Wanstone Battery - a brief history
Our Wanstone Rediscovered project aims to conserve the remains of the largest breech-loading guns ever installed on the UK mainland. In this article we follow the history of these guns, from their inception, in a speech by Winston Churchill, through their construction and use, their subsequent disuse and demolition, the sites' dereliction and the recent rediscovery.
Following the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill was asked to form a Government by King George VI. It soon became clear to Churchill that the coastal defences around South-East Kent were incapable of stopping an invasion attempt. Following Churchill's minute of 31 August 1940 that 'we must fight for command of the Strait no matter what form of attack they are exposed to', orders were issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 3 September 1940, for the construction of a series of gun batteries between North Foreland and Dungeness. A total of 51 guns were considered by the Siting Board.
Winnie and Pooh
Prior to Churchill's speech, orders had already been given for the building of two, long-range guns in the area. On 10 July 1940, construction started on two massive concrete gun emplacements at Townsend Farm, near St Margaret’s at Cliffe, to the northeast of Dover. These would house 14-inch guns, to be operated by the Royal Marines Siege Regiment, which was formed at Chatham on 6 July 1940.
The emplacements used spare barrels from King George V battleships, which were being built between 1937 and 1945. Work continued throughout the Battle of Britain, and the gun, nicknamed ‘Winnie’ after Churchill, fired its first shell in anger on 22 August 1940. Work continued on a sister gun nearby, nicknamed ‘Pooh’, which was commissioned a few weeks later.
Firing high-explosive shells weighing over 1600 lbs (725 kg), the two guns had a fully supercharged range of approximately 27 miles (47500 yards or 43 km) but were notoriously slow to load. So much so that, although they were mainly intended for anti-shipping duty, they were almost incapable of hitting a moving target. The guns lacked radar targeting and relied on spotter planes to observe the ‘fall of shot’ and provide correction information – a hazardous operation at this stage in the War.
‘Pooh’ proved unreliable in service and was plagued with electrical and mechanical faults. The degree of supercharging needed to gain range caused the gun’s barrels to wear quickly, resulting in frequent costly and time-consuming changes, when the guns were out of commission for many hours.
Jane and Clem
By the time Winne and Pooh were commissioned, larger guns fitted with radar aiming capabilities were available. In September 1941, construction began at Wanstone Farm, between St Margaret’s and Dover, for two, 15-inch guns. These would use spare barrels originally designed for the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships, that were produced from 1914 until 1947. Although of an older design, these guns were faster to load and aim, and the visual fall of shot calibration was replaced by radar.
With barrels weighing over 100 tons (102 tonnes), the mounting around 70 tons (71 tonnes), and set in approximately 2800 tons (2850 tonnes) of reinforced concrete set deep into the chalk, these guns were the largest, breech-loaded, longest-range weapons to have ever been installed on the British mainland. Not only could these guns be used against shipping – they were capable of attacking targets on the French coast and for several miles inland, though this was not in the original plan.
Throughout the cold winter of 1941/2, concrete (mixed on site in large batching plants) was laid, the heavily protected magazines constructed, and other infrastructure put in place. Commissioning of the first gun, dubbed ‘Jane’ after 'Just Jane', the raunchy Norman Pett cartoon character that appeared in the Daily Mirror from 1932 to 1959, took place on 20 April 1942. Approximately 400 metres away, work had already started on the sister gun, named ‘Clem’ after Clement Atlee, the deputy Prime Minister. Commissioning of Clem took place on 22nd May 1942.
The 15-inch (380mm) diameter shells were approximately 5ft 3in long (1.6m) and weighed 1938 lbs (900 kg). Shells were stored in racks in the four heavily reinforced magazines, two for each gun. Overhead cranes stacked the arriving shells and manoeuvred the stored shells onto trolleys, pulled by small diesel tractor vehicles, for delivery to the gun.
Within the magazines, a smaller room, elevated above ground level to avoid any possibility of flooding, held the cordite propellant charges. Each shot required a full charge of cordite weighing 428 lbs (195 kg), or for additional range, the gun could be supercharged to 490 lbs (223 kg).
Unlike the weapons installed on ships, where shell and charge transport was highly mechanised, shell and charge handling for these land-based guns was mostly a manual exercise. A small hoist was positioned to the rear of the gun’s breech to lift and swing the shell into the loading position.
The two guns were served by branch railway lines from Martin Mill, with the lines splitting at each emplacement to pass both in front and behind the gun. The lines behind the gun emplacement were used primarily for shell delivery to the magazines, those in front for heavy-duty rail-mounted cranes for barrel replacement. Although these were mostly removed during demolition, the remains of the rails can be seen in the concrete emplacement of ‘Jane’ today.
Buildings alongside the gun emplacement housed the compressor (for clearing the barrel with compressed air after firing), hydraulic pumps (to power the hydraulic rotation and barrel elevation gear), maintenance equipment and spares, lamps for emergency lighting and weapons to defend the emplacement against possible parachutist attacks.
Behind the gun, on the landward side of the shell delivery rail lines, was the crew shelter and accommodation Nissen huts, protected by deep bund walls. Unlike the German coastal guns, there were no reinforced concrete defences – protection was provided by the natural topography, earth bunds and camouflage – the truncated supports for which are still visible.
As with most other coastal emplacements, Wanstone battery was equipped with a deep shelter and plotting room. The deep shelters were mainly tunnels excavated into the chalk by the Royal Engineers while the plotting rooms were built as ‘cut and cover’ concrete structures by the construction companies. The sites were powered by mains electricity from the high voltage supply via substations located nearby and mains water was laid on from St Margaret’s.
The battery fired approximately 1150 rounds during its life, engaging with and damaging enemy shipping, and achieved one notable sinking – that of the Munsterland in January 1944. During the capture of the German coastal guns on 17 September 1944, Jane and Clem provided covering fire onto the French mainland, scoring a direct hit on the A6 battery (Lindemann No. 2). This in turn caused a sympathetic explosion of ordnance that severely damaged the gun and the massive concrete emplacement. This was the last enemy action for the Wanstone guns.
Barrel wear was a persistent problem for these guns, particularly when supercharged with extra propellant to extend the range beyond the Strait. Early barrels could withstand 150 rounds before reconditioning, but only around 50 rounds with full supercharging. Later barrels were made easier to reline and improvements in steel quality and design meant that the barrel would endure around 340 standard shots.
Dismantling of Winne and Pooh started in 1944 and many other sites met similar fates soon after hostilities ceased. Two Dover batteries, Fan Bay and Wanstone Farm were taken over by the 4th Coast Training Regiment and records show that intermittent firing took place until 1952. By then the weapons had been superseded by more advanced ammunition and missiles and were too costly to maintain. Their role ceased.
The massive barrels and gun mountings of ‘Jane’ and ‘Clem’ were considered too old and costly to retrieve intact, and in 1957 demolition by a local company, Dover Industries, started. The thick steel barrels and gun mountings were cut up for scrap with oxy-acetylene torches. The remaining reinforced concrete emplacements and buildings had no scrap value and were too costly to remove, and the land was handed back for agriculture with these intact.
Over the following years, the earth bunds around the guns and the crew shelters were bulldozed into the gun pits to make way for agricultural ploughing. The concrete structures and buildings that remained, were either buried or left to become overgrown. For 59 years, from 1958 to 2017 much of the land was intensively farmed.
The 2017 acquisition
In mid-2017, the opportunity arose for the National Trust to acquire 72 Hectares (178 acres) of the Wanstone area, which included the sites of guns Jane and Clem, the D2 (Dover 2, but also referred to as ‘Dog 2’ or ‘Don 2’, as this was prior to the NATO alphabet introduction in 1955) heavy anti-aircraft battery and the Fan Bay gun battery, from the owner. By late September 2017, following a successful appeal aided by the late Dame Vera Lynn, acquisition by the Trust was complete. The sites could now be conserved with the future potential to open parts of them as a visitor experience and an educational resource.
Work since 2017
Following acquisition, the sites were surveyed photographically, and a programme of work put in place to clear invasive vegetation, and to secure and conserve the above ground structures, while minimising impact on wildlife. Most of the ‘wildernesses’ of thorn bushes and scrub on the land that had not been farmed has been kept for bird nesting space. ‘Dead hedging’ has been created from the bushes that were removed from the buildings, providing habitats for invertebrates and further nesting opportunities.
Our contractor cleared the concrete roads that remained of moss and leaf mulch accumulation. All buildings associated with the ‘Jane’ emplacement were secured with new steel doors and window shutters to the same design as those originally used. As of Autumn 2022, the buildings were being successively made weatherproof by replacing the roof vents with an original design, repairing the concrete roofs and replacing the badly deteriorated bituminous roofing material. The Clem gun site has been fenced, and work has started to stabilise the brickwork on the Jane magazines, which has delaminated in places.
Prior to 2022, little was known of how much of the ‘Jane’ emplacement had survived. An exploratory dig early in the year revealed that most of the surface of the concrete emplacement, shown on Wartime plans, was likely to be intact. There was, therefore, a high probability that the gun pits would have also survived. This led to the exciting prospect of archaeology being able to fill in some of the missing parts of the story of the emplacement.
In July 2022 a week-long dig, supervised by professional archaeologists from Isle Heritage Community Interest Company (CIC), and aided by some expert excavator work by Rhino Plant Hire, was held at the Jane emplacement. The aim was to excavate the gun base, pintle and breech pit, along with the back-filled forward apron and the training rail platform. The work revealed a massive structure that was in excellent condition. Although few artefacts were recovered, relics of the demolition process existed, with cut-off rivet heads in abundance and much iron slag in the breech pit, from the flame cutting process. The original ladder to the breech pit was found semi-intact.
Analysis of the material removed from the emplacement showed a strong compatibility with existing soil on the site, confirming the likelihood that the bund structures had indeed been dozed into the gun pit. Evidence of foreign material, including brick and concrete block rubble of types not found on the site, suggested that some imported waste may have been dumped into the structure at some point in the past.
The future of the Wanstone site has yet to be decided. There is a strong case for opening as an additional visitor experience, but the form this might take, and the infrastructure needed to support this is not yet known.
The scope of work on site of ‘Clem’, the other 15-inch gun on the site, has also to be decided. Exploratory work suggests that the emplacement is also intact, but because of the topography of the land surrounding this emplacement, it was more deeply buried than ‘Jane’. It will require a more determined effort to excavate and additional permissions will need to be negotiated.
The National Trust is indebted to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for its grant toward this three-year project and the generous local donors, without which the project could not have started. We would also like to thank our partners, Isle Heritage and Rhino Plant Hire for the generous contributions to the project. Finally, thanks go to our team of dedicated volunteers for their incredibly enthusiastic and diverse support to the project.
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