Primarily known for its long stretch of shingle beach, Deal may appear like any seaside town to most, but there is a vast history below the waves and onshore. The town has been involved in war and conflict throughout time. Let us explore Deal's rich military history.
Julius Caesar - 55 BCE
When planning his invasion of England, Julius Caesar was informed about the flat shingle beach of Deal. Calais is only 43 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Deal, meaning the French coast is clearly visible from the stony seafront. This provided an easy route for Caesar and his troops to travel to England from France, or so they thought.
Caesar ordered a fleet of 80 ships for the invasion. On their travels, they faced extreme winds and a fierce battle with the Goodwin Sands. The horrid weather unsettled the horses on board, and Caesar's men struggled to calm them down. Most of the ships returned to safety to prevent any injuries or damages. Unaware of the retreat, Caesar continued his pursuit. The ships dropped their anchors off the coast and the troops planned to swim the rest of the short journey to shore. However, as they wore traditional Roman armour; most of them drowned. It is believed that Caesar managed to land on Walmer Beach where he stayed for four days.
The following year, better prepared, Caesar attempted to invade the Kentish coast again. He ordered a larger fleet of ships this time round. However, Caesar faced rough winds again, and the ships were forced off course and ended up in Thanet.
The Good Men of Deal - 1300s -1400s
As previously mentioned, Deal is extremely close to France, leaving it vulnerable to invasion. Monarchs recognised this and placed great importance on defence on the Deal seaside. In the 1330s, Edward III called upon "The Good Men of Deal" to help survey the coast they knew so well during the Hundred Years' War.2. In 1347, Edward III gained control of Calais, and His Majesty asked The Good Men of Deal to take on more responsibility.3 The Boatmen were tasked with delivering resources to native troops.
In 1415, Henry V reignited the conflict his great-grandfather started with France. To improve defence on home soil, large embankments were built spanning from Walmer to Sandown. The embankments provided valuable security for the fisherman who guarded the coast.
King Henry's VIII castles - 1530-1540
After King Henry VIII divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1533, France became allies with Spain.4 During this time, there were frequent and volatile attacks on the Kentish coast, almost as a way of testing Henry's rebellious behaviour.
To combat the threat of invasion, Henry ordered three castles to be built in the town; Walmer, Deal and Sandown. The construction of the castles started in March 1539, finished in October 1540 and cost £27,0005, which according to The National Archives currency converter is the equivalent of approximately thirteen and a half million pounds. Henry insisted on their unique rounded design and dry moats. The design meant that, the castles have no weak points because they have no corners. The moats are beneficial because the castles are lower than sea level, meaning only half of the castles are visible to attackers from a distance.
Unfortunately, Sandown Castle was severely sea damaged in the late 18th Century and no longer stands. In its place is Sandown Community Garden. Luckily for Henry, the castles did not experience major conflict during his reign, as most of his drama was political.
Civil War chaos - 1629-1651
King Charles I led the Eleven Years Tyranny (1629-1640). During that time, Charles ruled the country without the collaboration of John Pym's parliament.6 Disputes between King Charles I and parliament climaxed in August 1642, and the two parties declared war against each other.7 The majority of the south was controlled by the Roundheads (Parliament's army.) However, during the 40s, territory fluctuated.
In 1648, the Cavaliers (Royalist army) controlled the castles in Deal, however Parliament’s men decided that needed to change.8 The Roundheads rode down to Deal, on horseback with muskets in hand. The Cavaliers fought gallantly, but their lack of resources proved costly. Walmer fought a gruesome battle lasting 3 weeks. Ultimately, the conflict was too much to handle, and Walmer surrendered. Deal fought on for a few weeks longer but eventually surrendered. Sandown recognised that the Roundheads would overwhelm the castle and surrendered almost instantly.
The English civil war is considered one of the most brutal wars this country has experienced, especially of the time, with an estimated 200,000 casualties, around 11% of the population at the time.9
The Mighty Marines. 1665-1996
The Royal Marines called Deal home for a whopping 331 years (Deal Museum). The depot in Deal was the last Royal Marines post in Kent. Due to this, the Marines have a lasting legacy in the town.
The Marines first arrived in Deal in 1665 and were under the command of Silius Titus, the Captain of Deal Castle. However, it was not until 1861 that the Royal Marines found their permanent home at the barracks previously occupied by Walmer army.10 1869 saw a completed post. It consisted of the Calvary, north, and east barracks. In 1918 King George V visited the depot to oversee the 4th Battalion training. In 1930, the Royal Naval School of Music was established. However, in 1940 all musical training was evacuated from the barracks. The 42 Commando (later renamed 40 Commando) was formed in 1942 and was the first of its kind. In February 1945, Mayor GW Daughtrey awarded the Royal Marines the “freedom of the town” due to their contribution during the wars.
In 1950 the School of Music returned as the Royal Marines School of Music. During its time, the School of Music was one of the world's most highly regarded musical companies. During the 70s, fewer military activities took place at the barracks, but the School of Music remained. On Friday, 22nd September 1989, at 8:25, a bomb exploded in the changing rooms of the north barracks, killing 11 and severely injuring 21 people.11 The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing, the prime suspects were never apprehended. Just a week after the attack, the Marines marched through the streets of Deal to show their respect to their comrades. Although there was much protest and hostility amongst the people of Deal, on 31st March 1996, the barracks closed down. Under John Major's government, the barracks were sold off and now are flats.
Although the barracks are no longer an active depot for Royal Marines, it remains synonymous with Deal. Not only did it host local marines, the barracks also welcomed troops from Portsmouth, Chatham, Woolwich and more during its time. Moreover, until the mid-to-late 20th Century, the Marines were in constant active service.
Noisy neighbours. Late 18th Century – Early 19th Century
Shortly before King Louis XVI was executed, on 1st February 1793, Deal was placed on high alert. This meant an increased military presence. Soldiers from across the country came to support Deal. To meet the demand of the growing population, in 1798, the town was extended inland.12
During the 1790s, many warships docked at Deal before heading off to battle. Although our troops knew the dangerous waters so well, the French dominated the early conflicts. 1799 saw Napoleon Bonaparte's rise. The Frenchman was a fine soldier who had many run-ins with the British. After the breakdown of The Treaty of Amiens, trade between France and England completely stopped.13 However, the notorious smugglers of Deal did not want to end the fruitful supply chain. Smuggling made a fortune in Deal, and sophisticated gangs emerged. The government feared smugglers would share information with the French to benefit their battle efforts. To prevent such dangerous discussion, similar to the embankments of the 1400s, defence was placed upon the seafront. The military guarded the seafront and was extremely particular about who entered and left the country.
The great war at sea. 1914-1918
On 8th August 1914, Deal, Walmer and Sandwich Mercury read: "The War. "No Cause For Panic" Mayor's Appeal to Townspeople." The Royal Marines were mobilised, and retired veterans, under 55 returned. In addition, thousands of men from Deal enlisted to join the army.14 Recruit training took place at Victoria Park and Walmer Green. The early stages of the war, saw around 1000 brave volunteers pass basic training.15 Of course, historically, Deal has been heavily involved in the Royal Marines and Navy as well as having clever Seamen; due to this, the majority of Deal's men fought on the seas.
On 22nd September 1914, HMS Aboukir was torpedoed by a German submarine.16 HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue were sent to help survivors and prevent further deaths. Unfortunately, both ships were attacked and sunk. 13 men from Deal were recorded to have lost their lives in the tragedy. However, there is likely to have been more.
Just before midnight on 9th July 1917, HMS Vanguard suddenly exploded. The explosion is thought to be caused by a faulty or unnoticed stokehold close to some turrets onboard.17 The ship was a grand battleship that was regularly used, even before the war. It is estimated that 804 men lost their lives, with at least seven local men being casualties.
On 20th January 1918, HMS Raglan sank after being repeatedly shot at by the Germans and the Polish. The ship caught fire and went down very quickly. 127 men were killed, many of them Royal naval officers from Deal.18 Like everywhere else in the country, Deal celebrated Peace Day with a parade. The streets were filled with people paying their respects to the military. It was a joyous time knowing the war was over, but it was also a time of reflection.
Deal is a town proud of its military background. However, as a consequence of that, the town was faced with a lot of hardship. The death toll for local service people was nearly 1000.
Home town heroics. 1933-1945
Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933.19 During the 30s, murmurs of war lingered around the continent. In 1935, the Home Office advised Kentish towns to prepare a passive defence scheme. The town councils of Deal and Sandwich and the rural districts councils of Eastry and Dover, acted upon the advise and formed the Air Raid Precaution committees.20 In the early months of the war not a lot happened and journalists dubbed the war “the Phoney war”.
In 1940, Deal brought back a defence tactic that had been successful throughout the town’s history, barricading the beach.21 Large scaffolding wrapped in barbed wire were put across the seafront. To solidify defence mines were also placed on and off-shore, as well as turrets scattered across the seafront. The final piece of Deal’s defence strategy of the coasted was to literally set fire to the shore. Pipes were laid across the seafront and they were pumped with oil. In the event of an invasion the shingles would become so hot that the beach would vibrate and the sea would alight. The pipes still remain in the basement of Clarendon Hotel. Fortunately (for everybody), the pipes were never needed.
In 1940, a small Dutch ship “Nora” anchor in the Downs. Unfortunately it was hit by a sea mine and ended up stranded just off Deal Beach. Local fishermen warned the Royal Marines that Nora could cause damage if not dealt with correctly. The Marines “politely” told the fisherman to shut up. This is most likely because, Winston Churchill had given permission to destroy the iron Victorian pier, if needed. Churchill agreed to pay for a new pier to be built. So when Nora ended up drifting and crashing into pier, slicing it in two, the local soldiers were probably secretly happy, because it saved them a job.22
Within the first year of the war, The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Walmer lifeboats were launched out to sea 66 times and saved 133 lives.23 The boatman were mostly tasked with assisting vessels who had been caught in the line of fire or those who hit a mine.
During the war, many were evacuated from the town. As a consequence of this, Deal’s population shrunk from 23,000 to 7,000, in 1940.24 For many enemy pilots Deal was on the way to London, because of this Deal was also heavily bombed. To help control the carnage and reduce casualties, a meeting was held at town hall, in 1941. The organisation of fire-watchers was the topic of discussion. For those that remained in the town, many volunteered for the role. There were three main locations; Mr Allen’s hairdressers on Broad Street, Carter Institute on Middle Street and St Andrew’s Rectory, which was on the corner of Union Street. Their role was straight forward but nevertheless important if they were to see anything untoward to report it immediately.25
As you can see, Deal is far from just a seaside town. The rich military history of the town is entrenched deep within its DNA and something that attracts many visitors throughout the year. Whether it be brave boatman or the colossal castles, Deal has been shaped by war and conflict, and yet continues to thrive.
This article was published: 5 August 2023.
You can hear Liam tell the Story of Deal on YouTube.
Thank you to staff at Deal Museum for all your support.
Thank you to members of the Deal Noticeboard Facebook group for the research tips.
Thank you to staff at The History Hub and History Project for all your guidance.
The Goodwin Sands is a 16 kilometers sandbank, just off the Deal. The area consists of a layer of approximately 25 meters depth of fine sand resting on an Upper Chalk platform. Most of the time, it is submerged under the sea, however in the low tide, it is visible. ↩
Smith, 10. ↩
History Matters, 2018. ↩
Smith, 10. ↩
Holyoake, Greogry. Secret Deal and Walmer Amberley Publishing Limited, 2021, 40. ↩
History Matters, 2019. ↩
Laker, John. History of Deal, T.F. Pains and Son, 1921, 156. ↩
Smith, 13. ↩
Ohlmeyer, 2023. ↩
Holyoake and Burnham, 2009. ↩
Holyoake, 103. ↩
Smith, 17. ↩
History Matters, 2017. ↩
Gaunt, 5. ↩
Smith, 27. ↩
Collyer, David. Deal and District at War The History Press, 2009, 2. ↩
Smith, 31. ↩
Collyer, 12. ↩
Smith, 31. ↩
Collyer, 90. ↩