Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - Cliff End Battery Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - Cliff End 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

Cliff End Battery was built to replace the unsuccessful and obsolete Fort Albert, also known as Cliff End Fort, at the highly strategic point where the channel of the west Solent is at its narrowest between the Island and Hurst Castle. Unlike Fort Albert, which is unique to the Island, Cliff End Battery has many similarities with other batteries built as a result of the 1859 Royal Commission, although it was one of the largest.

History Of The Cliff End Site

The earliest recorded plan for a battery on the Cliff End site was in 1794, when during the Napoleonic War a 16 gun earth battery was suggested to defend this strategic position. In 1798 a three gun earth battery was built on the site to defend against the invasion threat; however this temporary battery was not built to endure the neglect that peacetime brought, and soon disappeared.

In 1853 Fort Albert was built just off shore on the beach below Cliff End, and between 1854-6 a defensive guardhouse was constructed on the cliff top to prevent the high ground from being captured by enemy soldiers. This guard house was considered to be in need of additional defences and in 1858 was surrounded by a ditch, palisade and an earth battery for 11 guns, three of which could fire seawards, as well as a brick caponier in the eastern ditch.

The Construction Of Cliff End Battery

In 1859 the Royal Commission proposed the construction of a 20-gun battery at Cliff End. After discussion in Parliament, the plans were cut down and finaled, with work beginning in 1862. Although much of the general layout was completed by 1868, Cliff End Battery was built on an unstable cliff consisting of Blue Slipper clay, which is extremely unstable when wet. The process of draining the slopes and constructing a sea wall to ensure the battery was stable continued until the 1870s, and cost an astonishing £18,000. For this reason, no guns were actually mounted in the battery until 1877, but the delay was considered beneficial: rather than the intended 9-inch RMLs, Cliff End Battery was armed with three 10-inch and six 12.5-inch RMLs.

Cliff End Battery's Layout

The battery was located at Cliff End where the coastline curves from facing west to facing north west. Six 12.5inch RML guns faced west, with shell cartridge stores beneath the connecting gun emplacements, and three 10-inch RML guns facing north-west. The rear of the battery was protected by a brick wall and two rifle caponiers on the north and south corners. Opposite the entrance, which was where the 12.5-inch guns met the 10-inch guns, stood the guard room, behind which was the old 1856 guardhouse, used as a small, defensible barracks. There was also an artillery store and an underground bombproof magazine. A tunnel led to the path down to Fort Albert. Fort Albert and Golden Hill Fort provided the main barrack accommodation, as the old guardhouse was not really suitable.

History Of Cliff End Battery

Due to the strategic nature of the site, Cliff End Battery was chosen in 1886 to become a submarine mining test site. Bombproofed engine and submarine mining test rooms were constructed on the north of the battery, complete with five Position Finding cells to help direct and plot fire from the guns. Submarine mines at the time were underwater mines operated by the Royal Engineers, with two types available:

  • Observation Mines were laid on the seabed connected by electric cables. If an enemy vessel was seen above the mines, the operator could select the mines closest to the target and ignite them.

  • Electro-Contact mines were moored to float beneath the water's surface and, if a ship struck the mine, could either explode automatically or send a signal by cable to an operator who would check whether the vessel was friend or foe. The latter system was used at Cliff End; the Electro-Contact mines were considered to be more reliable, especially on foggy nights when dense fog patches could render searchlights useless.

Between 1889-92 the site was also used for searchlight experiments, with a fixed searchlight beam shining across the Solent so any vessel navigating the narrow channel between Cliff End and Hurst Castle at night would be spotted. A 'fighting light', one which could be directed to illuminate vessels of choice, was also positioned on the sea wall below the battery, where a 6-pounder quick firing gun and machine guns had been emplaced as part of the trials. These trials were in conjunction with Fort Albert's role as a Brennan Torpedo station.

In 1896 the old guardhouse was finally demolished, and in 1898 searchlight emplacements were constructed either side of the battery. By 1899 the old RMLs were removed as they were considered too slow to cope with the new generation of faster warships. They were replaced with four 4.7-inch quick firing Mark IIIB guns in the emplacements on the north, the three former 10-inch and the neighbouring 12.5-inch emplacements. These were intended as anti-torpedo boat weapons.

Four 6-inch Mark VII guns were mounted in the remaining 12.5-inch emplacements, with the central emplacement converted for use as a Battery Observation Post. A second post was located on the battery's south. These four heavier guns were intended to bombard passing cruisers.

In 1903 the battery was expanded with two more 4.7-inch quick firing guns mounted in new emplacements south of the 6-inch guns. These two guns were the area's Examination Battery. An examinations anchorage was were suspected merchant ships would drop anchor and wait whilst being identified and searched in times of war – failure to do so would result in the battery covering the anchorage opening fire and sinking the ships under investigation. Also by 1903 the battery had new engine rooms constructed, and new officer's quarters blocks, workshops and small arms store had been constructed.

The Great War

By the outbreak of the Great War a new concrete wall and hexagonal blockhouse had been built in the battery's north-west corner and old railway carriages and wooden huts were erected to provide additional barracks accommodation for the battery's garrison. The war was quiet for the battery; by 1916 two 6-inch guns had been removed, and in 1918 two 4.7-inch quick firing guns were redeployed to protect Yorkshire's coastline. The remaining 6-inch guns were dismounted.

At the end of the war, two experimental Mark XXI 6-inch guns were trialed at the battery until 1926, and two more Mark VII 6-inch guns returned in 1924. However, by 1929 only two 4.7-inch guns and two 6-inch Mark VII guns remained at the battery, when it was used by the Territorial Army for summer training camps.

The Second World War And Beyond

In 1937 a new Battery Observation Post was constructed, yet by 1939 the 4.7-inch guns had been removed. Aircraft covers were constructed for the 6-inch guns by December 1940. In 1939 an old 3-inch AA gun was emplaced. This weapon had been the standard British anti-aircraft weapon during the Great War. This was replaced in 1944 by a 40mm Bofors gun. This Swedish-designed gun was the most common light anti-aircraft gun in Britain and many other countries on both sides during and after the Second World War.

After the Second World War the two 6-inch guns were placed into care and maintenance. In March 1951 these guns were transferred to nearby Bouldnor Battery. The battery continued on until January 1957 when the site was demilitarised, the searchlights and engine equipment remaining on the site sold off, and the land sold to be developed into a holiday bungalow site. Much of the battery was demolished, with only the 4.7-inch emplacements, the 1937 Battery Observation Post and the northern blockhouse remaining. The site is close to the Isle of Wight Coastal Path, but is not accessible from it.

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