Hidden Labyrinth: England's Drakelow Tunnels
It was inevitable that tragedy would strike. On October 31, 1941, three men blasting through the sandstone in Kingsford Country Park in Worcestershire, England, were caught as large chunks of rock rained over them. The explosions had caused portions of the roof to collapse over their heads. By the time rescuers cleared the scene, it was too late. All three were dead.
The dirty and dangerous work of excavating well over a million cubic feet near Birmingham, England, took eight grueling months, and four more people would lose their lives. But nothing slowed their progress. The site had been earmarked as a place to house an airplane engine factory—one so well-disguised that it would be impossible for the German Luftwaffe flying overhead to identify it. Known as the Drakelow Underground Dispersal Factory, it brimmed with activity for years before taking on a series of increasingly peculiar uses. With over 3.5 miles of tunnel winding through the rock, it’s become a relic of wartime security—and for some, a place where the ghosts of the laborers who perished sometimes return to make their presence known.
In 1937 and with the support of the Air Ministry, the Rover car company of Great Britain began opening “shadow” factories that supplied the Bristol airplane manufacturing plants with parts for their Hercules and Pegasus engines. (The label came from the idea they operated in the shadow of the more accomplished and specialized airplane factories.) When one of the plants was bombed in Coventry in November 1940, it became clear that an additional, covert location would be needed in order to supply parts and take over production in case one of the other plants was compromised by a German assault. The British government selected Kingsford Country Park, an attractive woodland which featured a mass of sandstone that could potentially endure a blast from above.
Work began in July 1941. The government had selected the respected engineering firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners to plot the underground tunnel system, which ran in a grid pattern to offer structural support in case of an attack. The four main tunnels were to measure 16 feet wide and feed several ancillary chambers that made up an area around 0.6 miles wide and 0.6 miles long.
To accomplish that, workers would have to penetrate the sandstone. They used gelignite, an explosive preferred for blasting through rock, to create the entrances; after that, other explosives were used to continue boring into the site.
The work was precarious, as evidenced by the three deaths just a few months into the project. Other times, it seemed as though the chaos of the worksite lent itself to some unfortunate luck. Conveyor belts were installed to move the displaced earth. When two workers felt compelled to ride the belt rather than walk out of the tunnel after a long day, they were unable to jump off and wound up being mangled by the machinery. A woman, Mary Ann Brettel, was run over by a dump truck. Eric Harold Newman, a security officer in charge of overseeing supplies, was also hit by a motor vehicle.
The workers probably breathed a sigh of relief when work finished in 1942. From there, Rover moved in hundreds of employees to work on the airplane engine parts. It was a full, bustling factory encased in rock, with no natural light available and air supplied through ventilation systems. To help offset discomfort during long shifts, Rover offered a series of amenities to workers. They installed a games room and a billiards table for recreation; they designated one area as a concert hall, where entertainers would perform; a bar was set up so they could unwind after their shift was over. Eventually, they used the loudspeaker system to pipe in music that helped diminish the clinical sound of machinery.
The end of the war in September 1945 brought a halt to production, which restarted only intermittently for tank engines and other projects over the next several years. It was clear the effort of constructing and maintaining the tunnels should result in their continued occupation, but how best to make use of the space was open to debate. What can you do with a bomb-resistant shelter when no bombs are around?
Initially, it was turned over to the Ministry of Works in 1958 and used as a storage facility. With the advent of the Cold War, an obscured tunnel network became attractive as a location of last resort in the event of a nuclear attack, and a portion of Drakelow was converted to a Regional Seat of Government in 1961. In the 1980s, it was partially refurbished to include dorms and other additions to support a small government staff in case of a cataclysmic event.
By the time tensions eased in the 1990s, the British government saw no need to continue tending to the tunnels. The site was decommissioned and sold to private owners in 1993, who initially planned on using the land as a residential and commercial property and sought to demolish the network of tunnels. Lobbying by the newly formed Drakelow Tunnels Preservation Trust helped bury those plans. The trust believed the tunnels were of historical significance, having been utilized during a war and remaining ready in the event of an unthinkable nuclear disaster. And so the chambers remained standing, though perhaps not totally empty.
In 1993, a caretaker walking the grounds of Drakelow claimed he heard a slow and melodious song reminiscent of the 1940s. He searched everywhere for a possible source of the music but found nothing. The only thing capable of producing sound was the loudspeaker system, which hadn’t worked in years.
In 1996, another watchman accompanied by guard dogs alleged his canine companions began barking without provocation. Before long, a mist began to rise in the tunnel. The man searched for a possible fire in and out of the area. When he attempted to go back in, his dogs whined and dug their feet in. They didn’t want to return.
Such stories have been enticing for paranormal enthusiasts, who take guided tours of the tunnels provided by the trust. The area has also been the site of training for the military and law enforcement as well as some filming for movies and television. The trust is still hoping to raise funds for further restoration work, but thus far it’s been little more than painting.
Tourists at Drakelow today might see computers, radios, and other amenities put in during the Cold War scare of the 1980s. They may experience sudden drops in temperature or strange noises. If they think they smell something odd, however, it might not be their imagination. In 2016, a caretaker was convicted of allowing dealers to grow marijuana in some of the tunnels.