Fortifications Of The Isle of Wight - East Wight: Sandown Bay: Culver Battery

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Culver Battery was the last fort to be built on the east side of the Isle of Wight. Although positioned at the very end of Sandown Bay, when finally constructed its role was to defend the entry to Spithead around the Isle of Wight's north east coast in addition to help defend the beaches of Sandown Bay from attack.

Culver Battery's Origins

Located near the end of Culver Cliff just a few yards from Bembridge Fort, a proposal to build a battery on this site was first made in 1887. The first suggestion was for the battery to be armed with two spare 64-pdrs, one to be removed from both Yaverland and Redcliff batteries. This proposal changed later in the year to a more substantial battery, to consist of three 6-inch breach loading guns on special hydro-pneumatic disappearing mounts supported by two QF guns. These would be positioned to cover Sandown Bay from enfilading or outflanking fire from ships positioned on Culver Cliff, out of firing range of the Redcliff and Yaverland batteries where the guns could not traverse to cover. Any enemy gunboats would be forced to stay far out to sea.
The hydro-pneumatic system of disappearing mounts was used for guns protected from enemy attack by a combination of being mounted in pits with concrete walls and having overhead 'turtle shields' covers. The mountings took full advantage of the recoil from firing the gun into compressing air while lowering the gun into the pit where it could be loaded in safety before the compressed air returned it up to the vulnerable firing position on the battery's parapet. This system actually increased the rate of fire from such guns and remained in use until 1956.

The suggestion to build a battery at Culver was again put forward in 1889, though modified to have 4.7-inch guns rather than QF guns, but still the battery was not constructed. An argument had arisen between the Inspector-General of Fortifications and the Director of Artillery about whether disappearing mounts to protect guns from enemy attack were needed on the top of a 300 foot cliff. This prevented any work on constructing the battery from beginning until finally it was announced that because of this delay, there was no longer any money available.

Culver Battery

The battery constructed near the eastern edge of Culver Cliff between 1904-1906, close to Bembridge Fort. The batttery consisted of a pair of two 9.2-inch breach loading Mark X gun in barbette Mark V emplacements. This gun, the standard British coast defence weapon of the time, weighed 129 tons when shielded and could fire a 380pound armour piercing shell up to 29,000 yards, although it was most effective at a range of 6,000 against armoured vessels. It was emplaced within a 6 foot 6 inch concrete parapet, beneath which was the hydraulic lift and accumulator used to assist in loading and firing the weapon.

The magazine was situated underground between the two guns and the battery was defended from the rear by an unclimbable iron fence, with the battery, like the earlier Steynewood Battery, scarped to a Twydall profile1. These guns were primarily intended for long-range use rather than the up-close defence of Sandown Bay. The battery had evolved in concept from a Sandown Bay defence to an anti-bombardment role in which it would be intended to assist in the defence of Spithead and sink any enemy vessels there.

The Battery Command Post was in the same building as the Navy's Port War Signal Station, located between the battery and Bembridge Fort. The Navy's Signal Station would challenge any suspicious ships entering Spithead, and the battery could support this challenge by fire, either aimed directly at the ships or by employing warning shots. The battery also had toilets and ablutions room, stores for coal, oil, and general stores as well as a workshop and telephone room. Accommodation was provided by the nearby Bembridge Fort, however there was a small room for quarters as well as a shelter.

All of this was constructed in reinforced concrete. Brick was only used on the inside of internal walls in magazines, to reduce the risk of condensation and damp.

Culver Battery's History

At the time that the battery was constructed, 1904-1906, the 1905 Owen Committee on the Armaments Of Home Ports was being carried out, and naturally Sandown Bay was one of the principle areas looked at. The report concluded that Sandown Bay was well defended by the newer, quicker firing and longer-range 6-inch and 9.2-inch breech loading guns, and as a consequence Sandown Bay no longer needed the 12-pdr guns in service at Sandown Barrack Battery. Culver Battery and Yaverland Battery were, from 1910, the only active batteries still in service in Sandown Bay. By the outbreak of the Great War, Culver Battery was armed with its 9.2-inch guns as well as two machine guns, and defended by barbed wire, as well as a 6-pdr Hotchkiss gun.

After the Great War, Culver Battery had its old Mark V gun mountings replaced with Mark VI mountings, which allowed a higher elevation to 30 degrees and a longer range. In 1927 the site took part in Fortress Plotting rangefinding experiments. By 1934 Culver Battery took part in temporary long-range trials for three 6-inch breach loading Mark VII guns on 45 degree mountings. The first twin-six-pounder QF gun was tested in Culver's Coast Artilley Experimental Establishment in 1936.

The Second World War

By the outbreak of war Culver Battery, the last armed battery in the Sandown Bay area, still had its armament of two 9.2-inch guns. Culver Battery was expected to cover both Sandown Bay from invasion and protect Spithead and Portsmouth from naval bombardment.

Culver Battery was garrisoned by Culver Fire Command, 527 Coast Regiment Royal Artillery (Territorial Army), with the headquarters based at Bembridge Fort. Huts were built for the garrison at Culver Battery and air defence covers to protect the guns from air attack during the Battle of Britain. At night time, Culver Battery worked in conjunction with searchlights mounted at Yaverland Battery and the sea forts, although the Yaverland searchlights lit for the last time in July 1942 and Culver no longer played an active night time role. However, a Coast Defence/Chain Home Low radar station had been constructed east of the battery at the cliff edge, to assist the coastal guns and spot for enemy low-flying aircraft.

Since The War

After the war, in 1947, two 6-inch breech loading Mark XXIV high angle guns in turrets were erected in front of the 9.2-inch guns. These were used for practice shoots in conjunction with two radar dishes installed on the roof of the Port War Signal Station. Two 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns were also used for coast artillery practice both here and at Yaverland Battery. The battery retained in service until the end in 1956, when coastal defence came to an end. The guns were removed and the site sold off, with the battery covered in soil and buried. In 1965 the site of Culver Down was purchased by the Isle of Wight County Council. In 1966 the fort was excavated, and in 1967 was sold to the National Trust. Much of its buildings were demolished to make way for a car park, however the gun emplacements remain. The area is now a viewpoint in the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, close to the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.

The Legend Of The Culver Hermit

Culver Battery was not Culver's first role in defending the Isle of Wight from a French attack. A local legend survives, telling of a Hermit2 who lived in a cave in Culver Cliff, who attempted to warn the villagers of Wolverton, a village between Brading and Bembridge, of the impending disaster of a French attack. As with local legends, there are countless variations. The simplest of which is that the hermit warned the villagers of Wolverton that the French were coming, but was ignored, and all the inhabitants of the village were slaughtered.

Other versions have a theme whereby the hermit warned the villagers of a prophecy that if the pure waters in the well of the chapel of Saint Urian, the village church, were ever tainted, then disaster would befall. (In some versions the prophecy is on a stone tablet, others have it as a common tale well known etc.) Soon after, a visitor arrived at the village and went to the well, acting strangely. Fearing that he might contaminate the water, the villagers killed him, but his blood entered the well and brought doom. It was then discovered that he was a pilgrim come to pay his respects (or possibly an old man from the village returned from the crusades after many years in the Holy Land, thanking St Urian for keeping him safe since he left as a boy). As a consequence, the village was invaded and everyone was slaughtered by the French, although in one legend the village's wealth, including the church silver, were buried just before the village was attacked, and this treasure has never been found. The historical truth in this legend is that archaeologists have proved that there was a mediæval village of Wolverton, presumed destroyed by the French in the French raid of 1340. It was at the site of what is now Centurion's Copse, a name corrupted over the years from the chapel of Saint Urian3.

Fortifications Of The Isle of Wight - Overview
1Twydall profile describes first forts built on the same model as two infantry redoubts known collectively as Fort Twydall. The Twydall profile, as it became known, emphasised the use of a glacis, iron palisades, infantry parapets and earthworks that were difficult to detect and target by an enemy. In many ways these forms of forts predicted the trench warfare that was to dominate the Great War, with the iron palisades replaced with barbed wire.2Or, in Victorian versions of the tale, a rich merchant who turns out inexplicably to be Satan.3Although other theories are that the chapel was not dedicated to Saint Urian after all, but possibly either to French saint Saint Thurien or Saint Urith of Devon.

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