Fortifications Of The Isle of Wight - West Wight: Fort Albert

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Fort Albert, also known as Cliff End Fort, is a unique fort to the Isle of Wight. The second of the Victorian fortifications on the Isle of Wight, Fort Albert is the type of fort known as a 'brick battleship', where the guns were arranged in a similar layout to inside a man-o'-war warship. This was a design similar to forts that were designed and built in America at the time, in the run up to the American Civil War.

The Original Plan

The 1852 plan that was to become Fort Albert originally envisaged a semi-circular fort on Warden Ledge, to mount 41 guns. This idea was abandoned due to the unstable ground at Warden Ledge and the cost involved. Fort Albert was built, smaller than the plan for Warden Ledge, as an alternative at the other end of Colwell Bay, in a strategic position able to defend the narrow gap between the Isle of Wight and Hurst Spit, location of Hurst Castle.

Fort Albert

Work on constructing Fort Albert began in 1853, and in 1856 the fort was complete. By the time of the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom Fort Albert was considered obsolete, and was effectively replaced by Cliff End Battery on the cliff above the fort.

Although the tall, brick structure would have withstood an attack by old wooden warships armed with cannons firing cannonballs, as an anti-ironclad defence it was obsolete. Like the American forts it resembled it would have been extremely vulnerable to rifled artillery.

Fort Albert as constructed was for 29 guns in four tiers. Although the fort was designed for 29 rather than 41 guns primarily for financial reasons, the small amount of firm ground to construct the fort on also had an impact. The fort was J shaped, with the shaft of the J facing north and the smaller tail facing northeast and inland towards the Island. Access to the Fort was through a first floor door. Access was over a drawbridge and up some steps, to get to the drawbridge there was a flight of steps from the top of the cliff. The fort was defended from attack by the sea, which at high tide completely surrounded the fort. Embrasures where guns could be positioned as well as rifle holes also defended the fort from an infantry attack from an enemy who had invaded the Island. The fort also had a detached guard house built at the top of the cliff to defend Fort Albert from an enemy on the cliffs in 1854, as well as an earthwork defended by a caponier palisade, ditch and eleven guns constructed in 1858.

The fort was originally armed with seven 68-pounder guns on the ground floor, seven 8-inch smooth bore guns on both the first and second floors as well as six 32-pounder guns, as well as two 8-inch howitzers armed with shrapnel on the roof. The howitzers would be used to defend the neighbouring beaches from infantry attack. A loopholed gallery where riflemen could defend the fort also protected the roof.

It had been originally planned for the fort's stores and magazine to be kept in the basement, however this began to flood soon after the fort's construction. In addition, it was worried that firing the powerful 68 pounders could damage the walls through the concussion, and so by 1861 they were replaced with seven 7-inch Armstrong rifled breechloaders. In 1859 it was decided to replace the fort with a battery built on the cliff above, despite the time and effort required to stabilise the cliff from erosion. In 1872 all the 8-inch guns and 32-pounders were removed. By 1877 Cliff End Battery was completed, and so Fort Albert became primarily used as an infantry barracks for the battery above. The no longer necessary and outdated 7-inch Armstrong guns and 8-inch howitzers were removed in 1887.

The Brennan Torpedo Launching Station

Between 1886-8 Fort Albert was converted into a Brennan torpedo launching station by the Royal Engineers. The Brennan torpedo, a top-secret weapon, was one of the world's first guided missiles. Invented in 1874 by Australian Louis Brennan, the Brennan torpedo was a 24 foot long guided torpedo. A steam engine at Fort Albert would wind wires attached to two drums in the torpedo. The faster these wires would wind, the faster the torpedo would go, up to a maximum of around 30mph. By changing the winding speeds of the two wires, the torpedo could be steered from an operator at Fort Albert. Although the torpedo had an effective range of less than 2 miles, for the narrow gap between Fort Albert and Hurst Castle, this was considered plenty. Brennan Torpedo positions were also installed at Cliffe Fort in the Thames Estuary, as well as in Plymouth and Cork.

By the 1880s fort design had changed to hidden, concealed batteries made out of solid concrete and earthworks rather than conspicuous and obtrusive vulnerable brick forts such as Fort Albert. Fort Albert was not the ideal building to convert to the home of a top-secret weapon; however it was in the right strategic location. For the conversion, a torpedo-launching ramp was built at the fort's north side, covered by a wooden roof. Behind the ramp was a two-storey concrete torpedo storage room, complete with boiler and engine rooms. There were also fresh and salt-water tanks. As the brick fort was known to be extremely vulnerable to rifled gunfire from enemy ships, almost 70% of the fort was filled to the roof with sand, and the flooded basement filled with shingle, in an attempt to make it able to withstand an attack. The remainder of the fort was used as a storeroom and some accommodation. An old pier on the fort's north was used to land torpedoes.

In the late 1890s a new engine room and boiler room were built, and a new pier constructed on the fort's south side in 1903. There were plans to construct a second launching ramp and engine room to double the offensive capacity of the fort, yet this was abandoned when it was concluded that the Brennan torpedo's usefulness against battleships was too limited by its speed and range, and the manufacture of Brennan torpedoes came to an end. The Brennan torpedo was decommissioned as a weapon in 1905.

Later History Of The Fort

As the fort was in a strategic location, in 1892 three 3-pounder QF guns were installed, followed by three 6-pounders between 1896 and 1902. In 1907 the roof held two searchlight emplacements and in 1909 Fort Albert replaced Freshwater Redoubt as the Island's practice battery. The two 12-pounders from Freshwater Redoubt were also installed at his time, with two more added in 1910. Although these first 12-pounders were removed in 1915-6 during the Great War, the fort had two rooftop 12-pounders again between 1925-41.

During the Second World War, almost a hundred years after the fort was first constructed, it was again modified for use in war. In February 1941 two twin 6-pounder towers were built on Fort Albert's roof, with the casemates below the guns cleared of sand and used as magazines for these 'twin-six' guns. In 1942 a new searchlight emplacement was constructed projecting from the south of the top floor, and another searchlight installed in the casemate next to the southernmost casemate on the first floor. Also in 1942 a Bofors 40mm Anti Aircraft gun was installed on the cliff outside the fort.

Shortly after the war ended, in 1947, the Fort was used to test a new idea in coastal defence. The 'twin-six' guns were adapted to be able to elevate to 80°, for use as dual-purpose coastal artillery and anti aircraft guns, although this idea was short lived and the trial ended in 1948. In 1957 the fort's guns and searchlights were sold off and scrapped, and the fort was converted into a block of eight luxury flats, with improved access for the residents, but is inaccessible to the public. The fort is visible from nearby Colwell Bay, however the unstable blue slipper clay cliffs in the area are extremely dangerous and the fort cannot be safely approached except by the road, which is private property. It is, however, the only Grade II* Listed fortification on the Isle of Wight.

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