Defence of the Empire 1756-1956

Britain’s Island Fortresses; Defence of the Empire 1756-1956. By Bill Clements, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

Scattered throughout the former British Empire ‘on which the sun never set’ lie huge weathered   guns pointing out to sea, some standing mute but proud in their original fortresses, others bedraggled and ignored. All were placed in their locations to defend British island colonies from assault from the sea. The mighty fortresses at Hong Kong and Singapore were the only ones to be tested in battle and they failed against innovative tactics overwhelming them from an unexpected quarter.

As the Empire expanded, its sea lines of communication came under the protection of the peerless Royal Navy. Logistic support needs for RN ships in the days of sail were minimal. Ships’ endurances were only limited by access to fresh water and provisions. Maintenance was carried out by ships’ companies careening and repairing hulls and rigging. Towards the end of the 18th century, following the loss of the American colonies and wars with France, Spain and the Netherlands, Britain’s empire comprised Canada, India and West Indies. The Bermuda Islands were strategic assets to defend against potential American attacks while St Helena was a replenishment port for passages to India.

The early 19th century saw more islands annexed by Britain including the major colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong. With the coming of steam the RN needed dockyards and coaling stations to support the far fleets. These bases were vulnerable to attack and seizure and a competition for resources arose between the army and navy for defence of these facilities. The navy claimed that, properly resourced, it could defend the Home islands and the overseas colonies. The army disputed this claiming Britain was at risk of continental invasion and could not adequately defend the colonies by ships alone. In the event the RN was upgraded to a ‘Two Nation Standard’ while the provision and maintenance of fixed defences was shared between the War Office, the Board of Ordnance and the Colonial Office. Upgrading the encroaching obsolescence of guns and fortresses in the late 19thcentury strained resources and were a constant source of tension between the respective authorities.  

Britain’s Island Fortresses provides a comprehensive description of the planning, siting, construction, armament and manning of the fortresses. Supported by numerous photographs, both historical and current, and original plans, the book also describes all the generations of fortress guns and a glossary of fortress artillery terms, many of which are derived from French.

The author, Bill Clements, is well qualified to write this book. A British Army battalion commander and military attaché his interests are centred on fortifications. This book is one of several he has written on this subject. He admits this book does not cover all the empire fortresses; Australia for example is not mentioned (although technically an ‘island’!).

The book’s introduction discusses the contemporary armoured warships, the fortress guns – from early muzzle loaders through breech loaders and later modified naval artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Fort and battery layout principles and submarine mining are also explained as is the labyrinthine Board of Ordnance and Defence Committees which oversaw the whole complex of fortresses.

Britain’s Island Fortresses examines the defences of Bermuda, Jamaica, St Helens, Antigua and St Lucia, Ceylon, Mauritius, Ascension Island, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Singapore chapter is of interest to Australian readers as it covers the building of the naval base and the guns and defences which were indeed ‘pointing out to sea’ and consequently were ineffective in defending the island against Japanese attacks from across the causeway from Malaya. 

This is a book for the specialist interests of fortress artillery, architecture and colonial history. While Britain’s Island Fortresses does not include Australia, our larger cities retain examples of the similar fortress architecture depicted in this book, largely in good order and available to be explored and enjoyed. For those with a penchant for Empire and its fortresses this book will equip you to identify barbettes, casemates, caponiers, machicolation and all the other features of the bastions of past imperial glory.      

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