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Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - No Man's Land 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
No Man's Land Fort

No Man's Land Fort was one of the two largest Solent sea forts, and was built to be virtually identical to its twin, Horse Sand Fort. It was built on the No Man's Land Shoal near Ryde Sands to guard the Isle of Wight side of the deep-water channel that large vessels, including warships, use to enter the Solent to reach Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour. Horse Sand Fort guarded the mainland side, 2,139 yards north-east of No Man's Land Fort. The forts were positioned so that any enemy vessels wishing to attack the Royal Naval Base at Portsmouth would be forced to sail between, and be bombarded by, the heavily armed forts.

As Portsmouth Harbour's front line of defence from any sea attack, No Man's Land Fort was heavily armed and heavily armoured, equipped to stop an enemy fleet from attacking the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy had long been Britain's first line of defence against invasion and so No Man's Land Fort was in effect the first defence of Britain's first defence.

The original design was for 27 guns on the lower gun floor, 28 guns on the upper with up to 12 guns in turrets on the roof, a total of up to 67 guns. A network of submarine mines1 between No Man's Land Fort and Horse Sand Fort were also emplaced, controlled from Horse Sand Fort.

Work began on constructing No Man's Land Fort in July 1861 but work was suspended between 1862-1865 due to political indecision. The fort was finally finished in 1880.


Like Horse Sand Fort, No Man's Land Fort was built with two gun floors and a basement. The whole of the fort's circumference at the gun-floor levels is armoured with iron, supported by iron framework. The armour is 25 inches thick, made of five alternating layers of 5-inch thick wrought iron and iron concrete plates.

At the seabed the fort's walls are 59 feet thick and its diameter is 240 feet. At the fort's basement level, the fort is 210 feet in diameter with the fort narrowing to 204 feet and 9 inches at the upper gun floor above2. The floors and roof are made of bomb-proof concrete and the fort was designed to be able to mount further guns in turrets on the roof. Brick piers direct from the seabed foundations were constructed to take the weight of five turrets so the fort's superstructure would not be affected.

The forts were constructed out of stone and concrete blocks that were checked to ensure they would fit precisely into their allotted places, taken to the site of construction by barge and then lowered into position by crane under the direction of divers on the seabed. The foundations on the seabed were built with rings of prepared Roach Portland stone built to fit on the outside: a ring of 8-ton concrete blocks filled in the centre with shingle from the sea bed. This work was contracted out to Mr Leather, who was also responsible for building the smaller Plymouth Breakwater Fort.


The basement level was used primarily as the fort's magazine and stored the shells and cartridges for the guns on both gun floors. Four circular passageways circumnavigated the fort, with the pump for the well and a spiral staircase in the centre. Part of the central passage was the lamp lobby. Off the central passage were the kitchen, provision store, penstock chamber where waste could be flushed away from the fort, ablution room and the laundry and drying rooms. The middle passage was accessed by a separate spiral staircase and led to fourteen cartridge stores, cartridge lifts to the floors above as well as the general stores lift on the north side. There was also access to the light passage's stairs – the light passage provided protected light to the cartridge and shell stores below without risking the magazines coming into contact with exposed flames.

Twenty-four shell stores and lifts opened off the outer passage, as well as a chamber that allowed access to the narrowest passage next to the outer shell of the fort, the bolt passage. This was designed to allow extra iron armour to be bolted onto the outside of the fort should weapon design improve, making the fort's existing armour insufficient.

The basement level was later modified in 1882. The bolt passage was filled with sand and the outer shell stores filled with concrete to provide the magazine with extra protection and to cope with the increased gun weight above. This reduced the amount of ammunition available for each gun, although the number of guns was also reduced as the individual guns in the fort became more powerful. Steam boilers, an accumulator and a hydraulic pump were also later installed in the centre.

Lower Gun Floor

The lower gun floor had positions around the outside for 24 heavy guns, with ammunition hoists and lifts nearby to deliver the shells and cartridges from the basement. The gun emplacements were originally intended to house 10-inch guns; however when the fort was armed it was instead fitted initially with 12.5-inch 38-ton RMLs and later the more powerful 12-inch breech-loading guns.

To the west was the fort's entrance, leading via a staircase and a narrow gantry running around the outside of the fort to the two-floor landing stage on the south of the fort. As well as the outer door, a thick armoured door protected entry into the fort and led to a corridor to the outer passage. This armoured door was made of iron could be re-enforced by a 34-ton sand-filled armoured box that ran on rails and could be wheeled into place to effectively seal the only entrance.

Between the outer passage and the gun emplacements to the north were the latrine and the NCO's quarters. In the centre of the fort off the central passage, which was accessed by a corridor on the West side, were five officer's quarters, the officer's mess, the officer's kitchen, the officer's servant's quarters and the officer's latrine. Also from the central passage were the stairs to the upper floor, with stairs to the basement off the corridor leading north.

Between the outer gun casemates and the central core was a fourteen feet wide open circular passage, the equivalent of a courtyard around the central building.

Upper Gun Floor

The outside ring of the upper gun floor had gun positions for 25 guns. One gun position was above the casemates on the lower gun floor, with an additional one above the entrance. It was on this floor that seventy-two soldiers lived in peacetime, in five rooms behind the gun emplacements that each housed 18 men. These rooms were separated from the gun casemates by shutters on rollers only, allowing the rooms to be opened in the event of attack to aid with the loading and firing of the guns. On the west side were stairs leading to the lower floor as well as a trapdoor to allow guns to be lowered to the floor below. In the central building on this level were the lighthouse keeper's quarters and officer's servant's quarters, as well as the water cisterns.


Although the fort had been designed to have five turrets each armed with two guns, these were never built in order to save money. The roof originally was constructed with only a lighthouse on top, as well as ventilation vents and chimneys. At the end of the century position-finding cells had been emplaced, although these were removed in 1909. The roof was later adapted to hold three 6-inch breech-loading quick firing guns and the required expense magazine. New position-finding equipment in a building on the central core that was later extended to house the battery commander's post and a fire control position, with searchlights on the roof, for aircraft as well as ship spotting duties. During the latter half of the Second World No Man's Land Fort was armed with a Bofors anti-aircraft gun.


After the political indecision that delayed construction for much of the 1860s, No Man's Land's Fort's first stone was laid in March 1865. Seventy workers and a steam-powered crane worked to construct the fort, which eventually cost £462,500 rather than the estimated £290,000. The work on No Man's Land cost more than the identical Horse Sand Fort as No Man's Land shoal was softer, less secure than Horse Sand. Consequently the foundations needed to be dug a further 10 feet than for Horse Sand Fort, twenty-seven feet below the low water mark. No Man's Land also suffered initially from subsidence more than Horse Sand Fort, but not as seriously as St Helen's Fort.

As weapons designs kept improving while the forts were being constructed, one of the principle difficulties was keeping the forts compatible with the most modern weapons available. The earliest proposals had included plans for a battery of mortars on the roof, although these weapons were considered obsolete by the end of the 1860s. In 1871 it was envisioned No Man's Land Fort had would house 15 12-inch 35-ton RML guns and 34 10-inch 18-ton guns. The 35-ton guns would provide greater armour penetration at long range than the 18-ton guns and would be positioned to face the main approach to the fort.

By 1874, however, this plan had changed. Instead the fort would carry 24 12.5-inch 38-ton RMLs on the lower gun floor, 25 10-inch 18-ton RMLs on the upper gun floor with an additional 10 12-inch 35-ton RML guns on the roof in five turrets. This would make it impossible for any enemy vessel under any circumstances to enter Spithead without having been subject to heavy fire. After the forts were constructed, the delay and the higher than expected costs meant that the turrets were never built for financial reasons.

In July 1887 Sir Armstrong supervised a trial at No Man's Land for the 38-ton 12.5-inch RMLs and their hydraulic machinery. It was found that the average time to load and fire the gun was 2 minutes 11 seconds, and that twelve men could traverse the gun with 'tolerable ease'.

The 12.5-inch RMLs would have needed 20 men to fully man each gun, including men for two gun crews working in shifts, plus seven more for ammunition duties. To fully man each of the fort's 49 guns 1,300 men would have been required, so it is unlikely that it was intended for the forts to need every gun fully manned. No Man's Land Fort only routinely provided accommodation for 200, although hammock hooks were installed so additional men could be housed if necessary.

The 1880s

In July 1880 the Inspector General of Fortifications reported that No Man's Land Fort was completed and a satisfactory work, and ready for its armament to be installed. When the 12.5-inch guns were fitted by the end of 1880 it was found that the casemates were too cramped for the guns to be able to use a full charge of powder. It had been necessary for the guns to be fitted on short 6-foot recoil platforms rather than the 7-foot the guns had been designed for in order to fit in the casemates. This was unable to cope with the gun's full recoil with a full charge of powder. Consequently this affected the guns' performance and ability to penetrate the armour of attacking warships.

An alternative was quickly sought and in 1882 new 12-inch 43-ton breech-loading guns were available, and were fitted in alternate casemates on the lower gun floor's seaward side, the side most likely to face an attack. As the weight for each gun was increased the outer magazines in the basement below were filled in with concrete to help support this weight, and the bolt passage was filled with sand. This also gave the fort added protection from incoming fire. In order to deal with the dreaded problem of recoil the guns were mounted in special 'yoke' mountings. This was two vertical iron beams that attached from floor to ceiling either side of the gun, spreading the shock of recoil to both the floor and the roof. This took up even more space in the casemates and affected the ability of the gun to traverse.

The fort retained the 10 12.5-inch 38-ton RMLs on each gun floor in a secondary role. 15 machine-guns were added as part of the fort's small arms.

The basement level was later modified in 1882. The bolt passage filled with sand and the outer shell stores filled with concrete to provide the magazine with extra protection and to cope with the increased gun weight above. Steam boilers, an accumulator and a hydraulic pump were also installed in the centre.

It was suggested that No Man's Land Fort would trial the 12.1-inch 56-ton breech loader; however the Inspector of Iron Structures reported in June 1885 that this was beyond the limits of what could be placed in the fort's casemates:

'Instead of tinkering at these Spithead Forts, we should confine ourselves to re-arming each with five of the 10-inch 43-ton guns approved and put heavier guns into advanced works specially designed for them.'

A plan to construct new sea fort towers 400 yards close to both Horse Sand and No Man's Land Forts to fit these guns were discussed, but these were abandoned due to the phenomenal costs involved.

In 1883 it was also decided that it was unnecessary to mount heavy guns on the fort's northwest side, as large enemy vessels would only be able to get to that position after passing the submarine minefield. Only weapons suitable for attacking light draught vessels were required – especially light, fast craft armed with torpedoes. Reducing the armament of the fort allowed some vacant casemates to be filled with concrete whilst in others could be mounted quick firing guns.

In 1884 No Man's Land Fort was armed with eight 12-inch 47-ton breech-loading guns, eight 12.5-inch 35-ton RMLs, nine 10-inch 18-ton RMLs and 24 6-pounder Nordenfelt quick firing guns. These quick firing guns were mounted on special casemate saddle mountings in some emplacements to allow the gun to fire through the embrasure and be swung inside the fort, out of the way, when not in use3.

The 12-inch guns were found to be too big to manoeuvre effectively by hand and were slow to traverse, and so hydraulic machinery was requested to assist in the traversing and elevating of the guns. Colonel Maguire-Bate, Inspector of Iron Structures, supervised the installation of the hydraulic machinery and the associated boiler, pumps and accumulator and introduced a revolutionary hydraulic system in 1884. This not only traversed and elevated the guns but was also extended to open and close the breech and load and ram home the shells and charges, as well as raise the cartridges and shells from the magazines and move the armoured door.

When the position-finding cells were placed on the roof, the guns could be controlled from there. Horse Sand and No Man's Land were the first forts in Europe thus capable of having their guns controlled and powered from a central point. Electric lights were also introduced at this time.

In 1886 the Stanhope Committee on the Sea Defences of Portsmouth reported that the Horse Sand and No Man's Land Sea Forts were

'So essential to the security of the [Portsmouth] dockyard that it is of primary importance that they should be armed with heavy guns and their magazines made secure... New [breech-loading] guns are urgently required for No Man's Land Fort.'

In 1887 the situation had not improved. Although eight emplacements had been proposed to fit new 45-ton guns, the work was described as being in a 'backward state'.

1890 to 1914

In 1898 the Montgomery Committee on the substitution of Breech Loading and Quick Firing guns for existing RML guns recommended that:

'At No Man's Land Fort the RML guns should be reduced with the exception of two 12.5-inch in each fort, the left hand pair, which should be retained as fixed point guns. Three 6-inch QF should be added to each fort in sponsons with arrangements to give them a wide arc of fire over interior waters.'

In 1902 a 4.7-inch quick firing gun was mounted on the top of No Man's Land Fort as an examination gun. This weapon was superior to the older 6-pounder quick firing guns. The 10-inch RMLs were removed to be sold as scrap in 1904. The only use the 12.5-inch RMLs had were two 'running past' guns. In 1902 three embrasures were modified to allow for an added traverse of 88° and had 6-inch mark VII breech-loaders installed. Two were fitted on experimental electrical mountings, but the test was not a success and the electric mountings were replaced with standard centre pivot mountings in 1908. The 6-inch Mark VII gun was the standard coast-artillery weapon of the early 20th Century, designed by Vickers Son & Maxim4, and could fire a 100 pound shell through 15 inches of armoured plate at 1,000 yards, making it particularly effective against unarmoured ships. Three more were installed on the roof in 1912.

In 1905 the Owen Committee on the Armament of Home Ports report declared that the 12-inch guns were redundant. The 9.2-inch guns on the Isle of Wight and on the Mainland were able to repel large warships, with the sea forts' role changing to stop smaller vessels entering Spithead and Portsmouth Harbour. To aid with this a line of concrete blocks was sunk in 1909 from No Man's Land Fort to Ryde Beach, near Southsea Castle, to prevent an enemy from sinking a blockship across Portsmouth Harbour and preventing the Royal Navy from leaving port. The Owen Committee however stated that the three six-inch guns were:

'Sufficient as anti-torpedo-craft guns on his line. The 4.7-inch QF gun on No Man's Land Fort and the 12-pdr and 6-pdr QF and the 12.5-inch RML on... No Man's Land should be removed.'

Consequently in 1907 four 12-inch guns were placed in reserve and the 6-pounder guns were removed. Two of the 6-pounder quick firing guns were sent to the Isle of Wight and six additional 6-pounder quick firing guns from No Man's Land Fort were removed to be installed in Horse Sand Fort. The 4.7-inch quick firing gun was also removed. Electric lights were installed on the fort at this time; however all but two of the 12.5-inch guns were removed and sold as scrap iron.

In 1908 the three 6-inch guns were installed in 1908, although one was loaned to Southsea Castle after an accident damaged one of the guns there. By 1909 the fort was armed with four 12-inch guns, though these had only 50 rounds each, and two 12.5-inch RMLs only had case shot for use against light craft. These older guns were intended only as 'fixed point' or 'running past' guns, to be fired when an enemy vessel reached a fixed point in the gun's sights, and so the hydraulic machinery was removed in 1907.

In 1912 No Man's Land Fort was armed with three 6-inch breech-loading guns on the roof, which stayed until 1950. Horse Sand Fort still had six 12-inch breech-loading guns in reserve and the two 12.5-inch RMLs, although the ammunition for these weapons would not be replaced.

The World Wars

During the Great War the English Channel was considered comparatively safe from surface vessel attacks compared to the vulnerable North Sea. The straights of Dover were heavily patrolled and mined, preventing any enemy surface vessels from approaching the English Channel. Although No Man's Land Fort was fully manned, it played no role in the conflict.

In No Man's Land Fort war shelters were constructed on the gun floors for additional accommodation and in 1916 an anti-aircraft spotlight was installed on top of the fort.

The gun floors were modified to provide officer's and soldier's quarters for the men manning the roof's guns, and dining rooms, washroom, generator room, a NAAFI canteen and even a small theatre. Life on the forts during the war was monotonous. Although in fair weather a steam vessel delivering supplies and stores would call twice a day, in rough weather the forts had to survive on emergency rations. Searchlights were installed in the fort and Royal Navy vessels leaving or entering Portsmouth Harbour had to sail in accordance with carefully prepared plans so that they would not be illuminated by the searchlights and give their positions away to enemy observers. An anti-submarine boom was constructed and positioned between No Man's Land Fort and the Isle of Wight, with another extending from No Man's Land fort to a nearby lightship. As the English Channel remained safe it was decided in 1916 to save fuel by only exposing the searchlights when an alarm sounded.

In 1918 the 12-inch guns were removed and written off, and in 1919 the troops were withdrawn from No Man's Land Fort, with only a caretaking team remaining. In 1921 the fort was placed in care and maintenance. In 1925 both 12.5-inch guns were removed and sold for scrap, leaving only two 6-inch guns. As there was a severe shortage of anti-aircraft guns in the Battle of Britain and the early part of the Second World War, No Man's Land Fort was not armed with an anti-aircraft gun until 1943, when it received a Bofors gun which stayed until 1945. A boom defence had been laid between the two main Solent forts and an indicator loop was placed on the seabed to detect enemy vessels.

The Sea Devils

Jon Pertwee strikes a dramatic pose as Doctor Who.

In 1971, the fort was being converted into a SONAR testing station when repair work on the fort's foundations disturbed an ancient race of amphibious reptiles, similar to turtles. Although scientists alternately referred to these intelligent creatures as Silurians, Eocenes or Homo Reptilia, they were more popularly nicknamed Sea Devils. Their plan? To capture No Man's Land Fort, sink ships in the nearby area and then proceed to wipe out the human race.

This was the plot of one of the most fondly-remembered stories of Doctor Who, first broadcast in February 1971. 'The Sea Devils', starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, was a six-part Doctor Who adventure filmed in Portsmouth and on the Isle of Wight, and also starred Roger Delgado as the Master and Katy Manning as assistant Jo Grant.

No Man's Land Fort appears in episodes 1 and 2, when the BBC paid the Ministry of Defence £10 to hire the fort for a day's filming. Famously, the shot of Jo Grant climbing up the ladder onto No Man's Land Fort is played not Katy Manning, but body-doubled by stunt man Stuart Fell in a bad wig. This was because filming of this scene took place at low tide – more of the ladder to the fort was above water than normal, but the ladder at the lower levels was covered by seaweed and thus rather slippery.

Episode 1 climaxes with the Doctor and Jo stranded on the fort being menaced by a Sea Devil. In Episode 2 they rescue Clarke, the sole survivor of the repair crew, played by Declan Mulholland, who was later cast as the original human Jabba the Hutt in an excised scene from Star Wars.

Fortunately by the end of Episode 6 the Sea Devils are defeated by the Doctor, who reverses the polarity of the neutron flow. Also in Episode 6 the character Captain Hart fires a Bofors gun similar to the one that had been installed at No Man's Land Fort during the Second World War.

Sadly, much to the disappointment of Doctor Who fans in Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, author Malcolm Hulke's novelisation does not feature No Man's Land Fort, but instead is set on an oil rig. This is despite the fact that oil rigs regularly feature in works of fiction, including the Doctor Who story Fury From The Deep, whereas no other television drama has been set on a sea fort. The novelisation's plot of a reptile race being disturbed by drilling would later be re-used in the 2010 Doctor Who episodes 'The Hungry Earth' / 'Cold Blood'.

Post War

In 1951 the 6-inch guns were removed and in 1957, after Coast Defence had ended, the searchlights were removed and sold off. No Man's Land Fort was scheduled as an Ancient Monument in 1967. Although the fort was disarmed and deactivated it was retained by the Ministry of Defence until 1987 when it was bought by Sussex businessman Roger Penfold for £30,000. He converted it into a luxury home by building a large glass roof over the street, the open circular passage between the lower gun floor's gun casemates and the central core. He then returned the fort to the market with an asking price of £6 million pounds, including helicopter.

The Fort's Final Battle

The fort was bought by Harmesh Pooni and his company Bob's Leisure and used as a luxury hotel for many years, letting the fort out to corporate clients for special events at a cost of £25,000 a day. At its height in early 2004 the fort was valued by an experienced and respected firm of surveyors for £14,250,000. However in July 2004 legionella bacterium, which causes Legionnaire's Disease, was found in the fort's well, which forced the hotel to close.

Bob's Leisure Limited went into administration on 26 October 2004 and their creditors Lexi Holdings PLC, the Finance company that had lent Harmesh Pooni the money to purchase the fort, reclaimed the fort when his monthly repayments were not made. The fort was placed it on the market for £3 million in 2005. Mr Pooni was made temporarily bankrupt between January and November 2006. In October 2006 Lexi Holdings went into administration with debts of over £100 million pounds and the owner was found guilty and sent down for criminal behaviour, including fraud. No Man's Land Fort, which had been valued at over £14 million, was sold by administrators KPMG for £910,000 in 2009 to Swanmore Estates Ltd.

During this time Harmesh Pooni barricaded himself within the fort, preventing anyone else from approaching. In 2008 when interviewed by the BBC he said:

' It's lonely. I have a young family and being away from them is heart breaking but it's something I feel I have to do. How long can I stay here for? As long as it takes.'

A KPMG spokeswoman at the time released a statement, simply saying:

'Mr Pooni has never been the freeholder of No Man's Land Fort but was a director of Bob's Leisure Limited, a company, which was the registered freeholder of the fort, having purchased it using monies borrowed from Lexi Holdings Plc. Bob's Leisure Limited went into administration on 26 October 2004 and Mr Pooni was made bankrupt on 23 January 2006. Lexi Holdings Plc were left as a creditor of Bob's Leisure Limited as the loan had not been repaid. It is our view that Mr Pooni is trespassing on the fort.'

Although eventually evicted, Mr Pooni has expressed an intention of taking his case of ownership to the courts.

The Fort Today

The fort now boasts a garden, gazebo, helicopter pads, swimming pool, study, lounge, large dining room, music room, billiards room, gymnasium, tennis courts and clay-pigeon shooting area, helicopter pad as well as a penthouse inside a new lighthouse building that comes complete with a revolving bed. A BBC News Report shows how the fort has been converted into the highest form of luxury accommodation.

No Man's Land Fort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade II Listed building. It is also part of a proposal to getWorld Heritage Site status.

1Submarine mines were mines beneath the water, rather than mines intended to destroy submarines.2Both measurements include the outer walls.3The British Nordenfelt quick firing gun was similar to, but not as successful as the French Hotchkiss 6-inch quick firing gun. In 1888 the Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company was taken over by the Maxim Gun Company to form The Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.4Vickers was an engineering company founded in 1828. In 1897 they took over The Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company, becoming Vickers, Sons & Maxim. They later in 1927 merged with Armstrong Whitworth to become, Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. Armstrong Whitworth were formed when Armstrong, the company behind the Armstrong breech-loading gun who had merged with the engineering firm of Whitworth in 1897. In 1928 Vickers purchased Supermarine aircraft, famous for the winning Schneider Cup aircraft and the Spitfire. Vickers was nationalised in 1960 to become British Aerospace and is now part of BAE Systems.

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