14 December 2011

The Thames Sea Forts - From War Machines to Eco Warriors

What do you do with a number of rusty old seventy year old sea forts that still tower above the waves once they have done their job? The possibilities are huge if not quite endless.

Who do you think you are kidding, Mister Hitler? went the song, if you think old England’s done? And England certainly wasn’t an island ready to give up in the darkest days of the Second World War. The country came up with a number of strange but hopefully effective ways of defending itself. One of the most striking was the concept of the Maunsell Sea Fort. Today, their remnants slowly molder, obeying the laws of entropy. Is it too late to stop them from sinking to a watery grave and give them a new lease of life?

The Maunsell Sea Forts occupied positions in the Thames and the Mersey estuaries during World War Two. The rivers were vital in terms of transporting food and the vital equipment needed to sustain the beleaguered island and were designed to protect the two most important ports in the United Kingdom – those of London and Liverpool. The ones designed for anti-aircraft defence, such as those pictured, remain by far the most striking. Although people are strongly advised not to enter on safety grounds, you can still see the ladders at the base of the far one – an invitation to the foolhardy seafarer.

Britain wasn’t going down with a fight and designer Guy Maunsell was up to the challenge. As France fell to the Nazis the Germans were beginning, with frightening regularity, to target the Allied ships in the Channel. Moreover, enemy planes were finding that their route to London Docks was unhampered by much resistance. The Admiralty sought out Maunsell and demanded that he create five new sea forts. The foundations were sunk in to the seabed in a way that allowed the movement of shingle and sand around them.

Seven steel platforms, interconnected, carried five guns in a semi-circle. At the middle of the diameter of this semi-circle there was the control tower. The seventh structure was for a searchlight. In their heyday they must have been something to behold. The design of the towers above water was based very much on the gun batteries found on shore.

It was a proven design and would enable the towers to be defended with a greater degree of success. If you are worried about how the men would get between the forts then don’t. There was a system of sturdy, tubular steel walkways between the towers that ensured no unfortunate plunged in to the sea.

From a distance they do not look very large. However, take a look at the amount of windows that overlook the sea on two floors (with what looks like pretty high ceilings). The forts were decommissioned in the 1950s, due to their deteriorating condition and an accident (a collision with a Norwegian ship which killed four people). So, what to do with them once their military job was over? The Maunsell designs were used extensively in the development of drilling platforms and offshore fuel exploration. The forts themselves were the blueprint for the very first offshore oil platform – situated in the Gulf of Mexico – before 1950. For this very reason alone they are artifacts of immense historical significance. Discarding them would be something akin to throwing away an Apple Lisa because you have an iPad 2.

Preservation had not been something taken seriously until early in the new century. Before that they had been used for a variety of activities, such as pirate radio in the nineteen sixties and the establishment of the Principality of Sealand in the same decade. Since 2003, however, serious talks have been held between concerned parties and the Government Agencies that have overall responsibility for the towers.

Project Redsand was set up to try and rehabilitate and preserve the Redsand Towers. These had the code name ‘Uncle Six’ during the war and it was these towers which were chosen as they are the nearest to land and safely away from the main shipping lanes (so another unfortunate accident can be avoided in the future).

With all such projects, things move terribly slowly and the government is still pondering on whether or not to make the Redsands Towers a listed building (which would give it protection under law in the United Kingdom). However, a new safe access system has been installed and materials to assist the project are being slowly but surely donated. Meanwhile the people behind the project are applying for grants to help with the restoration project. This will be done by the formation of a Charitable Trust.

Each tower on the fort will be restored one by one – and it is hoped that when each one is complete it will be put to immediate use. There are many ideas about what the towers may become – foremost it is hoped that they could be used by marine biologists from which to conduct experiments, such as the effect of global warming on local marine ecosystems.

Until then the living quarters are somewhat limited in terms of luxury! It is hoped, however, that there will also be the facility to experiment on researching a way to withdraw hydrogen from seawater on a large scale basis. Other ideas have been posited. There may well be a wartime museum or even, as in the sixties, a broadcasting system installed.

Their uses are almost on an endless ‘answers on a postcard’ basis. Other ideas have been that they could be used for assault training. On a rather more peaceful basis, it has been suggested that exclusive corporate events and weddings could be held on the towers. Whatever the final (and possibly varied) use of the separate towers it is hoped that the forts will generate enough money to ensure that in the future they can effectively protect itself. In the meantime you can still take a trip around the forts – for a small fee.

England may have seen off the threat of Hitler many years ago. It can only be hoped now that these remarkable sea forts can fend off time and disinterest in the same successful manner.

As a footnote – we do know that Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mister Hitler was a pastiche of a war time song, created especially for the TV sitcom Dad’s Army. Just thought we would point that out before you start making comments!