Late Quaternary separation of Britain from mainland Europe is considered to be a consequence of spillover of a large proglacial lake in the Southern North Sea basin. Lake spillover is inferred to have caused breaching of a rock ridge at the Dover Strait, although this hypothesis remains untested. Here we show that opening of the Strait involved at least two major episodes of erosion. Sub-bottom records reveal a remarkable set of sediment-infilled depressions that are deeply incised into bedrock that we interpret as giant plunge pools. These support a model of initial erosion of the Dover Strait by lake overspill, plunge pool erosion by waterfalls and subsequent dam breaching. Cross-cutting of these landforms by a prominent bedrock-eroded valley that is characterized by features associated with catastrophic flooding indicates final breaching of the Strait by high-magnitude flows. These events set-up conditions for island Britain during sea-level highstands and caused large-scale re-routing of NW European drainage.