Fort Regent siege guns

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This article by William Davies was first published in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise in 1987

Rusted remnants of gun carriages

When the transformation of Fort Regent into a leisure centre commenced in 1968, rusted remnants of gun carriages lying among the weeds on the neglected ramparts of the west curtain excited no particular interest. On 3 August 1970 the builders engaged upon structural alterations unearthed three gun barrels buried in a small mound on the southern part of the west bastion.

It did not take much research to relate the guns to the carriages, which then took on a new significance and initiated a fruitless hunt for the missing wheels. With the help of the assistant secretary of the Historical Section of the Royal Artillery Institution it was established that this find was of more than little significance, since the particular pattern of gun has a unique place among the ordnance of the British Army.

The art of rifling a gun barrel had long been understood, but it was not until the 1850s or thereabouts that consideration was given to applying it to ordnance as opposed to small arms. Further, at that time not only was all ordnance smooth bore, it was also muzzle-loading; that is to say, it was necessary for the crew to move to the front of the gun to load. This was an unpleasant hazard for the gunners who might offer exposed targets to an enemy during this tedious operation.

The guns found at Fort Regent are unique on two counts. Firstly, they are rifled; and secondly, they are breech-loading. They are dated 1863, which places them among the earliest pattern of rifled breech-loading (RBL) ordnance to be put into service with the British Army, and as such present perhaps the most significant advance in artillery since the days of the Plantagenets and Tudors.

The leading exponents, certainly in Britain, of rifled and breech-loading ordnance were Sir William Armstrong and Sir Joseph Whitworth. Later their respective companies were brought together as Armstrong-Whitworth, and subsequently as Vickers-Armstrong, but initially these men worked independently and in great rivalry.

Although the intentions were identical, their approaches and methods were entirely different. The 40 pdr RBL guns discovered at Fort Regent are Armstrong's pattern, manufactured between the years 1860 and 1864 by Sir W G Armstrong and Company at the Elswick works near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

A drazwing of a 40-pounder siege gun carriage from the Royal Artillery Institution

Muzzle loading favoured

Surprising as it may seem, breech-loading guns were not looked upon favourably by the warlords of the day (including experienced Gunnery Officers), and in 1864 manufacture of all ordnance reverted to traditional muzzle-loading. On the face of it, more than one hundred years later, this seems to have been a retrograde step, but there were reasons.

It could not be denied that breech-loading, compared with muzzle-loading, introduced a new mechanism not previously encountered in artillery which could - certainly did in the pioneering days - go wrong. Among other things, it was argued that jammed or faulty breeches, putting a gun out of action until a repair had been effected, created greater risks to the crews than the exposure necessitated by muzzle-loading: this regardless of the possible effect on the tum of the battle.

Additionally, such mechanism also required careful maintenance, and a certain amount of engineering skill previously unnecessary had to be acquired by the gunners. This in tum resulted in more detailed and lengthy training when compared with muzzle¬loading crews.

It was also established that an efficient crew could obtain a faster rate of fire with muzzle-loaders, simply because the early breech mechanisms were heavy and cumbersome.

Further, the guns themselves were more expensive to manufacture, while the supply of essential spares that had to accompany any expedition where the guns were employed, generated complicated store-keeping problems not applicable to muzzle¬loaders. So, breech-loading went out of fashion as quickly as it came in until it was re-introduced in 1880 or thereabouts.

In retrospect, the decision to abandon breech-loading ordnance in 1864 probably was a wise one, though Armstrong, Whitworth and others continued with their experiments, gradually ironing out the failings of the original designs. When breech-loading was reintroduced, it was a much more complicated and sophisticated arrangement in every respect, but it also was very much more reliable.

The immediate advantage over muzzle-loading was more apparent in ships rather than on land: the tremendous strides in naval design that followed the passing of wooden walls in tum demanded revolutionary changes in armament.

Muzzle-loading (always a nuisance on ships because the guns had to be withdrawn inboard from their ports to gain access to the muzzle), became quite impractical on the modem fighting ship, and almost certainly it was Admiralty requirements that brought breech-loading back into favour.

Naval use

Indeed, it is fairly certain that Armstrong's 40 pdr RBLs originally were intended for naval use, which might well account for their unwieldiness when mounted on a conventional carriage. Understandably, though, with improved efficiency and reliability in the breech mechanism, the Army eventually followed suit, but that was approaching a quarter of a century after the manufacture of the Fort Regent guns.

In War Department jargon the Fort Regent guns are catalogued as Siege, RBL, 40 Pdr, 6 Ft Parapet, 35 cwt, Mark 1. That is to state they were the first pattern weighing 35 cwt; are rifled breech-loaders firing a 40 lb projectile, and explicitly designated for siege purposes to fire over a protective parapet six feet high.

The specified height of the parapet suggests a permanent fortification rather than hastily prepared field works, while the definition 'siege' also implies a permanent fortification such as Fort Regent. But a siege could be offensive or defensive and if the former, the necessary artillery would have to be transported to the beleaguered spot.

In either event this suggests that, as siege guns, they were not required to be mobile in the sense of a Field Battery, which advanced or retired according to the dictates of battle. They were primarily static weapons in practice, though capable of (comparatively) easy movement when necessary.

The height of the Fort Regent guns - more than seven feet overall - demanded an unusual carriage design resulting in an ungainly stilted appearance, since the gun barrel in the firing position is four feet above the axle of the carriage. This is contrary to conventional field gun practice which strives to keep the gun (the heaviest individual part) as close to the axle-tree as reasonably possible for the sake of stability on the move. It resulted in siege guns inevitably being 'ugly duckling' pieces of artillery.

Top heavy guns

ecause of the requirement to master a high parapet, it was unavoidable that the guns would be top-heavy laterally to an extent that would easily capsize them on irregular ground. This was readily understood and, in fact, the guns were lowered from their firing positions for transport, the trunnions resting in shoes further down the trail.

This effectively lowered the centre of gravity by an appreciable amount, but they were still unwieldy pieces on anything but prepared ground, further indicating that most probably they were intended originally for sea service on fixed mountings.

Siege guns were frequently provided with limbers, suggesting that when moved they were towed complete by horses in the conventional manner. It is difficult to be precise about the Fort Regent guns in regard to limbers, since none have been found, while once in position there would be no need for them.

The pattern of carriage in either case (designated: Without limber or Travelling complete) was identical, but there were refinements in practice, which the ravages of time have eradicated. On balance, it seems fair to suggest that the guns on display were without limbers.

The limbers for these guns, when supplied, were fitted with three ammunition boxes labelled succinctly near, off and centre, and the total laden weight was 13 cwt. It is apparent that when limbered up the 40 pdr RBL siege gun weighed about two and a half tons. But that was not all: there was a two-wheeled wagon equipped to carry a spare wheel and two further ammunition boxes.

Four smaller boxes were attached to the underside; one to carry a grease tin (for the breech mechanism, no doubt), and three for horseshoes and nails. The laden weight of this wagon was 35 cwt and was pulled by two horses abreast.

Although the Fort Regent guns are the 35 cwt Mark 1 pattern, Sir W G Armstrong and Company also manufactured a 32 cwt version, which was probably the prototype. The additional weight of the model introduced into service was brought about mainly by a more robust breech mechanism.

It is not possible to state how long the guns lay buried before their discovery in 1970.

The last regular infantry unit of the British Army was withdrawn from Fort Regent in 1927 (though an RE detachment still was present in 1932) and it is feasible that they were interred when the garrison left, it being argued that they no longer retained any military value.

Hidden from Germans

By then they were 70 years old and must surely have been regarded as antique pieces, even by British standards. On the other hand, it is more likely that they were hastily concealed in 1940 when the German occupation was imminent. Much of the Atlantic Wall defensive system created by the Germans in World War II was equipped with ordnance taken in occupied countries: Happily, these special pieces escaped their notice.

No attempt was made to conceal the carriages, and obviously, though surprisingly, they were of no interest to the Germans since they were still in place at the Fort rusting away 20 years after the war had ended. Nevertheless, their survival does raise an interesting question because there is no doubt that the Germans scoured the island for scrap metal. The Grand Battery of splendid Mediaeval guns at Elizabeth Castle was a victim of this measure and it is surprising that the carriages were overlooked.

Two carriages were discovered more or less intact; a third had been cut into two pieces, and so had a fourth, but only half of that one remained (a fourth gun has not been found). They were all badly rusted, but such was the quality of their manufacture that they remained structurally sound, though perhaps not sufficiently so for their original purpose.

Neither the guns nor the carriages are entirely complete. In the case of the former, the breeches lack certain pieces, while the gun sights are missing entirely. The carriages are without elevating gear, drag shoes and chains, but these are details which would not in any event have withstood the ravages of neglect over a long period.

The only remnant of the original wheels that was discovered is the section of a tire, ¬the metal hoop that protected the wooden rim. The Artillery Manual of the day called for the wheels to be 1st Class, Madras Pattern, 5 feet diameter, 4 inch tire, with a 2 inch dish.

The present wheels are of recent manufacture almost to these details, though not entirely so, nor to the original quality when finest English oak was insisted upon. There was no need to be so pemickety in the making of the new wheels, which are narrower and less robust than the originals, since they serve solely for display. Wheelwrights are scarce and their craft essentially an expensive one. Nevertheless, the present wheels would probably rate as 2nd Class in Army Manual terms, and as such would be acceptable for limbers and wagons.

Within the limits stated, these guns are authentic examples of the earliest rifted breech-loading ordnance to be put into service with the British Army. They are very rare, there being few others in existence, and it is doubtful if any are totally intact. This is not surprising if one considers that manufacture commenced only four years after the Crimean War.

The fact that subsequent wars resulted in the melting down of vast quantities of obsolete ordnance for the making of newer more destructive weaponry ensures that their preservation is all the more interesting and valuable. Jersey is fortunate to possess three such examples; two at Fort Regent and a third on display at Elizabeth Castle.

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