English Channel

English Channel

The English Channel is the narrow and best known strait that separates the southern coast of Great Britain from the northern coast of France. The strait is about 560 kilometers long and its width varies from 34 kilometers at its widest point to 240 kilometers at its northern end. This strait connects the North Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

The Channel is of great strategic, commercial and historical importance. It has played an important role in maritime history, including the Allied invasion of the Normandy coast during World War II. It is also important for trade and transportation between Britain and continental Europe.

The Channel is also popular with swimmers who attempt to swim across it. This is a challenging experience due to cold water temperatures, variable weather conditions and heavy shipping traffic.

All in all, the Channel is an important geographical feature of great significance to the maritime and cultural history of Britain and France.


In the 2nd century, BC, the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus named this isthmus of water “Oceanus Britannicus”.

An interesting situation developed around the name “La Manche”. The French version was known since the XVII century and means “sleeve”. The Spanish called the strait El Canal de la Mancha, the Portuguese Canal da Mancha, the Italians La Manica, the Germans Ärmelkanal.

The desire of each of the nations to change the name to their own liking gave away their insistence on claiming ownership of these non-extensive but significant waters. Control of the strait offered enormous advantages. Firstly, it was the closest route to England, and secondly, it was the shortest route to the Baltic Sea. Despite the wayward nature of the English Channel – frequent fogs, hurricane winds, high tides and treacherous currents – the political and commercial importance outweighed all natural obstacles.

According to the most approximate calculations, at the bottom of the strait rest the remains of several million people and tens of thousands of ships: from Roman galleys to diesel submarines. Such is the price of the centuries-long battle for the strait.

None of this would have happened if the British Isles had remained part of continental Europe 10,000 years ago, during the last glaciation (Pleistocene). But the land in these places lay 120 meters below sea level, and as the glaciers melted, water filled the low-lying area, forming what we now call the Channel.

In times of peace, the strait served a noble purpose: it was a kind of water bridge through which there was a cultural exchange between the Celts and the peoples of inner Europe, contributing to the formation of new languages and nationalities. This is indicated by the obvious similarity of many dialects and customs on both sides of the strait.

However, in difficult times for the population of Britain, the strait became a natural barrier to the conquerors, although not for all. The ancient Romans in the first century A.D., the Normans in 1066 and William III of Orange in 1688 successfully crossed the strait and conquered Britain.

Beginning with Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the policy of the English kings in the Straits area was to prevent invasion of England from the continent. To do this, the English made sure that none of the major European powers controlled important ports on the other side of the strait. The establishment of the British Empire would not have been possible if the English had not once established the most brutal control over the Channel.

England’s rise as the “Queen of the Seas” began after 1588, when the Spanish “Invincible Armada” perished off her coasts, partly in the Channel, where it was overtaken by one of the fierce La Mancha storms. On the occasion of the victory, Queen Elizabeth III ordered a medal to be minted with the Latin inscription Adflavit Deus et dissipati sunt (“God blew and they scattered”).

France tried twice more to conquer England: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-15). Both times the “guests from the continent” assembled a huge fleet, but never invaded the island. A significant role was played here by the same famous La Mancha winds and storms, as a spite to the French, which began on the most favorable day for the invasion.

The First Lord of the British Admiralty Fisher said shortly before the outbreak of the First World War: “Five keys keep the world locked: Singapore, Cape Town, Alexandria, Gibraltar and Dover”. The importance of the La Mancha port of Dover remained crucial to the defense of the strait.

On July 25, 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot crossed the Channel for the first time in his monoplane, launching at Calais and landing at Dover. The British had clearly realized that the English Channel was no longer an insurmountable obstacle for enemy troops. In addition, Germany began to hastily build submarines, which was an even greater threat to England. The British had to fight on land to get close to German U-boat bases, but it was not until 1918, as the war neared its conclusion, that the threat of an invasion of England from underwater was finally eliminated in the famous “Raid of the Seebrugee” and the complete naval blockade of Germany.

During World War II, the theater of war at sea shifted to the Atlantic, as the shallow waters and narrow bays of the English Channel were too dangerous for large ships. Having abandoned a direct invasion (Operation Sea Lion), German forces concentrated on submarine warfare, setting up minefields and rocket and artillery bombardment of England across the strait.

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Corps, fighting on the side of France, retreated with the remnants of the French army through Dunkirk under the onslaught of the advancing German army. It was the grandest rescue operation in the history of wars: 338,000 soldiers were evacuated in just a few days during Operation Dynamo.

During 1940-1945, the Germans built the most powerful fortifications on the continental side of the strait, called the “Atlantic rampart”. Many have survived to this day, becoming tourist attractions. German troops managed to occupy several islands in the strait, but did not advance further. “Atlantic rampart” fell in 1944, during the opening of the Second Front and the implementation of the operation “Overlord” on the landing of Allied troops in Normandy.

After the end of the war and with the beginning of the unification of Europe, the issue of transportation between the British Isles and the continent became acute. Ferry crossings became obsolete morally and technologically and could not cope with the transportation of goods, cars and railroad cars. About 3.5 million people lived on the shores of the English Channel and were in dire need of a modern crossing.

The idea of building a tunnel under the English Channel has a long history. Back in 1802, French engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier proposed a project of a tunnel for traveling in carriages by the light of oil lanterns. There were other projects and even started construction: twice in 1876 and 1922. But both times the construction was frozen for political reasons.

A new project was started in 1973. The underground crossing was opened in 1994 and was called the Eurotunnel. It is a double-track railroad with a length of about 51 km (39 km under the English Channel). Thanks to the tunnel it is now possible to get from Paris to London in 2 hours and 15 minutes; trains stay in the tunnel for 20-35 minutes.

General information

  • The English Channel, together with the Pas de Calais, connects the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean
  • The most important ports: Great Britain – Portsmouth, Southampton, Dover; France – Le Havre, Calais, Cherbourg, Dunkirk, Dieppe, Boulogne-sur-Mer.
  • The largest islands: Isle of Wight (Great Britain), Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey), under jurisdiction of Great Britain, off coast of France.
  • Peninsulas: Cornwall (Great Britain), Cotentin (France).
  • Rivers flowing into the strait: Seine, Somme, Orne, Vire (France); Aix, Dort, Tamer, Fal (Great Britain).
  • Languages: English, French, dialects of the population of the strait shores (Gallo, Mor Bretannek, Het Kanaal, Ermel Canal, etc.).
  • Monetary units: pound sterling, euro.
  • Area: 75 000 km2.
  • Length: 560 km.
  • Width: from 34 km (between Dover, UK, and Calais, France) to 240 km (between Mont Saint-Michel, France, and Devon County, UK).
  • Average depth at the widest section: 120 meters.
  • Average depth in the narrowest section: 45 meters.
  • Minimum depth in the fairway: 23.5 meters.
  • Maximum depth in the fairway: 172 m (Herd’s Deep).
  • Average current speed: 12-13 km/h near the city of Portland. UK, 15-18.5 km/h near Cape Ag France.
  • Maximum tidal wave height: 15 m (city of St. Malo, France).
  • Average salinity: over 35%°.


  • Shipping.
  • Minerals: building sand and gravel.
  • Fishing: turbot (halibut), flounder, ray, mackerel, merlin, sea eel (conger). Oyster farming.
  • Services: tourism, transportation.

Climate and weather

  • Temperate maritime, considerable influence of Atlantic Ocean.
  • Average air temperature: in winter +4°С, in summer + 18°С.
  • Average surface water temperature: January: +6°С; July: +19°С.
  • Average annual precipitation: 830 mm.
  • Average annual cloudiness: 7 points.
  • Average number of days per year with fog: 34 in the west, 101 in the east. Storms in the fall and winter.
  • Relative humidity: 85-100%.


  • Eurotunnel (France – Great Britain)
  • Seven Sisters chalk reefs (Great Britain)
  • Allied landing site (Normandy, France)
  • Guernsey Island (Channel Islands, Great Britain): Cornet Castle (1206-1256), Victoria Tower (1848), forts, small chapel, mills.
  • Ruins of the “Atlantic rampart” (France)
  • Cotentin Peninsula: Cherbourg town, cape Flamanville
  • Lighthouses of the Brittany Peninsula
  • Rocks of the “Needles”

Fun facts

  • Herd’s Deep, a depression at the bottom of the English Channel, was used by the British during World War I to bury chemical weapons. After World War II, German armaments were sunk here. Such operations continued until 1974. In the period 1946-73, the depression was used for sinking radioactive waste.
  • Eurostar trains travel through the Eurotunnel at a speed of 160 km/h.
  • The Channel Islands, as part of the two crown estates of Jersey and Guernsey, are under the jurisdiction of the British monarchy but are not part of the UK and are not part of the EU, although they are part of the EU customs territory.
  • The island of Sark (Channel Islands) retained a feudal system of government until 2008, the last in Europe. The island was governed by a council of elders.
  • The giant sea eel, or conger, which lives in the English Channel, reaches a length of 3 meters and weighs more than 100 kg.
  • The only railroad on the islands operates to the island of Alderney (Channel Islands). It was built in 1847, it is 3 km long and operates only in summer, on weekends and holidays.
  • The first in the history of mankind swam across the English Channel was British swimmer Matthew Webb in 1875 in 21 h. 45 min. 45 min. The slowest swim across the strait was 28 hours and 44 minutes (Jackie Cobell, Great Britain, 2010).
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