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Saturday, 1 June 2013

"Fortress Britain" by Andrew Saunders


Last year I made two very good, very interesting visits to Fort Nelson in Portsmouth. This has prompted me to reconsider my approach to fortification in Britain and to plan more visits to more sites. This is outside my usual remit of French military history but it does reflect an aspect of French foreign policy for five hundred years.

This book was listed in a few publications as being a good reference study, essential for anyone to understand British fortification policy. It was published in 1981 and not repeated, so I watched EBay and Amazon for a few weeks to find a reasonably priced copy and I was very lucky to find one on Amazon UK.

I learnt a lot from this book. Easy to read, it is about the strategic and political issues around the construction of forts in GB. It does not explain how an artillery fort is designed, the use of angles or enfilading fire. It does explain why there was a major building programme during the reign of Henry VIII, then only sporadic building until the 1860s when a number of ports were protected by "Palmerston's Follies", in response to a new strategic policy assessment, the bolt from the blue.

Following the Glorious Revolution and the growth of mercantilism, the industrial revolution and colonisation, Britain became a major naval power. This gave rise to the Blue Water defence policy. During the 18th and 19th centuries, defence policy was based on the strength of the Royal Navy, why should we spend millions of pounds on fortifications and expanding the professional Army when no-one could amass a fleet of sufficient strength to cross the English Channel without being intercepted by the Royal Navy.

After the Crimean War, when France and UK were allies, a new scare arose, the bolt from the blue. The French Navy stole a march on the Royal Navy by developing steam powered vessels and armour plating. So, using the new railways and conscription, the French could amass an army on the Channel coast in a week and ship 100,000 men into Southern England using those armour-plated, steam-driven vessels irrespective of the weather. Could a Royal Navy fleet assemble in time and with sufficient strength to stop them?

Events on mainland Europe were to dispel this scare. Emperor Napoleon III and his army were very decisively beaten during the Franco-Prussian War, so the fort building programme was curtailed and not completed, I learnt on my visits to Fort Nelson that the fort's full compliment of artillery was never delivered.

We have been left with a number of military sites and architecture that should be visited. Henry's forts along the South coast of England, Fort George in Scotland, Hurst Castle, the forts around Portsmouth, the Isles of Wight, Jersey and Guernsey. The quantity is not European in scale, but the quality is first class. These, together with visits to Vauban, de Riviere and CORF designed forts, should keep me active for years.

First up - a visit next week to Heaugh Battery in South Shields with my local U3A Military History group, I'm really looking forward to it.

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