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Crownhill Fort Plymouth

Crownhill Fort

Ian Chantrell tells us about his recent visit to the Fort...

Though surprisingly inconspicuous, Crownhill Fort is one of the largest and best preserved of the “Ring of Fire” forts constructed during the 1860s. Covering 16 acres and surrounded by a broad, deep ditch hewn from bedrock, the fort appears from only a short distance to be nothing but a forested hilltop. There are, however, four fighting levels with placements for 32 cannons and six mortars, nearly a half mile of tunnels, and accommodation for 300 soldiers and officers concealed within it.

A royal commission of 1859 had concluded that a threat, notably from France, to England’s Naval Ports was a serious one. It was said that the English Channel had become “no more than a river passable by a steam bridge". The Martello towers built some sixty years previously were out of date and totally ineffectual against the newly envisaged threat.

Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of the day took this threat seriously and embarked on what was at the time the largest peacetime construction project ever. Over £100,000,000 pounds was designated for the project of which £3,000,000 was spent in and around Plymouth to build as many as a dozen fortifications (I leave you to estimate the current cost of such a venture). They are sometimes referred to as “Palmerston’s Follies” though it is impossible to say that their presence wouldn’t have had a deterrent effect at the time. Local people considered it odd that guns were pointing inland but of course the intention was to protect the dockyards from a land attack.

Advances in military technology soon made these forts obsolete. Even so, Crownhill Fort was still in continuous military use until the 1980s and was used as an embarkation point during the Falklands War. The Fort has been owned by the Landmark Trust since 1986.

Wandering around before the start of the tour we climbed up to the ramparts to view the Moncrieff Disappearing Gun. This ingenious device allowed the gunners to load the gun out of the site behind the rampart. The large gun is pivoted on an arm with a heavy counterweight so that following a firing the recoil causes the gun to swing back below the rampart where it is automatically restrained while reloaded. The gun is then released allowing the counterweight mechanism to return the gun to the firing position. It is now aimed roughly in the direction of McDonalds and Marks and Spencers on Tavistock Road.

Following a brief introduction from our guide we made our way down a narrow sloping passage to view the external fortifications. Crownhill Fort, along with the rest of the North-East Defences, was designed by Captain (later Major General) Edmund DuCane who also designed Staddon Fort. The great advances in military technology enabled them to break from the centuries old practice of continuous line defences. Each of the forts was designed as a polygon surrounded by a ditch which itself was protected by caponiers (powerful, casemated structures which provided flanking fire across the ditch). Guns, sometimes in casemates (fortified gun emplacements), lined the tops of the ramparts and the barrack blocks within were made bomb-proof by the use of mounded earth.

The noise from the guns and the acrid fumes from the powder charges can only be imagined. Ventilation of these fumes was a serious matter and needed to be addressed by leaving spaces as open as possible and by providing vents. I expect there would be little in the way of protection that could have protected the hearing of the gunners. Our guide mentioned that some of the guns were fired by groups of enthusiasts from time to time. On one occasion one of the caponier guns was fired (minus projectile) and the shock wave from the charge blew out the windows of a bungalow several hundred yards away. The subsequent damages claim came to many thousands of pounds. Needless to say this particular gun is now silent.

Continuing on our trip through the maze of some of the half mile of tunnels it was evident that no expense had been spared and that the quality of construction was excellent. Taking care not to be bitten by the odd red legged spider resident in the lower recesses of the fort we made our way past numerous slits used for small arms crossfire protection of the various defensive ditches. Then past mortars used for high projectile bombing of invaders which the larger guns could not reach and into a gun emplacement with its own en suite facility in the form of a wooden WC, or more accurately SC (soil closet) as each use of the ingenious seat primed the release of a quantity of soil following its use. Our guide offered a photographic record of the method but there were no volunteers for this particular demonstration.

Emerging into the courtyard once again as dusk was falling our guide asked if we would like to view the firing of the two pounder cannon. This was the highlight of the trip, especially as it would be necessary to haul the wheeled weapon from its storage location along a passage in the fort wall and onto the parade ground. Bob and Micheal put their backs into the task and our guide prepared it for the five o’clock firing. We watched from a safe distance as the cannon was primed and loaded. Following some reluctance to fire, the gun went off with an impressive bang spitting smoke and fire across the parade ground. A very satisfactory conclusion to an excellent visit.

Special thanks to South West Regional Officer Bob Crocker for organising this event.

 

This article was originally published in Scrumpy’s February 2013 edition. You can read Regional Newsletters online here.