Castles, forts and batteries: how Cornwall was defended through time from the land, the sea and the air.

 


How Cornwall Was Defended Through Time

Although Cornwall’s history cannot be said to be especially bloody many buildings and monuments survive which were constructed during times of danger or in response to hostility and war.  We have mapped numerous defensive fortifications from aerial photos, especially sites from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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The Map of cornwall links to the follwing pages:
Medieval Castles
Threat from the Sea
Civil War
Into the Modern Era
Second World War

Restormel Castle.  An eleventh century ringwork castle with a thirteenth century shell keep. Photo © English Heritage. NMR23511/11 Restormel Castle. An eleventh century ringwork castle with a thirteenth century shell keep. Photo © English Heritage. NMR23511/11

 

Six thousand years ago during the Neolithic period large hill top enclosures were built at several places. These tor enclosures, as they are known, are generally thought to have been ceremonial sites and symbols of cultural identity. Their hill top locations and the substantial stony banks which surrounded them suggest that they may also have served as defended refuges in times of conflict. One of them, at Carn Brea near Camborne, was the scene of a major battle after which the enclosure was no longer used.

 

Similarly the large enclosures of the Iron Age, hillforts and cliff castles, may also have served as defended strongholds although they also were used in other ways as well.  Certainly some castles were defended sites. The earliest medieval castles were fortified strongholds built by Norman Lords in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and provided protection from neighbouring hostile groups in a politically unstable realm. These castles were powerful symbols of the feudal system and were used as bases for troops to keep order in the surrounding countryside. Some later castles, however, dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were little more than fortified houses. These later castles can be seen as status symbols of their owners rather than as strongholds or administrative centres.

 

Cornwall’s position guarding the western approaches to the Channel was of enormous strategic importance and from the sixteenth century onwards many phases of coastal defence building were undertaken in response to successive threats from abroad.

 

St Mawes Castle, one of a pair of Device Forts built by Henry VIII to guard the approaches to Falmouth harbour. On the shore below the castle is a blockhouse (a small artillery fort) designed to attack any ships that managed to slip under the first line of defence. Photo: Jeanette Ratcliffe St Mawes Castle, one of a pair of Device Forts built by Henry VIII to guard the approaches to Falmouth harbour. On the shore below the castle is a blockhouse (a small artillery fort) designed to attack any ships that managed to slip under the first line of defence.  Photo: Jeanette Ratcliffe

 

During the first half of the sixteenth century, when England’s coasts were subjected to French raids, Henry VIII built a string of artillery forts, known as blockhouses, stretching from Scilly in the west to Mount Edgcumbe in the east and at the same time the deep water harbour at Falmouth was protected with two larger fortresses at Pendennis and St Mawes.

 

Elizabeth I, faced with the increasing hostility of Spain, strengthened the fort at Pendennis by adding a massive bastioned earthwork, and commissioned the construction of Star Castle on Scilly. These fortifications were enhanced during the eighteenth century, when many of the nationally important defences on St Mary’s, Scilly’s main island, were built.

 

There was further internal conflict with the outbreak of Civil War in the middle of the seventeenth century. Cornwall was held by Royalist forces and there are a number of battlefield sites in east Cornwall. During the conflict many fortifications were re-used, including medieval castles, Tudor forts, even Iron Age hillforts. However most of the defences built during the Civil War were earthworks and few survive today.

 

Fort Picklecombe. This was a two-tier granite battery built on the shoreline during the 1860s as part of the programme of fort building carried out by Lord Palmerston. It is now in use as a waterside hotel. Photo courtesy of Palmerston Forts Society Fort Picklecombe. This was a two-tier granite battery built on the shoreline during the 1860s as part of the programme of fort building carried out by Lord Palmerston. It is now in use as a waterside hotel. Photo courtesy of Palmerston Forts Society

The threat of invasion by France at the end of the eighteenth century led to the rearming of existing coastal fortifications, the building of a series of redoubts at Maker Heights, overlooking Plymouth Sound, and the construction of a new coastal battery on St Anthony Head to bolster the defences of Falmouth.

 

In the second half of the nineteenth century advances in naval technology and the re-emergence of a threat from France led to a major phase of fort construction in Cornwall. These Victorian forts were designed for the defence of the naval base at Plymouth and are known as Palmerston Forts, after the Foreign Secretary of the time.

 

The Great War of 1914-1918 brought further re-arming of coastal defences and the construction of a major airship station on the Lizard which operated as an anti-submarine base.

 

Whitesand Bay: one of the Palmerston forts built for the defence of Plymouth docks in the late nineteenth century. The fort was re-used during the First and Second World Wars and is now a holiday park. The chalets on the cliffs below were used to house evacuees from the heavy bombardment of Plymouth during early 1941. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Whitesand Bay: one of the Palmerston forts built for the defence of Plymouth docks in the late nineteenth century. The fort was re-used during the First and Second World Wars and is now a holiday park. The chalets on the cliffs below were used to house evacuees from the heavy bombardment of Plymouth during early 1941. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Military installations from the Second World War were widespread and were constructed on a prodigious scale. Many of them are recorded on RAF aerial photographs taken after the war by air crews awaiting their return to civilian life. The development of aviation meant that Cornwall had to face the threat from the air as well as the sea. This new threat included aerial bombardment – and thousands of bombs fell on Cornwall in 1940 and 1941 – and airborne landings of enemy troops. Several military airfields were constructed to counter the threat from the air and anti-aircraft guns were stationed around key strategic targets such as Falmouth docks. Decoy sites, laid out to resemble airfields and towns by night, were placed in open country to try and fool the German bombers.

 

Ports were heavily defended and beaches were mined and protected by barbed wire, gun emplacements and pillboxes in readiness to meet the expected seaborne invasion force. The speed of twentieth century warfare meant that if a landing was successful it would be followed by a rapid advance through the countryside. The whole of Cornwall became a fortress, with fortified lines of pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles and defended road blocks.

 

Maker Heights, overlooking Plymouth Sound.  Two earthwork redoubts (enclosed defensive works) built in the 1770s lie towards the top left of this photo.  Towards the centre and lower right are the remains of two more eighteenth century redoubts.  In the top right corner is a Victorian battery, and on the site of the 1770s redoubts is a Second World War camp. This provided accommodation for the crew of an anti-aircraft battery whose gun emplacements are the horse-shoe arrangement of mounds in the upper centre of the photo. This view is a good example of how many of the defensive sites in Cornwall were strengthened, re-armed and re-used during successive periods of conflict. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: CPE/UK/1890/2137 Maker Heights, overlooking Plymouth Sound. Two earthwork redoubts (enclosed defensive works) built in the 1770s lie towards the top left of this photo. Towards the centre and lower right are the remains of two more eighteenth century redoubts. In the top right corner is a Victorian battery, and on the site of the 1770s redoubts is a Second World War camp. This provided accommodation for the crew of an anti-aircraft battery whose gun emplacements are the horse-shoe arrangement of mounds in the upper centre of the photo. This view is a good example of how many of the defensive sites in Cornwall were strengthened, re-armed and re-used during successive periods of conflict. © English Heritage (NMR) RAF Photography: CPE/UK/1890/2137

In the event the invasion never came and after 1941 British forces moved onto the offensive. Attacks on German shipping and on the occupied ports of France were mounted from Cornwall’s airfields. Later the airfields expanded and became the jumping off points for aircraft, troops and supplies being ferried to the war zones of Africa and the Mediterranean. In 1944 thousands of troops, tanks and equipment were shipped from specially constructed embarkation points in Cornwall to the beaches of Normandy as part of the Allied invasion of mainland Europe. In the months leading up to D Day, the first day of the invasion, these troops were housed in tents forming makeshift camps which lined the roads around Truro and Chacewater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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