The Needles Old Battery1 is perhaps the finest example of Victorian Fortification on the Isle of Wight. It certainly is the only site that is open to the public, charges for admission, has a guide book and has some of its original weaponry still in place.
The Needles And The Lighthouse
The waters of the Needles are treacherous and well defended by nature, both by the Needles rocks and the hidden danger of the Shingles – a three-mile-long shoal of pebbles just beneath the waves that periodically shift position and shape. The entrance to the Solent, known as 'The Bridge', is only 1,500 yards wide. As the waters around the Needles are so treacherous, a lighthouse was first built in 1786 near the future site of the Needles Old Battery. Despite this, ships kept sinking near the Needles, as the light was frequently enshrouded in fog. In 1859, shortly before the battery was built, a new lighthouse was built on the outermost Needle stack, which had been dynamited to form a platform on which the 109 foot lighthouse tower could be built. In September 1993 an electric cable was laid from the Old Battery, along a trench, threaded through the last Needle and into the lighthouse, causing the lighthouse to be fully automated in December 1994.
The First Fort Proposal
It was first proposed to build a battery at this site in 1855, for six 68-pounders to cover the Needles passage and prevent an enemy assault landing at Alum Bay to the east2. Although the original proposal for the battery was not acted upon, after the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom had reached its conclusions, it was decided that a battery at the Needles would be needed after all. One of five new artillery works covering the Needles Passage, the battery was built 250 feet above sea level at the most westerly end of the Island, just short of the Needles rocks. Here the channel between the Needles and the Shingles shoal is 2,000 yards wide, so any enemy ships approaching this end of the Solent would be forced to come within range of the battery's guns, which could fire from above into the ship's unarmoured wooden decks.
The Completed Battery
The battery, when constructed, cost £6,958 and was designed by Major James Edwards of the Royal Engineers. The battery is roughly triangular shaped in nature and protected from the rear by a large, deep, dry ditch crossed by a rolling drawbridge. Entry is then through a tunnel through an earth mound that helped defend the battery from outside attack, before passing a shell-filling laboratory and officer's quarters on the right and a guardroom and two-storey barracks, now demolished, on the left, before reaching the central parade. From the parade there are six gun emplacements – four on the north side, one on the south and one facing west, which could be rotated to provide supporting fire to either north or south.
Beneath the mound were the shell and cartridge magazines, the earth mound protected them from enemy fire that could ignite the gunpowder and cause a terrible explosion. The top of the mound, accessible up a ramp, held a terreplein from which the defenders could defend the fort. The barracks could house 24 – one officer, two Non Commissioned Officers and 21 men. However, in peacetime the battery was ungarrisoned apart from the Master Gunner, with the battery's gunners housed in Golden Hill Fort. Beneath the parade was a 10,000 gallon water tank filled with enough filtered rainwater to keep the garrison supplied for a month.
The original armament installed in the fort were six 110-pounder Armstrong 7-inch Breech Loading guns. Although theoretically more powerful than the 68-pounder muzzle loaders they were replacing, as early stage breech loading guns they had significant drawbacks3. The Armstrong guns that the Navy purchased were quickly donated to coastal defence, even though the guns lacked sufficient power to defend Britain's shores against enemy ironclads.
In 1869 the emplacements were enlarged for two early Mark I 9 inch and four 7 inch rifled muzzle-loaders. In 1873 these were replaced with six 9 inch (five Mark III, one Mark IV) rifled muzzle loaders no longer needed at Hurst Castle, a fortified castle nearby across the Solent at the end of Hurst Spit. These weapons were kept until 1903, when they were well and truly obsolete.
Searchlights And Torpedo Boats
In the 1880s a new threat to Britain's navy was developed. The fast, light torpedo-boat was capable of reaching speeds of 20 knots, fast enough to be able to speed past the old rifled muzzle loading guns. It was also realised that enemy ships could attempt to sneak past the Needles defences at night. In order to prevent this, in 1885 a tunnel was dug from the parade ground to the very west of the promontory. This was initially used for firing observation mines, which were deployed when an enemy vessel was discovered. There were also early experiments with a searchlight installed at the top of the cliff, near where the New Needles Battery would be built; however, this was considered a failure due to the height as the headland disrupted the beam. In 1899 the mine room at the end of the tunnel was converted into a new searchlight position, in which capacity it served until 1914.
In 1890 a lift shaft was dug to the northern base of the cliff, where tunnels were dug to five cave positions excavated near the Needles. A searchlight was installed in 1890, shining a fixed beam across the channel. In the other caves were housed two Hotchkiss 6-pounder quick firing guns as well as a Maxim machine gun, although the cave positions were considered too restrictive to allow a wide angle of fire. Power for the searchlights and lift came from boiler rooms, initially one was built underground which was later replaced with a boiler room built in the ditch.
On January 25th 1890 the Irex, the largest sailing ship to become a total wreck upon the Island, was wrecked by the Needles. The men of the Needles Old Battery were involved in a dramatic and dangerous rescue. On Christmas Eve, 1889 the 2,347 ton Irex began her maiden voyage. Her steel hull was 302 feet long, her masts 220 feet high, and she had a crew of 34, plus 2 stowaways. She was caught in a hurricane, and thrown off course towards the Needles. As the Irex approached the Needles, Captain Hutton mistook the Needles lighthouse for a pilot boat's light, and guided his ship towards it. By the time he had realised his mistake it was too late. The Atlantic waves carried the steel hull onto the chalk bed, smashing the hull, which flooded. Captain Hutton gave the order to abandon ship and, with the First Mate, began to release one of the lifeboats. A giant wave broke over the ship, killing them both instantly. The Boatswain, meanwhile, was attempting to rescue the ship's log, but another wave swamped the cabin and he too was drowned.
At 9am the Irex was spotted by men at the Needles Battery, who informed the Totland lifeboat, the Charles Luckombe. Another ship, Hampshire, had by this time seen the Irex and came to her aid, although the storm prevented them from approaching the Irex. As the lifeboat came near a wave almost smashed it under the bow of the Hampshire. The crew of the lifeboat felt it was impossible for them to rescue the crew under these conditions, and was towed back to station by the Hampshire.
When it was realised that the lifeboat had failed, the rescue efforts turned to the rocket apparatus that had been installed at the Needles Old Battery. The rocket was designed to send a rope from shore to a ship in danger, so that a chair attached to a rope could carry the men onboard to safety. At 1:15pm the coastguard fired the rocket at the wreck which was 300 yards out against the gale. The shot somehow found the wreck, but was caught in the rigging. The crew had no choice but to climb the rigging in order to free the rope – one lost his grip and fell to his death. The rest of the crew managed to free the rope, a process which took two hours.
At 3pm the chair was ready to take men off the wreck to the fort above. By 12.30am all but one of the surviving crew had been brought ashore. The only remaining member onboard the Irex was a lad called Jones too scared to make the journey, yet Coastguard Machin and a seaman called Isaac Rose descended to the ship and carried him ashore. All in all, the Coastguard and men at the Needles Old Battery rescued 29 out of the 36 people aboard.
The 20th Century
In 1893-95 it was felt that the Needles Old Battery was too small to be equipped with the latest large guns and it was replaced with the neighbouring New Needles Battery. It was also a possibility that the concussion from more modern, heavy guns could destabilise the battery's cliff edge location, causing sections of it to crumble into the sea. In 1903 the old rifled muzzle loading guns were considered so obsolete and useless that removing them from the old battery would be too difficult for little reward, and so all six were simply thrown over the cliff4.
However the Needles Old Battery still had military uses. In 1908 a fire command post was built just west of the westernmost gun emplacement, from which all the guns defending the Needles passage could be directed. This used position finding cells that were built away from the battery's guns, so that the smoke caused by firing would not stop accurate aiming of the guns.
In 1913 Britain's very first anti-aircraft gun was tested on the Needles Old Battery parade ground. This was a 1-pounder gun, known as a 'pom-pom' after the noise it made. This was tested against kites towed behind a destroyer.
During the Great War the Needles Old Battery was manned and defended, yet it saw no action. After the war the battery was in care and maintenance, and used by the Isle of Wight Rifles Territorial, who in 1937 became 530 Coast Regiment Royal Artillery.
The Second World War
In 1939 a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun was positioned in the Needles Old Battery, which was replaced in 1941 by a more powerful 40mm Bofors automatic anti-aircraft gun, a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon and two anti-aircraft searchlights. In 1940 a Port War Signal Station, used for ship identification, was installed on the south gun emplacement. In 1942, 700 land mines were laid, barbed wire and trenches installed, as well as 40 infantry, bren guns and a 60-pounder field gun. On 9 February 1943 the guns from the Needles Batteries damaged a Focke-Wolf 190 fighter.
1943 saw a new searchlight installed at the bottom of the cliff. This helped the New Needles Battery twice drive off E-boats (motor torpedo boats) waiting for convoys out of Bournemouth in 1943. In January 1944 radar was installed in the Fire Command Post to provide coverage for the guns of the Needles Passage, manned by the Royal Artillery to defend the Needles Passage at night. Also in 1944 a new electric lift was installed for access to the secret caves below.
The Needles remained an isolated spot. Sadly, the greatest danger faced by the men at the Needles was not Germany, but the weather – twice men were blown off the cliff to their deaths on the rocks below, and winds even tore the roofs off huts. Yet on 5 June 1944 much of the D-Day invasion fleet sailed past the Needles Old Battery on its way to the Normandy beaches.
After the war the guns were placed into maintenance, the garrison disbanded and in the searchlights removed. The radar was taken away in 1950, the Fire Command ended in 1953 and in 1956 the Coast Artillery was abolished. In 1956 the Needles Headland was used by Saunders-Roe5 as their rocket engine testing site, with the tests concentrated on the New Battery. This ended in 1971 when Britain abandoned its rocket research programme, and in 1975 the National Trust bought the headland. This was part of its Project Neptune campaign to purchase and preserve the nation's coastline.
The National Trust
The National Trust is an organisation dedicated to the preservation of the countryside that also administers looking after pretty thatched cottages, country houses and windmills. Victorian fortifications, which do not look pretty and help sell postcards and boxes of fudge, were outside the Trust's comfort zone, and initially it did not know how to react. Their first instinct was to demolish them.
On 24th November 1975 Peter Sprack, one of the lead campaigners to preserve the battery, wrote:
'[Peter de Curzon6 and I] were visiting the Needles Old Battery right out on the far tip of the Island which has been purchased now by the National Trust. When they purchased it they announced it was to be demolished and the site laid open to the public. So I felt it necessary to write to the National Trust and explain the historical importance of the fort which existed right on the tip of the Needles point and as a result Peter de Curzon and I have become sort of official consultants to the National Trust on the Island about the historic value of the various ex-military sites which they have taken over. As a result of this we met the acting National Trust agent at the Needles on Saturday and we were able to advise him.'
Fortunately the National Trust were persuaded not to demolish the site and in 1981 the Needles Old Battery was opened to the public. (That the Needles Old Battery was almost completely demolished by the National Trust does not appear in their guidebook.) The first Needles Old Battery guidebook was written in 1981 by Peter Sprack and Anthony Cantwell, and is well-written and informative with plans of the fort and photographs showing the battery's history. Sadly, unlike nearby English Heritage site Yarmouth Castle, which has had the same guidebook almost unaltered since 1959, this excellent guidebook was replaced in the early 21st Century. The second guidebook is one that is extremely dumbed-down but contains glossy colour photographs of what you can see when you visit the site today. A typical sentence from this guidebook reads:
'When the big guns were installed at the New Battery, the gunners had to be trained to use them. They spent many hours practising, as we see in the next picture.'
Inevitably, a less dumbed-down guidebook quickly replaced this version. Also there were new interpretation boards and changes to the display rooms to give a better overall story of the site, including its use as a Victorian Fortification. The National Trust has also produced a slideshow to show the underground rooms and sea level emplacements to make up for the fact that access to these rooms is not possible.
Raising Of The Guns
In 1983 the remaining two 6 inch rifled muzzle loading guns thrown over the cliff in 1903 were hauled to the top of the cliff and placed back on display in their original positions. In July 1983 Peter Sprack wrote:
'During June a most exciting development took place [at the Old Battery] in that the National Trust actually forked out the money to have the two guns which remained on the beach below the battery lifted to the top. The man that they chose to do this work was Mr Harry Spencer of Cowes whose speciality is building and rigging very old ships. He has been responsible for the rigging for most of the replica boats, such as the the Golden Hind and the Mayflower... the Bounty, the Unicorn and ...re-rigging the Great Britain ...and the re-rigging of the warship Warrior.
....Harry.... accompanied me... in the visit that we made to the beach under the Needles when the guns were uncovered, when we finally discovered that there were two guns there still and the project for lifting them came about.
...I was able to spend quite a bit of time actually being involved in the raising of the guns when it occurred... On two consecutive Fridays Gareth [Sprack] and I spent the day at the Needles Battery and the first Friday we actually participated in the physical work of raising the guns. The second Friday was to be held as a public relations exercise when television cameras and the national press were invited to be present. Actually what happened was one gun was lifted as a trial and that was on the Friday and all things being equal the second gun was to be raised in front of the public, television and the press.... We just thought we would be kept in the background and watch the work going on from a distance.... Instead of being just onlookers as we thought we were going to be to our complete joy and delight we found we were up to our eyebrows literally. When the guns began to lift from the beach Gareth and I were at quite crucial parts of the apparatus....
To cut a long story short the gun arrived at the top of the cliff on the end of a 300 foot cable which was in turn hauled.... by a big road recovery vehicle which was towing the cable down the road that runs to the Needles. This was all under radio control. At this stage the operation began to get a little interesting in as much as it was found that the radio control wasn't working to the vehicle because it was not line-of-sight.... This meant that there were minute delays between giving the order 'stop' or 'start' and actual operation of that order in the vehicle. The consequence was when the haul of the gun got to a point at the head of the gantry and where the gantry itself raised up through 90 degrees from being horizontally hung over the cliff to vertically upright from which it would be possible to carefully lower the gun onto the edge of cliff, the whole thing came up at a rate of about 40 miles per hour and when it hit the top of the gantry the gun detached itself and dropped from the height of about 20 feet onto the spot where Gareth and I were standing. We were working mechanical jacks... In effect when the gun dropped the 20 feet the muzzle landed on the jack that I was working and smashed it to smithereens. The other end of the gun at the other end of the frame narrowly missed Gareth....'
The raising of the gun the following week also suffered a minor technical hitch when the gun became stuck for several hours near the top of the cliff, but eventually it was raised to safety. The guns then had replica gun carriages built for them and they are now on display at the fort, standing sentinel over the waters of the Needles. During the official raising of the guns a hovercraft threaded the Needles for the first and so far only time.
The Needles Old Battery is located at the end of the west side of the Isle of Wight, close to the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. It is within the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and located on the Tennyson Heritage Coast. It is a Grade II Listed Building. Despite being open to the public for over 30 years, sadly the National Trust have not made any effort to open the lift shaft down to the tunnels leading to the sea-level caves.