Fortifications Of The Isle of Wight - West Wight: Cliff End Battery

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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 was a temporary measure and the 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 who could then fire down at Fort Albert at will. 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 recommended the construction of a 20-gun battery at Cliff End. After the proposals were discussed in Parliament, cutbacks suggested and plans finalised, work on building the battery began 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, although rather than the original 9 inch RMLs that had been intended for the battery, Cliff End Battery was armed when completed with more powerful weapons. These were three 10 inch and six 12.5 inch RMLs, and so the delay was considered beneficial.

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 gun emplacements between them, 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 and 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 barrack accommodation; the small old guardhouse block was not really suitable.

History Of Cliff End Battery

In 1886 Cliff End Battery was modified. Due to the strategic nature of the site, Cliff End Battery was chosen to be the position for 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. There were two types of submarine mines at the time. 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. The system in place at Cliff End Battery used Electro-Contact mines. A mine was moored to float beneath the water's surface, and if a ship struck the mine, the mine would either explode automatically, or in the case of the mines used at Cliff End Battery, would sent a signal by cable to the submarine mine test rooms. Here the operator could fire or cancel the explosion of the mines, depending on whether the vessel was friend or foe. The Electro-Contact mines were considered to be more reliable, especially on foggy nights when observation of enemy ships through 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 QF 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 QF 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 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 QF 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, and by 1916 two 6-inch guns were removed and in 1918 two 4.7-inch QF guns were removed to be 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 were removed, and aircraft covers 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 building 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, however is not accessible from it.

Fortifications Of The Isle of Wight - Overview

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