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Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - Bembridge Fort

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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

Bembridge Fort1 was constructed as the central fortification for the East Wight, just as Golden Hill Fort was the central fort for the West. Bembridge Fort was constructed at the height of Bembridge Down, the highest point in this part of the Island, and commanded the high ground between Brading Haven and Sandown Bay. It was located centrally, halfway between the Sandown Bay defences to the south and the Spithead defences of Puckpool, Nodes Point and Steynewood to the north. Bembridge Fort was the barracks for the nearby Steynewood, Redcliff, Yaverland and later Culver Batteries and was also intended as a keep in case the East Wight was invaded. Should a successful invasion of Sandown Bay be carried out, or if an enemy landed north of Sandown Bay, Bembridge Fort was a place to stand and hold against the enemy. It was also known that the Sandown Bay batteries would be vulnerable to attacks from the rear should an enemy hold the heights of Bembridge Down, and Bembridge Fort would keep this strategic location secure.

In 1862, The Hampshire Telegraph wrote:

'The weakness of the Sandown line of defences, it will be seen, are the high lands which dominate them at either extremity, but particularly at Bembridge Down, the holder of which, friend or enemy, commands the whole of the works described, the approaches to Sandown Bay from the sea, from Brading harbour, and part of the eastern entrance to Spithead. To render the design as complete as possible, the construction of a citadel has been commenced on the topmost part of the crest of Bembridge Down, the central part of the excavations being where the monument stood that was erected to the memory of Lord Yarborough... It is intended to make this work perfectly impregnable to any system of attack which could be brought to bear upon it, giving it the same prominence in the general plan of defence of the Island at its eastern extremity as is held by the work on Golden Hill at its western end.'

Bembridge Fort was built between 1862-67. The fort was smaller than that of Golden Hill Fort and construction much simpler, despite the need to move the Yarborough Monument2, which had been constructed on the crest of Bembridge Down. At the time of Bembridge Fort's construction the waters of Brading Haven still came to the bottom of Bembridge Down. The construction material was transported on boats to the bottom of the Down and hauled up. Brading Haven was finally drained to form the smaller Bembridge Harbour between 1874 and 1880.

There were some minor changes made to the original plan, such as the construction of double-storey caponiers rather than single-storey ones, and the chalk cliff that the fort was built on proved harder to construct on than originally envisioned. As a consequence the cost of construction went up from the original estimate of £41,190 to £48,925.

Bembridge Fort's Layout

Bembridge Fort was constructed to be a defensible barracks, protecting the rear of the other East Wight forts, and, if necessary, act as a place of refuge should the Isle of Wight be invaded in force. Bembridge Fort was an elongated hexagonal fort enclosed by a deep, dry, wide moat. It had external rifle galleries all around the fort and caponniers on three of the six corners (the northwest, the east and the south) to defend the corners of the fort against infantry attack.

The fort was built 330 feet above sea-level and armed with six 7-inch rifled breech loaders at the salient corners. It originally had a peacetime garrison of 78 men, four single NCOs, one married NCO and one officer, although a garrison of 100 men, three officers and one married master-gunner was the norm later. Entry to the fort was over a bridge across the moat on the south side that led to a drawbridge close to the fort. After crossing the drawbridge the entrance would lead through a long tunnel to the central parade ground. From the east and west sides of the parade ground, steps led up to the top of the fort. Near the entry was a prisoner's room and cells, and the guard room defending the entrance. Next to this was the main magazine, which was divided into three and could hold 2,240 rounds as well as 1,200 shells. Men in the magazine had to change into special magazine working uniforms that reduced the risk of sparks, and light was provided from a lighting passage.

On the west side were store rooms, including those for shells, as well as barracks rooms on the northwest and west. On the north side lay NCO's quarters, store rooms including food, cookhouse and ablutions block, with married quarters on the southeast side and the Commanding Officer's Office by the Southeast corner. The parade itself also housed further stores and later lecture rooms and a range, with the water tank built below. The fort's water was pumped here from a well in Yaverland and stored in the 22,000 gallon tank. Two staircases on the parade led up to the terreplein3. Here were the six guns mounted, as well as eight bombproof chambers used as expense magazines, and the equipment needed to operate the guns.

History Of Bembridge Fort

The earliest known defence built in this area was an invasion beacon built in the 14th Century, one of the chain that ran across the whole of the south coast. The first serious proposal to build a fort on the site, however, came in 1545, and it was the French who made it. Having conquered the tidal island of Bembridge4 they considered leaving a force on the Island to defend their new gains. However, they realised it would need a force of 6,000 soldiers to prevent the tidal island being recaptured and construct the fortifications necessary fortifications to secure the area, and foremost would have been a fort on the top of Bembridge Down. In the end, the French withdrew. Three hundred years later Bembridge Fort was built to defend the Island from the French.

Bembridge Fort was completed in July 1867, although the guns would not be mounted until 1869. For the first few years the Fort changed hands frequently. In 1871 it was occupied by the Royal Artillery's 103rd Regiment, followed soon by the 7th Brigade Royal Artillery. In 1872 No 5 Battery 22nd Brigade were billeted here until 1874, when the 37th North Hampshire Regiment was in residence.

Being located so close to Spithead and the Solent, one of the world's busiest shipping channels, the fort was perfectly located to be a testbed for anti-submarine and anti-torpedo devices. From 1880 to 1900 the fort took part in experiments with an underwater detection device. Two heavy armoured cables, laid out into the sea to form a continuous loop, transmitted an electrical signal between them and could detect when a vessel passed overhead.

In 1890 the 7-inch rifled breech-loaders were moved down to Sandown Granite Fort and replaced by two 4-inch breech-loaders and six 64-pounder rifled muzzle-loaders. The 4-inch breech-loading gun was designed for field and siege situations rather than defence and so was an unusual choice to mount at Bembridge Fort, where it would have been used in the role traditionally reserved for howitzers and mortars – firing shrapnel and case-shot at attacking infantry. The 64-pounder, although the super-weapon of the Crimean War, was by the 1890s becoming obsolete due to its slow rate of fire. However it was now a very common and easily available weapon, especially as it was being removed from coastal batteries needing quick-fire weapons to use against torpedo boats.

In 1892 a station for the Royal Artillery Office commanding the East Wight Defences was built on the east rampart of Bembridge Fort. From here he would be able to direct the fire of all the Sandown Bay defences. In 1898 it was proposed to replace the 64-pounders with four 5-inch breech-loading howitzers and four machine guns. Although the 64-pounders were removed in 1901, the howitzers never arrived. The fort was thus disarmed when both 4-inch breech-loaders were removed in 1907.

Although disarmed, this was not the end to Bembridge Fort's service life. It remained a barracks, and the fort was in use to store moveable artillery for local defence in case the enemy should land in Whitecliff Bay or Sandown Bay. The site of Bembridge Down near the fort was also the site of exciting experiments. Guglielmo Marconi, the radio pioneer and Noble Prize winner, experimented with wireless communication here in 1901, and a radio station was maintained here throughout both world wars. In 1906 Culver Battery was constructed near the fort, and its command post was combined in one building with the Navy's Port War Signal Station, designed to challenge suspicious ships, built between the battery and Bembridge Fort.

The Great War

During the Great War, Bembridge Fort's role was one of being a barracks for forces on their way to the front. At the beginning of the Great War a cavalry unit was stationed at Bembridge Fort, and by the end it was occupied by a heavy artillery unit, which remained until 1920.

Although not an airfield itself, Bembridge Fort was used as a landmark to help aircraft navigate back to nearby bases during the Great War. Nearby at Bembridge Point a seaplane substation was set up in 1915, part of the seaplane base centred at Calshot Castle, armed with four Short 184 Seaplanes. These were two-seat reconnaissance bombers used to hunt and torpedo submarines, and many were built on the Isle of Wight by local firm J. Samuel White's. An aerodrome for land planes opened in Bembridge in June 1918, from which twelve De Havilland DH6 aircraft were based. The De Havilland DH6 had been designed as a trainer aircraft, but shortage of other more suitable available aircraft led both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service adopting the DH6 for anti-submarine patrols.

Between 1920 and 1930 the fort was used as a summer camp for visiting army units, when a range and lecture rooms for troops and officers was constructed. The fort was also used as an observation post for the nearby batteries.

The Second World War

The fort was placed into care and maintenance from 1930 until 1939, when the fort was occupied by an anti-aircraft squadron and used as the local Home Guard headquarters. The local heritage museum has a small display about this period in the fort's history. It also served as the Battery Observation Post and Headquarters for the batteries grouped within Culver Fire Command, 527 Regiment 118 Battery, Royal Artillery (Territorial Army). The roof had two Allen Williams turrets installed. These were dual-purpose machine-gun turrets used for both ground and anti-aircraft defence, and there was a pit for a light AA Lewis-Savage gun.

The fort also housed a naval detachment, the Extended Defence East, who manned the indicator loops5 and ASDIC6 cable stations that were laid on the Spithead seabed to warn of enemy submarines or E-boats in the area.

From 23 August 1940, after the destruction of the Isle of Wight Radar station at Ventnor (the only Radar station attacked during the Battle of Britain), a reserve radar station was operational outside Bembridge Fort. This, the Coast Defence/Chain Home Low radiolocation station, was designed to spot low-flying enemy aircraft and enemy vessels.

Post War

After the war, the fort was looked after by a resident caretaker until 1948, when it was abandoned by the War Department. The Isle of Wight Council bought the property in 1965 and in 1967, as part of their Operation Neptune bid to purchase Britain's coastline, Bembridge and Culver Downs were purchased by the National Trust. The National Trust is an organisation dedicated to preserve the countryside and pretty buildings and was out of their depth when they acquired the ownership of this historic site, although they did ensure they registered Bembridge Fort as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

That done, rather than preserve the fort and open it to the public, like they did in 1962 when they acquired nearby Bembridge Windmill, in 1968 they leased the fort out as an industrial site to Micronair, a crop-spraying company who still are based in the fort today. The fort is a short walk from the Isle of Wight Coastal Path and is located in the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The fort is also occasionally open to the public, and group tours can be provided on request – see the National Trust website for details.

1Also known as Fort Bembridge, although the standard for names of Island fortifications is place name, then type. The only exceptions to this rule are the first two Victorian forts on the Island, Fort Victoria and Fort Albert.2Built in 1849 in memory of Charles Pelham, Earl of Yarborough and inaugural Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Monument was moved to its current position in 1860 to make way for Bembridge Fort.3A terreplein was the top platform of a rampart where artillery guns are mounted.4The tidal island of Bembridge was bordered by Brading Haven to the north, the river Yar to the west and a shingle bank that was flooded for much of the day to the south at Yaverland. The only secure access to Bembridge was via a bridge over the river Yar at Yarbridge. The name 'Bembridge' itself means 'Place this side of the bridge'.5Indicator Loops were an anti-submarine detector, consisting of a submerged cable on the seabed that detected a submarine's magnetic current as the submarine, or other surface vessels, passed over it.6British codename for the Anti-Submarine Division (ASDic), which started its submarine detection system in 1916, is sometimes referred to as the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee. ASDIC-type technology is now known as SONAR, SOund Navigation And Ranging, after the American system developed in the 1930s.

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