Fort of the Quarter

Fort Blockhouse

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 Created 31-01-2004     Last update 31-01-2004

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The Parade Ground

There are presently seven buildings on the Parade Ground, not including the Guard Room which though a free standing buildings has already been considered as a part of the Land Front group.

Some of the buildings are quite old as the ground floor of one had been for over 100years the residence of the Master Gunner, most are from the 20th Century except for the Quartermasters Stores building from circa 1885 or so.

The Parade ground still houses the ensign staff, but is now a well organised car park.

Historic features that have now gone included a ships figurehead, a XE class Submarine and a Barrage Balloon. The Barrage Balloon was nick named “Dolly Dolphin” and was manned by a RAF unit. So, for a great part of WW2 Fort Blockhouse all three fighting services were represented within its trace. The Balloon operation detachment had to be housed somewhere, so a Nissen hut was added to the buildings on the Parade but it was removed very soon after the war in Europe had ended. The XE “Midget” Submarine was mounted on a plinth, which could have started out as the winch-base for the balloon or even the hut base. The Submarine still exists as it had to be dismantled into three large loads and it was taken by tank-transporters to the former RAF Air Station of Duxford, Cambridgeshire for reassembly and public display. Two other Midget Submarines are know to exists, one in the Submarine Museum, Gosport, and the other at HM Dockyard Chatham.

Besides the Barrage Balloon and the hut, etc, 3 ARS were excavated into the Parade. All three were backfilled post war; however, there existence can still be noted by the fading shelter sign surviving on the side of one of the buildings.

 

Other matters

The Great Boom

A book needs to be written on the subject of the Boom Defences on Portsmouth, and this report is NOT the forum to do it, but, as briefly as possible, there has been a Boom (from the Old English word for beam) across the entrance into Portsmouth Harbour since at least the 13century. There survives in Southsea Castle links from a wrought iron chain-boom from the late 18th century, and a major archaeological excavation of five further sections seen after a heavy storm, over 20 years ago, just outside Point Battery, Old Portsmouth took place under the joint direction of the UKFC and the Fort Cumberland Society.

That chain boom lasted until replaced sometime towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Experiments were made in close Harbour Defence measures around 1890 to be additions to the sea mines laid by the Royal Engineers and to supplement the Defence Lights also manned by the RE. A trial boom was stretched across the harbour in 1910, but a double boom was designed and emplaced during the Great War (1914-19) [it must be remembered that though the main war against Imperial Germany and its allies had finished 11th November 1918 fighting still continued in Russia, China and Africa until well into 1919].

The Double Boom, by no later than March 1915, had reached the state it was to remain in until dismantled early 1919. Another boom using the same sites was inaugurated October 1939 and remained with some slight modifications until April 1944 when it was adapted to cope with the amount of maritime traffic needed in the weeks running up to D.Day in June ’44 and remained thus altered until final dismantling November 1945.

These Booms comprised an Outer Boom of 5 x 2” Diameter Steel Wire Ropes (SWR hereafter) that stretched from Fort Blockhouse to the beach in front of the 18 Gun Battery, Old Portsmouth, supported by 4 rafts of 4 “baulks” (as the written record described them) of timber each 14” x 14” (35cm x 35cm) x 40ft ( circa 12m) each raft cross braced underwater by 7 tie-rods of 1” iron straps and wire lashings on the upper surface. The 5 SWR cables were spliced in such as way that the forwards (that is to say southern-most) pair were combined into one and the rear three were brought together as a single cable by means of a “Bridal”.

The Inner Boom was situated west of the Point, Old Portsmouth Round Tower, and extended to the area of Fort Blockhouse very close to the Flank (or Signal) Tower. This Inner Boom was formed by just 2 x 3” Diameter SWR carried by, early in the War by “Camels” (types of very large barrel -like drums) used, normally, for salvage of sinking vessels. The Camels were replaced by mid July 1940 by “Cats”, ( a form of close-built timber raft, with two prominent underwater full-length keels to keep them end on to the flow of water at either the Ebb or the Flow of tides) fitted with a roller-sheave over which the SWR cables could roll. In the normal, “stand-to” condition the weight of the cables were used to slacken the wires thus allowing them to rest on the bottom of the harbour, but when “Action !” was sounded they cables were pulled taught, rose from the seabed to form a barrier about 2ft (61cm) above the surface of the water.

In practice the booms were commanded by an officer and his shore party on the Portsmouth side where the electric winch-house, several items of equipment still standing at mid-tide level off-shore, a Bollard in the “Capstan Square” (itself a reminder of the earlier 18th Century Boom) and Boom-Tower House the Head Quarters for the unit can still be seen. Please note that Boom Tower House is now under going a major repair and is also a private residence. However, a second Boom Party was stationed within Fort Blockhouse charged with the maintenance of the Boom and control via the EXDO in the Signal Tower of its close defence.

Mention has been made with regards to the Bollard built into the emplacement on Queens Bastion which was used both in the 1890’s trials and during WWI. Other remains of both of the Booms are, the much lower, second bollard situated just off shore at Mid Tide level, this was so that no matter where the tide was at any time in it’s (the tides) cycle the shore end could always be made fast. Two of the lower (former gun Casemates) rooms of the Casemated Battery were adapted for both booms and to accommodate the seamen required to work them, likewise four massive “ringbolts” similar in scale to those seen on the Solent Sea Forts for the internal movement of the 40ton 12.5”RML guns were drilled deep into the brickwork and masonry of the walls of both the North Front and the Casemated Battery to take “Roller Shackles”, or sheave blocks, so the shore ends of the wire could be adjusted, usually on an hourly rotation as the tide rose and fell. These “ringbolts” were driven through the walls well above head height so that movement such as patrols, etc could still take place around the exterior of the Fort.

Putting the Booms into context, if 1942 is used as an example, Allied ships, including submarines, would inform both the Kings Harbour Master and the Commander Coast Artillery of their presence and then give the codes of the day, if at all practicable they would endeavour to enter the Harbour during daylight hours. Next they would be given permission to approach a slow speed either the main ship channel between No Mans Land Fort and Horse Sands Fort, or if of a certain size, the small craft channel between the Anti-Submarine (fixed) Piled Boom north of Horse Sands Fort but south of Lumps Fort, then once turned after Southsea Castle and Spit Bank Fort they (the vessels) would answer the flags and signal lamps from Fort Blockhouse and pass by the swung safely out of the way Outer Boom and lastly over the lowered Inner Boom. Of course, if it was a Neutral Ship it would be held on the examination anchorage off of the Isle of Wight, prior to being escorted into either Portsmouth or Southampton by a friendly ship. Enemy ships would expect a much rougher greeting!!

As then if they had fought their way past the guns and mines etc, off the Forts, they would have had to attempt to ram under fire both booms in turn. Certainly no easy task……..

 

Military Railways

There is no evidence in any records of Fort Blockhouse and Haslar Spit ever having full (standard) gauge Military Railways. The first rail system was an 18” MNGR operated by the RE in the latter part of the 19th C with its entry into the Fort being over the (then) Moat and the stone bridge across the Parade Ground, curving to the north to go out through the arch of the Queens Bastion to divide into four sidings that then further beyond a series of stores and workshops for the Submarine Mainers became two tracks to terminate on the first (Mine Yaw) Jetty, reverse points or more probably turntables had to be provided so that a double siding could service the building in which the Mine Sinkers were stored. By circa 1915 or 16 the railway was either replaced or supplemented by a 60cm MNGR system that was somewhat less complicated. These tracks though also served the rear (Parade Ground) side of the North Front and the Casemated Battery so that equipment, munitions and stores could readily be delivered to those parts of the Fort. As stated above a very much shorter and isolated track was installed in the 1920’s for the use of the early Submarine attack Trainer.

Haslar Hospital, and Forts Monckton and Gilkicker were also served by a MNGR system that ended at, or close to, the (then) School of Electric Lighting on Stokes Bay.

 

The Saluting Battery

The Fort maintains a unique in-situ collection of four x 12 Pdr QF guns that range in age from 1889 to 1903. They are, apart from actual use for National Salutes and the requisite drills at regular intervals, kept under grey weather sheets to preserve them from salt laden sea breezes. All were originally issued as part of the Forts’ Coast Artillery function prior to WWI, and a pair of them were dismounted and “loaned” to Bungalow Battery, at Hook-by-Warsash, by the River Hamble, Hampshire as an anti-invasion defence August 1940 until March 1945 when they both returned. The site that they occupied is now Solent Breezes village. The (then) isolated Bungalow that gave its name to the Battery was the only building of the development to have been completed before war was declared in1939.

The guns themselves vary in manufacturer, but two at least were made by the Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich, London.

The Battery fires for visiting Heads Of State when on board vessels entering Harbour, during Royal and State Funerals, to celebrate Royal Days (birthdays of the Monarch, etc,) and to commemorate the November 11th 1918 Armistice Day. Thus it can take quite a while for a full Salute to take place, as will happen June 2004, when several Heads of State, pass in review past the Battery. To prevent accidents three of the guns are prepared for saluting, but normally only two are actually fired, and only blank ammunition is used.

 

Names on the Forts Buildings

Soldiers and Sailors have high regard for tradition, so every one of the Barrack and Office blocks in and around the Fort is named to honour past persons of repute (Drake, Nelson, etc) or the former Depot Ships of the Submarine Fleet, (Thames, Clyde, Argonaught, etc).

 

Escape Training Tower

Work begun on the Tower (often referred to as simply “the Tank”) in 1950 and it opened for trainees in July 1954. It is situated on the Haslar Creek side of the Spit about 400 yards from the Land Front of the Fort and contains within it a circular “tank” of water about 110ft high, It is entered by means of an air lock in one side of its base and training in how to escape from a disabled submarine is given to the student submariner. The Escape Training Tower is recognised as being a very important part of the UK’s Post War civil engineering heritage, yet it is still in active use after some 50 years.

Incidentally, “The Tank” and other areas around Fort Blockhouse and HMS Dolphin appeared in the film “Above Us The Waves” that concerned the X craft attack on the Tirpitz which was made in 1955, starring John Mills and other British actors.

For the record, since the visit recorded and reported on above took place, we have been informed by Mr P Kadlech of a book HMS DOLPHIN Gosport’s Submarine Base, written by Keith Hall and published by Tempus which covers the Submarine History of the Base in far greater depth than we have been permitted to do in this report. 

© 2003/4 UK Forts Club

 
Battery
The Casemated Battery/East Front, preserved remains of early 19th entury gun positions, and an ammunition locker.
 
 
 
Gun House
1940 "Gun House" with detail of the construction and a holdfast plate.
 
 
 
Casemated Battery
The old Casemated Battery, showing the buttresses that had to be added in circa 1848-50 to support the extra weight of the guns above.
 
 
 
Shelter Sign
Remaining "S" for Shelter sign on the Parade Ground side of an office.
 
 
 
HQ Building
33rd Field Hospital RAMC, HQ building.
 
 

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