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Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - New Needles Battery

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Fortifications of the Isle of Wight

West Wight Fortifications
Freshwater Redoubt | The Needles Old Battery | New Needles Battery | Hatherwood Battery | Warden Point Battery
Fort Albert | Cliff End Battery | Fort Victoria | Golden Hill Fort | Bouldnor Battery
East Wight Fortifications
Puckpool Battery | Nodes Point Battery | Steynewood Battery | Culver Battery | Bembridge Fort
Redcliff Battery | Yaverland Battery | Sandown Granite Fort | Sandown Barrack Battery
Solent Sea Forts
St Helen's Fort | No Man's Land Fort | Horse Sand Fort | Spitbank Fort

By 1893 it was felt that the Needles Old Battery was too small to be able to be equipped with the latest large guns. It was also considered a possibility that the concussion from more modern, heavy guns could destabilise the battery's cliff edge location, causing sections of it to crumble into the sea. As a consequence the Needles Old Battery was superseded by a neighbouring battery, the New Needles Battery1, nearby. This battery was built in 1893-95.

Unlike the Needles Old Battery, the New Needles Battery was purely offensive. There were no defensive features to defend those manning the battery from an infantry attack. In the event of an armed landing by enemy forces, the men of the New Needles Battery were to destroy their guns and flee either to the Needles Old Battery or to the Freshwater peninsula's keep of Golden Hill Fort.

The New Needles Battery was higher up the Needles headland than the old battery, 390 feet above sea level facing north-west on a hill known as High Down, positioned to be able to attack vessels entering the Needles channel. The battery initially consisted of three gun emplacements, underground magazines, some administrative buildings such as guardhouse, stores and latrines, but no accommodation. The garrison would be based either at the Needles Old Battery or Golden Hill Fort.

The fort was built at a cost of £9,821 and was originally armed with three 9.2 inch breech-loading guns; however, five years later in 1900 two of the guns were replaced with two 9.2 inch Mark IX guns, with the third replaced in 1904. Firing these guns required eleven men per gun – each shell weighed 380 pounds with a range of up to 19,800 yards. These guns were intended for counter-bombardment against enemy battleships. Each gun barrel weighed 28 tons and cost £12,750. The guns were manned by Numbers 11 and 33 Companies of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

In 1899 a road was built to the Needles from Alum Bay. Two small 3-pounder quick fire guns were installed between the centre and north emplacements in 1900 for practice purposes, yet these were removed in 1907. On the down above the battery a Battery Command post was constructed by 1902 and a cookhouse and shelter for up to 23 men was also built. A Port War Signal Station, a tower from which Royal Navy personnel challenged all approaching vessels, was constructed near the battery as were some coastguard cottages, with the area defended by a steel palisade.

The Great War

Between 1911 and 1914 new gun mountings were installed and the original two 9.2 inch guns were upgraded by a 'gun-buster' team. In September 1914, shortly after the declaration of war, new gun barrels were landed at Colwell Bay, hauled by horses to the battery and the old gun barrels were replaced. The centre gun's barrel, however, was not replaced.

Additional accommodation was provided by old railway carriages and huts, and the Needles headland was closed off east of the battery by barbed wire and defended by three machine gun posts. A 6-pounder quick firing gun was also installed east of the main battery to help defend the English Channel side of the battery. Despite all these precautions, the battery saw no service during the war.

Between the Wars

Between the wars the guns were placed into care and maintenance in 1918, before finding a role as a Territorial Summer Camp site in 1926. In 1928 the 9.2 inch barrel that had not been replaced during the Great War was scrapped, and in 1937 the Isle of Wight Rifles changed from being Territorial Infantry to 530 Coast Regiment.

The Second World War

In 1939 the battery was again manned in a counter-bombardment role, defending against blockships. It was feared that the Germans would attempt to close the Needles channel by sinking old ships in the channel to prevent British merchant and warships from passing. The mark IX guns were replaced in December 1939 with mark X guns, and following German fighter strafing in 1940 steel air protection covers were added to the guns in 1941 and new huts were erected for the gunners.

The Needles Batteries, along with other coastal batteries, were unable to work effectively at night. This changed when on 29 July 1941 the CD/CHL2 Radar Triple Station became operational at New Needles. This was a combined Army, Navy and RAF Radar station that monitored both low-flying aircraft and ships at sea. Initially manned by the army, by February 1942 it was in the care of the RAF. Radar dramatically increased both batteries' effectiveness against both planes and ships, but it also brought an increased danger of attack. Deep trenches were dug, 700 landmines laid and barbed wire was strewn everywhere. Also in 1942 a new gunner's shelter was built behind the central emplacement and two 40mm anti-aircraft Bofors guns were installed in 1943, although one was soon removed as the Battle of Britain had ended.

In 1945 the battery was mothballed and listed for disposal, and the guns scrapped in 1954. However, in 1956 a new, exciting chapter was to begin for the New Needles Battery.

Space: The Final Frontier

In July 1955 Isle of Wight company Saunders-Roe started work on building the Black Knight single-stage rocket. Saunders-Roe were looking for somewhere to test the engines of their Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets, and in 1955 they leased the Needles headland and High Down from the Ministry of War, setting up their engine-testing station in the New Needles Battery. The experience of the New Needles Battery was perhaps symbolic of coastal defence as a whole. Just as the New Needles Battery's guns were replaced with rockets, so the nation's defence, once the role of artillery, had now been adopted by missiles.

Saunders-Roe were experienced in designing a rocket-powered fighter-aircraft, the SR.53, and so were considered the perfect company to manufacture and test the hydrogen peroxide and kerosene powered rocket. The buildings, emplacements and magazines were adapted for the rocket's storage and control, and two gantries were erected just south of the battery. At the peak of the operation in 1962, 240 people worked at the site with much of the installation built underground. There were 2,200 square feet of control room and underground stores, 4,260 square feet of laboratories and offices and 3,080 square feet of workshops. The dining room alone was designed for up to 80 people at any one time.

The Black Knight rockets, considered the most economical and powerful space missiles of their time, were built in Cowes on the Isle of Wight and tested at the New Needles Battery before being launched at Woomera, Australia. The first Black Knight was launched into space on 7th September 1958, and after the ninth, the rest were two-stage rockets. In the end, twenty-two Black Knights were launched between 1958 and 1965.

The 60 feet tall Black Knight rockets were assembled in the workshops and towed to one of the two 80 feet tall test gantries. They were then erected inside the towers, held down and their engines experimentally fired. The rocket's four jet rocket motors fired, cooled by 60,000 gallons of water at a rate of 3,000 gallons a minute, emerging as a geyser of steam.

Plans to convert the Blue Streak weapon delivery system into a three-stage rocket satellite launcher using Black Knight technology, to be codenamed Black Prince, never came to fruition. Instead, in 1966 a new rocket was developed; the Black Arrow. It was a three-stage rocket built at J. Samuel White's East Cowes shipyard that was also tested at the New Needles Battery and launched at Woomera. Black Arrow was 18 tons, 44 feet tall designed to put a 300 kilogram satellite into a 300 mile high orbit. Six Black Arrows were built and four Black Arrows were launched. On the 28 October, 1971, one put the Prospero satellite into a Polar orbit. 'Prospero' was an all-British satellite launched from an all-British rocket, making the United Kingdom one of only five countries in the world to have launched their own satellite with their own technology - alongside the USA, the former USSR, China and France.

It had been the British Government who had financed the launches. In 1971, not foreseeing the amount of demand there would be for satellite technology considering the imminent explosion in demand for international telecommunications satellites, and satellites for other uses, the Government decided to stop all research into this profitable business. The last Black Arrow was never launched, but placed as an exhibit at the London Science Museum. Britain, which had the most reliable space programme in the world by not having a single failure, is the only country to have ended a successful space programme.


In 1955, the same year that the Black Knight rocket programme began at High Down's cliff top location overlooking the white cliffs of the Needles, Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Moonraker was published. It featured a missile based on a cliff-top location overlooking white cliffs. Ian Fleming describes the Moonraker rocket in 'Chapter XII: The Moonraker' thus:

'The shimmering projectile rested on a blunt cone of latticed steel which rose from the floor between the tips of three severely back-swept delta fins that looked as sharp as surgeon's scalpels. But otherwise nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber...
'One of the most beautiful things I've ever seen,' said Bond...
Drax pointed upwards... 'Mostly fuel tanks all the way down until you get to the turbines near the tail. Driven by superheated steam, made by decomposing hydrogen peroxide.

The National Trust

In 1975 the National Trust bought the Needles headland, including the site of the New Needles Battery, as part of Project Neptune. The National Trust wished to preserve the nation's coastline, and was uninterested in the New Needles Battery or the nation's only complete and intact rocket-testing site. As the National Trust was an organisation dedicated to the preservation of pretty things, like meadows, flowers and thatched cottages rather than sites of unique historic importance, it made the appalling decision to demolish every trace of Britain's only rocket testing centre. They justified this destruction on the grounds that rocket testing was an industrial use of the land, and therefore a blot on the landscape. They gloss over the bulldozing of the rocket site in their guidebook with the words '1978-1981 – clearing the site' – unprecedented vandalism reduced to three words.

Much of the New Needles Battery was demolished as well before protests finally prevented the total destruction of all sites of historic significance on the site. Only the battery's gun emplacements, the magazines and battery command post survived the carnage. The National Trust has, only now, began to fully realise the horror of the dreadful mistake it has made and has belatedly put a few information boards around the site explaining what once stood there in a vain attempt to make up for it. However this is far too little, too late.

The National Trust opened an exhibition at the Needles New Battery in 2004 to celebrate the endeavours of the British Space program. The Exhibition features information about the rocket testing, the Victorian Battery, hands on exhibits and film footage from the Saunders Roe Archives. The site also hosts meet a rocketman days where you can get first hand knowledge of life on the Highdown site.

The New Needles Battery is Grade II Listed and is located in the Isle of Wight Area of Outstaning Natural Beauty on the Tennyson Heritage Coast, on the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.

1Also sometimes referred to as the Needles New Battery.2Coast Defence/Chain Home Low. Coastal Defence Radar, known as CD, detected enemy ships' positions in order to assist coastal batteries pinpoint precisely their location, thus ensuring their destruction. Chain Home Low radar, or CHL, detected low-flying aircraft attempting to evade detection by flying low.

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