The Needles Battery sits at the western end of the Island, in a dramatic position overlooking the Needles, the western Solent and the English Channel.
Many fortifications around the Island and in the Solent are reminders of the strategic importance of the area, but the Needles Battery is a particularly stunning and well maintained testament to British engineering and military thinking. There are essentially three phases to the use of this area as a military facility – the old battery, the new battery, and the site as a rocket testing ground.
In its development, so well preserved and presented, the battery lays out the history of the threats we have faced over the last 200 years, and the innovation and courage we have used to confront them.
The first battery on the site came about as a result of the 1860 Defence Act and was completed by 1863, with six guns installed. In 1903 there was an upgrade to the armament and the original guns were disposed of by throwing them over the cliff! However, this was a blessing in disguise for the historian because eventually all the guns were retrieved, and several are on display at the battery.
It was protected by a combination of a huge ditch and the steepness of the surrounding hillside. One officer, two NCOs, and 21 soldiers lived and worked in this relatively confined space. The site was used to experiment with various methods of defence and attack, including early forms of searchlight and in 1913 the country’s first Anti-Aircraft Gun. An additional line of defence was also installed to protect against torpedo boats.
The New Battery was completed by 1895. It housed three large guns which weighed 28 tons each. Each gun needed 11 men to operate it. Inside the complex there were a variety of buildings which included housing, mess hall, a signal post and other administrative offices. Essentially it was like a small village, a self-contained community.
In 1918 the battery was mothballed only to be re-activated on the outbreak of war. It closed again in 1945, but it was not until 1954 that the guns were eventually removed.
An interesting footnote to the working life of the battery came with its use by Saunders and Roe for testing the Black Knight and Black Arrow rocket engines. The National Trust bought the site in 1975 and still runs it.
The Island has many reminders of wars and battles through the ages. There are many sites of fortification ranging from Carisbroke Castle to Roman remains, through to the boatyards of Cowes and gun implacements dotted all around the coast. None however can equal the Needles Battery for dramatic situation or beauty of location. The battery is well worth a visit and as you walk it’s worth just reflecting on the lives of the men who served there in peace and war. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/needles-old-battery-and-new-battery.