Thursday, August 28, 2014

I have been to.. Fort Purbrook

Another day, another fort...

The weekend before last, with the tail end of Tropical Storm Bertha making her presence felt, and a forecast for rain, little'un (grandson) and I headed to Fort Purbrook to a boat jumble (think wargaming bring and buy but for sailing/boating folk - so similar levels of tat, at similarly laughable prices, but the occasional nugget....). The bonus for me though, was the opportunity to have a look round Fort Purbrook which is one of Pamerstone's "Follies" built to protect the dockyard and harbour from a possible French invasion by one of the later Napoleon's (the third one to be precise)..


The fort was one of six built on the edge of, and along the top of, a natural escarpment/hill that circles the north of Portsmouth called Portsdown Hill as a result of the 1859 Royal Commission (the same commission also resulted in the Spithead and other forts in the Solent). The development of rifled gun barrels (Armstrong, Whitworth etc) had made it possible for an invading army to bombard the city, which was just less than 5 miles away, from the same escarpment.

The forts replaced the old Hilsea Lines (which I must also visit!) which are at the bottom of the hill and were made obsolete almost overnight by those technological advances in artillery...

Purbrook is the most easterly of the forts, although there were a couple of smaller earthworks or redoubts built further east they are now long since gone.

By the by, the threat from Napoleon III was effectively over long before the forts were completed, but they were used as anti-aircraft gun emplacements during World War II.

A new phrase to me - and that's what I love about military history - this is a Caponier, or covered way, between front and main fort

One of the eight gun emplacements - following - these were designed by Captain (later Sir) Alexander Moncrieff - around his concept of the "disappearing gun" - basically the gun carriage enabled the gun to rotate backwards and down behind a parapet, or into this pit, protected by the wall after it was fired

Moncrieff gun pit
...this was taken at Fort Nelson along the hill - but shows what the fully functioning gun mount might have looked like...
The picture above  is not I think as the actual guns would have been - it looks an older/earlier model - I did find this however, which is more as I would have expected...  my reasearch efforts seem to indicate that this model of retracting gun was ordered for the forts...

Hideously complex set up - difficult to maintain and prone to mechanical failure - they didn't last long before being superseded by other methods of protection/hiding..

Following - looking across the fort (and the jumble!) in a north east direction - you'll note openings in the embankment between the gun pits - I'm assuming these are either covered ways back to the main fort (ie. underground), and/or for ready use ammunition...

The gun pits had a selection of artillery types left laying about - clearly iron - most stamped VR = following is interesting - the one second right looks like it's been re-bored, or re-lined?

Following - a close up of the smaller barrel in the above - it looked to be in better condition, and I was quite surprised as it appeared very small - anti personnel weapon for close defence?? Any ideas what the markings mean - I've searched but can't find anything....  I'm guessing the 6 is for 6pdr?

Taken from the top of the embankment looking north - so in effect the forts are protected by a deep glacis - from the bottom of the hill this ditch and counter rampart would have been an unwelcome surprise for any attacking force...

Following - a view of the front of the fort looking south - that's the dockyard you can see in the distance..  the main entrance the fort is just to the left of the blue van - you can just see the caponier far right...

Following - more detail of the Moncrief gun emplacement - the top of the surrounding wall is about 8 feet

Following - "front" (back??) of the fort - this is the south facing side...

Following - detail of the ditch, or moat - there's a significant amount of brickwork there!

Further reading: 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I have been to... Chateau de Noirmoutier

Second time at this, as the last time, after two days of editing the post, a slip of the finger resulted in all the text disappearing and then Blogger went and damn well autosaved... grrrrr..... I hate autosave! What really irritates it there is no way of turning the damn thing off.. nil points Blogger!

Anyway - here is the last of the holiday related posts (and it seems like an age since we went )... this time just a little piece on the castle at Noirmoutier.... and littler than it would have been as I simply couldn't summon up the enthusiasm to put in as much detail as I did last time.... So here's the layout from satellite view with orientation - keep at the top, gateway opposite

...not a huge castle internally - about the size of a football pitch (that's soccer to my US reader.. )

The house to the left is a much later addition (50's/60's)

So my varied researches show that the first traces of the castle appeared in about 830AD with the construction of a castrum (a new word to me, but denoting a temporary fortification along the lines of the Roman marching fort - so largely wood and earth) which was built by the by the Abbot Hilbold of the local monastery for protection from the Vikings (and Noirmoutier has the unfortunate legacy of being the location of the first ever Viking attack on mainland Europe, in approximately 799AD).

North wall and moat

The map following shows how remote the island was, and therefore how easy to attack, and difficult to defend... (I was slightly amazed to read that the abbey had already been sacked by the Saracens in 723 or 732AD - sources differ - goes to show how far people were waging war from home even that early in history!).... most historians agree however, that the key to this interest, and the source of all the upheavals and wars in following centuries was the fact that the island along with other locations on this coast was major producer of salt, and in the days before refrigeration this was literally white gold...

Either way, following the building of said earth work the Vikings still made more and more attacks until in the end the monastery was abandoned (for an interesting read about this period I really enjoyed this [clicky]) - the island simply couldn't be defended at high water as no one could get to it except the Vikings who came and went at will in their longships, and the French forces had no navy to counter them.. some resources say that the Vikings came back every two or three years for for almost 40 years!

North wall, keep and moat

The Vikings, and then the Normans, controlled the island for the next two centuries but as the Lords of Poitou (the surrounding region on the mainland) became stronger they forced the Normans to look northward for new territories (that'll be Normandy then!) and by 1060AD the Lords of Garnache (north west Vendee) controlled the land and this continued until 1206. It was Pierre IV of Garnache who built the stone castle that we largely see today (largely unchanged, though at the beginning of the 18th century, the towers were reconstructed and the keep adapted for artillery); the stone keep which was built with rubble, has three floors with the lords' residence at the top, and then an enclosure consisting of two towers, a single gate and two watch turrets in the four corners.

East wall

From 1206 until 1373 the island was controlled from the mainland by Saint Maure, and then the Craon before being sold to the illustrious Tremoille family.

It was the Tremoille family that developed the land, built the dykes and windmills (in 1395 there were 6 windmills by 1682 there were 17 - I suspect some Dutch assistance in this  - see later!) and invested in the salt production.

South west corner

This was however a turbulent period, which included invasions, destruction, looting by pirates and other French, and also by other nations, such as the English, Dutch and Spanish. The castle was attacked many times:
  • the English in 1342 and 1360, and again in 1386 (Hundred Years War) under the command of the Earl of Arundel (a local link for me as Arundel and its castle are just a little up the road)
  • the Spanish in 1524 (Italian War of 1521–1526) and 1588 (French Wars of Religion 1562–1598)
  • in 1674 it was taken by the Dutch troops of Admiral Cornelis Tromp (Third Anglo-Dutch War) a source I have read say that the Dutch left behind engineers and businessmen who lived in the castle and extensively renovated the area building dikes/levies to maximise salt production, and grazing space for cattle.. (the name Jacobssen originates from this period, and who we first heard in that post about the ship in the church).
South east corner and gate

In 1720 the last of the Tremoille family, Annne-Marie [clicky], sold the island and the castle to the Duke of Bourbon [clicky] whose son sold it to King Louis XV for £1,900.00 in 1767.

West wall
During the French Revolution, the region as a whole revolted against the rule of Bonaparte twice.

The first revolt (known as the Wars of the Vendee and known to Hornblower readers from "Mr Midshipman Hornblower") was prompted by Royalist/Catholic opposition to the French governments recent legislation against the Catholic church, and by the imposition of the levy, or conscription.

The island was strategically important to both sides and it changed hands 4 times between March 1793 and January 1794 with considerable loss of life - little consideration was given to prisoners on either side... The Republican army were the final victors and more than 1500 Vendéen soldiers were executed in a couple of days and the island was turned into a prison, and the castle served as a military prison.

Estimates of those killed in the Vendean conflict as a whole – on both sides – range between 117,000 and 450,000, out of a population of around 800,000. It was a truly awful conflict, and many modern historians believe that the actions of the French government amount to almost genocide - a read on the actions of General Louis Marie Turreau's "infernal columns" [clicky] is worthwhile, but disturbing..

South east corner

In the second revolt, in 1815, the region refused to accept Bonparte after his restoration during the 100 days - Bonaparte sent 10,000 troops to pacify the region - troops he badly needed at Waterloo - there's an argument that it was the Prussians and the Vendeen's that won the Duke the battle!

During the 19th century, the castle was used as a barracks, and in 1871, during the Paris Commune, insurgents were imprisoned there.

East wall

During the Second World War the island was occupied by the Germans and the castle was again used for prisoners of war - after the war they were imprisoned in their own prison..

Cannons from the wreck of British warship "Maidstone" [clicky] which sank on July 8th 1747 while on blockade with the British Navy; she was a 1000 ton vessel with 50 cannon and struck a rock while inspecting the Dromadaire a 400 ton merchant vessel and sunk 3 miles off L'Herbaudiere.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

I have been to.. (part of) Hitlers Atlantic Wall..

Bit of a conundrum this one... left me with a number of questions...

Anyway - here it is...  the northern and western coasts of France are littered with these (they were definitely built to last) but on our recent chevauchee to the Vendee this one was on our favoured beach so I had the opportunity to look at it closely a couple of times (as you do...  and much to the bemusement of my girls who still don't get it even after all these years.. )

Location is as follows..

...and it's pretty lonely - looking north along the beach on Googlemaps (assuming they haven't been either removed/destroyed or buried in sand) I can't see another within 10 miles, and to the south I couldn't see any either...  so the first question would be "why"?

It does protect the headland of St Gilles Croix de Vie which does have a deep water harbour - that would be my closest guess....

Close up from the front - I can't imagine that this would originally have been open to the elements but the concrete on top appears to be either a later addition or a different type??

...some fitting that has since been removed - range finder?? Machine gun for anti aircraft? Access from inside now sealed off?

Wings/buttresses at the front provide cover to the sides but give a wide angle of fire...

This is the southern side - the left of the picture above...  it's not immediately clear, but I think there was an opening on this side as there seems to be a lintel under the eyes of the (excellent) graffiti- just to the left of that hole... clearly it may have been closed off for safety reasons....   built like a brick sh*t house though - even though it has now tilted off horizontal it's still sound...

This puzzled me - exhaust vent for gun smoke and the like??

Close up of the construction material - the metal reinforcing rods are still pretty good even after 70 odd years in a marine environment... the screws on my boat don't last two years!

The back - the detail of the shuttering they used when pouring the concrete is very clear...

...and the north side - deflection glacis or just exposed foundations - probably the latter. I think there was another entry on this side as well - a lintel was visible...

So...  my understanding is that there are basically three types of bunker in the Atlantic wall, gun/machine gun type, ammunition store type, and observation tower....  the observation towers are tall, thinnish structures which doesn't match this one, and I couldn't think why they would build an ammunition bunker, without another (gun type) bunker close by so the type is pretty much a no brainer...  as to what was in it, some kind of field gun I think as it's a bit overkill for a machine gun. I'd guess some type of captured French artillery?? One of their soixante quinzes? Any input gratefully received...

That was a really interesting half hour - tracing those shuttering marks on the side and you are touching history, not much imagination required to picture what it must have been like at the time building this monster......

....for all the difference it made though, this kind of sums it all up really....