navy, aren't they?

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It wasn't just batteries from the French side or bombers that were trying to attack them.

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This point here, this narrow strip of water.

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They're facing everything the Germans can throw at them.

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They're facing coastal batteries of long range guns, based there

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on the French coast which can not only hit the convoys, but Dover!

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They're facing fast motor torpedo boats known as e-boats which come out at night.

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They're facing, during the summer of 1940, the whole of the German air force.

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Pretty much everything as they come through this narrow belt. It wasn't called Hellfire Corner for nothing.

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This was probably the most dangerous strip of water in the world in that summer of 1940.

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During the Second World War, over 500 convoys,

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some in excess of 30 ships, sailed through the Dover Straits.

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The command centre for the Straits was beneath Dover Castle,

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a labyrinth of underground passages and rooms

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which became the centre for military operations.

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What happened down here remained a closely guarded secret for more than 40 years.

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The Navy, the RAF and coastal artillery were all co-ordinated

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from plotting rooms like this, now preserved as a museum.

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What's not open to the public are the tunnels below.

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Margaret Kennedy was one of the Wrens working on the teleprinters

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sending and receiving signals vital for the deployment of the wartime convoys 60 years ago.

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Oh yes,

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I remember this.

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-This are very steep stairs, Margaret.

-They are steep.

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Of course I was much younger, it was nothing - you could hop down here!

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Well this is much, much bigger than any other...

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-It's massive.

-It was a big room and they had lots and lots of teleprinters.

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Then we had a teleprinter switchboard which went off this room.

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What were you doing down here with your teleprinter machine?

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We were sending signals all over the country and they would signal us.

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We took them inside and gave them to the appropriate officer in charge.

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Sometimes would they we in code?

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Sometimes they were in code.

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We didn't worry about what they actually meant. There was always someone there to do that.

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We did used to know if there was a convoy coming through.

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We used to try and get to the cliff edge and pray for them.

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How did you know a convoy was coming past if you were sitting down?

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You weren't actually told but when there's a lot of people and a lot going on...

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It gets round.

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That there's a convoy out in the Channel.

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Yeah, and one or two of the Wrens would maybe have a boyfriend on board one.

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You know, it made it a bit...

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-Very anxious.

-Oh, very, very...

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As long as they got through that was the main thing.

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This was just one of a network of command centres around the country

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controlling the indestructible coastal highway.

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The Dover convoys may not be as well known as the Atlantic convoys. Yet they too bore the brunt of attack.

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The Nazis failed to drive them from the Straits.

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The merchant seamen and their escorts became a lifeline for our nation during wartime.

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Neil Oliver is in the Channel Islands and kayaks over to Les Ecrehous before heading to Sark. Sue Daly, underwater photographer, talks about diving in the Channel Islands.

Nicholas Crane discovers the forgotten story of The Indestructible Highway, the convoys of coastal supply ships that braved Nazi attack from land, sea and air, to keep Britain afloat during the Second World War.


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