Visit to Nothe Fort Artillery
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- Last updated: 16/12/2016
When the French launched the newly-completed steam-powered warship La Gloire in 1860 she was the most powerful vessel afloat. Britain responded with HMS Warrior which was commissioned in 1861 and the two countries entered into an arms race. Britain feared a French invasion and the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone ordered a massive defence programme which included the building of many coastal fortifications. Today some of these are open to the public, such as Nothe Fort overlooking Weymouth harbour in Dorset.
Building at the site commenced in 1860 but ran into trouble two years into its construction and the project was taken over by 26 Company Royal Engineers in 1862. It was a major undertaking and was not completed until 1872 by which time the threat from France had long-since passed due to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 which led to the removal of Napoleon III from power.
The fortification was an artillery fort comprising of a warren of tunnels and rooms with hoists to move the ammunition to the firing points from the magazines at the lower levels. The garrison was composed of infantry, Royal artillery and Royal Engineers and there was accommodation for all ranks within the fort.
One of the first units to be posted to Nothe Fort was No 2 Battery Royal Artillery (Tatton-Browns) which had the training necessary to handle the heavy pieces of artillery weighing up to 18 tons. The location of the fort meant that it could provide defence to the harbour and with overlapping fire from other defences in close proximity they could engage attempted landings. The weaponry mounted at Nothe Fort included two 64-pounders, four 9 inch and six 10 inch guns all of which were rifled muzzle loaders (RMLs). Upgrades in weaponry in the 1890s saw earlier weapons replaced by more powerful 12.5 inch guns capable of firing shells weighing 800 pounds out to ranges of 3.5 miles to engage enemy warships approaching the harbour.
During WW I the fort continued to protect the harbour and the nearby area of Portland which was by then established as a naval base. By 1938 modern weapons were being installed and the site used as an ammunition store. Modern electric hoists were installed and anti-aircraft guns, such as Vickers ‘Pom-Poms’, were mounted and a Bofors 40mm gun was added later. Outside the fort a battery of four 3.7 inch AA guns were sited to defend the harbour against air attack.
The fort was abandoned in 1956 and for many years lay neglected. In the 1980s during the Cold War a command shelter in the event of a nuclear war was built into the lower chambers complete with blast doors. That time has long since gone, and with it any threat of war, leaving Nothe Fort standing as a successful tourist attraction which today hosts a series of events throughout the year. It even has its own Nothe Fort Artillery Volunteers which just happens to depict No 2 Battery of the Royal Artillery to present gun firing demonstrations from the Victorian period.
No 2 Battery of the Royal Artillery
I recently received an invitation to go along to the fort to watch the unit in action. My host was Paul Merry who is the co-ordinator of the group and also their Commanding Officer. He has been involved with Nothe Fort and the No 2 Battery for many years and he explained something of the background to the site and the group.
The group has been established for around twenty years and during that time it has grown in experience and this year they already have some 40 various events to attend. They wear the blue uniforms of the RA circa 1881 and their helmets are of the same date. In that year the British Army was engaged in the First Boer War and the Battle of Laing’s Nek and the numbered regiments were given County titles. The group make some of their own equipment and they have put together a display of items used in the period. This includes firing tables, charts of the local area and facsimiles of the types of ammunition used at the time including solid shot and canister. The Bombardier (Corporal) Jamie Wrighton has been with the group for some twelve years ever since he saw them in action when he visited the fort. Some members are former regular soldiers from various regiments which all helps with the drill and discipline. The group has a membership of around forty which includes the band and some infantry.
On the day of my visit the group displayed two guns firing, the first of which was a 2-Pounder muzzle-loader termed as a ‘rapid response cannon’ which was in service with the army between 1864 and 1914. The weapon was a reproduction created for the group by the renowned gun-maker John Slough of London who made it using the barrel of a 40mm Bofors gun. It is fired using a lanyard to operate a hammer mechanism to strike a percussion cap which in turn ignites the main charge. The gun could fire a sold ball out to ranges of 1.5 miles and at closer ranges it could fire canister against infantry like a large shotgun. In defending gateways against attackers it would have been ideal. I was informed that in service a crew could load and fire such a weapon about six times in ten minutes and was light enough to be pulled by the crew.
The larger 6-Pound field piece dated from 1815-1820 and showed the change in weapon design but the basic shape remained and each gun was mounted on a two-wheeled carriage. The 6-Pound gun was proofed on site by an expert from the Birmingham Proof House who was apparently impressed with the gun’s performance when he proof-fired it. It has been proofed to a charge of eight ounces but for performances the charge rarely exceeds two ounces which produces a bang which is more than loud enough.
The carriage for each of these weapons was specially built for the group by a local craftsman using traditional skills and hand carpentry. The wheels are also hand-built using traditional methods and the 2-Pound gun is fitted with wheels which can be replaced in sections just as the real weapon was. In earlier weapons the spoked wheels were built as a single piece with a continuous iron tyre.
The group uses the drill of the period and load the guns with authentic rammers and swabs to load and fire each gun. The smaller 2-Pound gun was in sharp contrast to the heavier and more bulky 6-Pound gun, but it would have proved far handier to defend bridges, gateways and ramparts. The anti-personnel charge would have been devastating at close range. The group has been seen in action many times and serving military personnel have extended an invitation to take part in a live firing demonstration on a military range, and when it happens they promise me that I’ll get an invite.
A ‘rule of thumb’ I have learned when it comes to studying defences is that if it is stone it is 19th century and if it is concrete it is 20th century. Walking around the ramparts at Nothe Fort it is possible to see where the two periods overlap. There are several weapons on display to show the type of guns mounted in the fort. A 6-inch breech-loading rifled gun of 1903 represents one of three such weapons which were mounted at the fort at one time. From the period of WW II there is a 40mm Bofors, twin-barrelled ‘Pop-Pom’ and a 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun all of the types associated with the fort during the war.
At ground level one can walk around the various gun firing positions some of which have been reconstructed. At one embrasure there is an original 64-Pound RML gun complete with wooden tools and a display of the studded shells fired by the weapon. A hoist shows how the weapon was served with ammunition from the magazine stores at the lower level. At another location a Victorian ‘Gun Deck’ has been recreated with fibreglass replicas of 12.5-inch RMLs and life-size mannequins to depict the crew. There is a range of rooms with displays from the 19th century through to WW II including searchlights.
By following the stairs to the lower levels it is possible to walk the circumference of the fort to see how the magazines, known as ‘shifting rooms’ supplied ammunition to the guns via the hoists. This is the level where the nuclear command centre is located with the blast doors which are still intact. A number of the rooms at this level have also been used to create displays of WW II with images and artefacts.
Anyone interested in military architecture will be fascinated and absorbed by the engineering which went into building the fort. A detailed cut-away model shows how it was built and other displays show how the site developed over the years. Work has not finished and volunteers have plenty of projects to occupy them.
Nothe Fort is still developing and the No 2 Battery RA is very active in promoting the living history side of the site. I extend my sincere thanks to the Nothe Fort Artillery Volunteers and everybody who made my visit so enjoyable. If anybody should be interested in joining the group they can contact Paul on 07803524306, Email at [email protected] or by Facebook at ‘The Nothe Fort Artillery Volunteers’. Nothe Fort can be contacted directly on 01305 766626 or for full details of opening hours and list of events visit the Website at: www.nothefort.org.uk