A lesser-known British Colonial outpost, Ascension Island could be the secret lair of a Bond villain. It is a dormant volcano, approximately 88 square kilometres in size, 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa; and more often than not these days is surrounded by sharks. There is no indigenous population; inhabitants come on strict work visas, often with spouses and children in tow. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) rebroadcast the World Service from here; the European Space Agency (ESA) track their spacecraft after launch from here; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) track space debris from here; and the audacious Black Buck raids of 1982 were staged from here. Rumour even has it that the first spoken words from Neil Armstrong on the moon were received here before being relayed to Cape Canaveral. And still, many people haven’t heard of Ascension.
I researched this article retrospectively after a brief trip to Ascension Island towards the end of 2021 where I was blown away by the number of artefacts remaining. In retrospect, I have missed some key information that would have helped me identify some of the ordnance around the Island! I have made some identifications based on geometry and visual comparison; and while I am confident in most, there may be some of you reading this that can glean further information on the items I present. If this is the case, please get in touch with me. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
The ascension of artillery
Despite being discovered over 300 years earlier by the Portuguese (c. 1501), and subsequently dismissed for colonisation, the British Navy realised the strategic importance of this cinder island in 1815. After the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte on 15 July 1815, the decision was taken to exile the former Emporer and his entourage on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Both Napoleon and the British were concerned that a French rescue mission might be launched, so plans were set afoot to discourage any foreign navy from doing just that. Part of these plans included garrisoning Ascension; what was thought to be a strategic staging post for any rescue expedition. And on 22 October 1815 the stone warship HMS Ascension was razed in the name of King George III.
Although numerous guns had been positioned at various locations throughout the island since the start of the British occupation, these were rarely maintained and highly deficient. Had an adversary truly wanted to seize Ascension from the British during the 1800s, they most likely would have succeeded with relative ease.Ascension Island and the Second World War, Chapter 2 – British Settlement, David Fontaine Mitchell, 2010 (Download)
Almost immediately the island was claimed, cannons were landed and the first two batteries were constructed. I can not find any specification for this ordnance, but they were likely to have been removed from the Brigs of War HMS Zenobia and HMS Peruvian, two ships that escorted HMS Redpole to Saint Helena carrying Napoleon. 1http://berryhillsturgeon.com/Research/NapWar/Naval/AdmBerkeley-FrenchRascal.html This flotilla was under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, who would later give his name to one of the permanent artillery batteries on the island.
Both HMS Zenobia (1807-18352https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/HMS_Zenobia_(1807)) and HMS Peruvian (1808-18303https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/HMS_Peruvian_(1808)) were 18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloops armed with two 6-pounder bow guns and sixteen 32-pounder carronades. It is highly likely that the first guns to be dismounted onto Ascension were 32-pounders.
The 32-pounder carronade was a short-range cannon weighing 17 CWT (nearly 2 tons), designed to be shorter and utilise less gun powder per shot than the traditional 32-pounder cannon of the period. The design advantage of carronade guns was the low cannon-to-ball weight ratio; hugely important when mounting multiple guns on the deck of a warship. They were in service from the 1770s and were the last carronade to be in Royal Navy service in the 1820s. I don’t believe any of these guns remain on Ascension; above water anyway!
The locations for these first batteries were to the west end of Long Beach, near the later turtle ponds (known as Ricochet Battery); and on the high ground overlooking this area, on what would later become Fort Cockburn (and subsequently Fort Thornton).4Ascension Island Historical Society, Avis Part Two – http://heritage.org.ac It is important to remember that at this stage no facilities had been established on the Island. Locally sourced fresh water and food were still sought after, and no harbour facility had been constructed. Any landing on the island would have been in the form of men rowing in small boats to land on the main sandy beach; Long Beach (on the right of the image below). The guns at Ricochet Battery (possibly also named Fort Warren5https://www.ascension.gov.ac/map-marker/fort-cockburn)were just above the waterline, designed to skim and smash shot into the sides of small rowing vessels; while the guns mounted relatively high at Fort Cockburn would have been equipped to fire on ships further out.
There are also a number of 4-pounder 11 CWT cannons around Ascension. This type of gun was often used as a bow gun on Royal Navy vessels in the late eighteenth century, and it is feasible that a number were deposited on Ascension for defence. Of the three examples I could find, one had been buried vertically and was in use as a pivot for a larger cannon; a second that was on display at the Fort Hayes museum appeared badly corroded in such a way that it may also have been used as a carriage pivot at some stage, and the final gun is in the best state of preservation outside the Officer’s and Sergeant’s Mess at Travellers Hill Camp.
In 1828 there was a pirate attack on a nearby ship, and the garrison on Ascension was unable to react. This prompted the acquisition of two 18-pounders which were promptly deployed around the new harbour, with one cannon being mounted on top of the lime kiln. These were likely taken from naval ships and may have been either a short or long variant.
By 1829 there were proposals to mount seven 24-pounder guns on traversing platforms at Fort Cockbourne (sic) including a tower for 2 guns with associated magazines and a blockhouse.6National Archives MR 1/1771/12-14 This planning indicates the Admiralty’s intent to remain on Ascension and may have coincided with the arrival of Captain William Bate, a man who was instrumental in many of the changes to Ascension at the time. This work was likely carried out in 1830. All other traces of the 1815 Cockburn battery appear to have been destroyed during the next phase of development.
The Fort (Cockburn) commands the beaches both ways; they are almost the only accessible parts of the island. Indeed, such is its rugged nature, that a handful of men could defend it against numerous invaders.Picturesque views in the Island of Ascension, Lieutenant William Allen, 1835
Just after the middle of the nineteenth century (c. 1860) additional guns were deployed to what was then Goat Hill. This now provided flanking protection to enable the construction of a new pier to serve the Island. This was to become Fort Hayes.
Note: A reference on one website has a date of 1849 for 24-pounders being placed on Goat Hill (Fort Hayes) and Cross Hill (Fort Bedford). I can’t verify this date, but it would possibly push back the origins of Fort Hayes by at least 10 years. It would also mean that further updating of the ordnance happened in the 1860s when the 24-pounders were replaced with 7-inch RML (below).
Working from the chronology of the remaining cannon on the island, it is probable that this phase of development saw the introduction of 7-inch Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) cannon. I believe the two variants remaining are both 6.5-ton; a shorter muzzle gun than the 7-ton gun designed for coastal defence. At Fort Bedford are two Mark I guns; there is a single Mark III gun at the American Camp and a further two Mark III guns as gate guards at RAF Ascension.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century (c. 1880), Fort Cockburn was restyled and renamed Fort Thornton, and the upper floor of the original two-storey blockhouse was demolished.7https://www.ascension.gov.ac/map-marker/fort-cockburn As well as defensive improvements, the armaments of Forts Thornton and Hayes were upgraded to include more modern 6-inch Breech Loading (BL) guns. A third gun battery was also constructed on Cross Hill, overlooking Clarence Bay; this was Fort Bedford. One reference (Ascension Island Government) suggests that there were two new batteries constructed on Cross Hill, of which only Fort Bedford remains.
The nineteenth-century had seen huge developments in artillery design, most of which have been reflected in the evolution of the batteries on Ascension. The design of defence on the island had been mostly reactionary during that time; cannons being landed from ships to strategic points around the coast, only for their value to be realised later before permanent construction was undertaken.
The final fortification to be built on Ascension was a new Fort Bedford; a twin emplacement coastal artillery battery constructed on Cross Hill between 1903 – 1906, and one whose design would remain largely unchanged for the 50 years it saw service. It was armed with two 6-inch guns, subsequently removed in 1918, but these would likely have been 6-inch BL Mark VII; the naval gun of choice deployed in the coastal defence role around the British Empire.
I’ve not come across any reference to the decommissioning of the old Fort Bedford (equipped with 7-inch RML), but I think it is a fair assumption that when the new Fort Bedford (with two BL 6-inch guns) was commissioned the old fort was beyond practicable for use.
First World War
As the world was on the brink of war, defences around the world would be evaluated once again. While the strategic importance of Ascension would not have been overlooked, it doesn’t appear to have any further ordnance commissioned.
Reports indicate three well-armed batteries on Ascension in 1913:
|Location||BL 6-inch||QF 4.7-inch||QF 3-pounder||Maxim MG|
- Breech Loading 6-inch – Most probably a 6-inch Mark VII, the standard coastal artillery gun of the twentieth-century. It could fire 8 rounds per minute out to 13.4 km.
- Quick Firing 4.7-inch – A versatile quick firing gun that saw service in the Navy and Army between circa 1887 and 1939.8Link It was capable of firing up to 6 rounds per minute a range of 9 km.
- Quick Firing 3-pounder Hotchkiss – Adopted for use by the Navy in 1886 as the first of modern quick firing guns. It was replaced during the First World War, but it is likely the 3-pounders on Ascension remained the Hotchkiss design. It could fire 25 rounds per minute to a range of 4.5 km.
- Maxim Machine Gun – Used for the land defence of the fortifications, the Maxim was typically mounted on a two-wheeled carriage for rapid deployment. As smaller weapons, it is likely that the machine guns had their own store, and in Fort Hayes there may be such a garage by the main entrance. There are two possible machine gun emplacements on the perimeter of Fort Hayes.
The reserve magazine at Fort Hayes was stripped of ammunition and converted into an emergency hospital. While not truly subterranean, the choice of the magazine as a hospital would have ensured the greatest protection to the casualties in the event the island was subjected to shelling.
At the end of the war, all forts were decommissioned and their ordnance removed. Nearly 100 years after colonisation, Ascension Island had been disarmed. A small Royal Marine garrison remained on the Island until October 1922 when control was handed over from the military to the civilian Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC).
Second World War
Rather underwhelmingly, the Islands coastline remained unarmed until 1941 when Fort Bedford was rearmed. Having been removed from HMS Hood during a refit in Malta in 1934, two BL 5.5-inch Mark I guns were transported to, and installed in the then abandoned fort. There was an exciting engagement with a German U-boat in 1941, but other than what transpired to be a dastardly diversion by the enemy, the single coastal defence battery of Ascension remained inactive. Fort Bedford was finally closed stripped of ammunition in 1953, but the guns remained.
In part due to the rise of air power and the emergence of nuclear deterrence, coastal artillery was dead. On 31 December 1956, the UK disbanded all Coastal Artillery regiments.
Exploring the sites (2021)
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit many interesting places with interesting histories. Ascension definitely ranks among the top for rarity and richness of heritage. During a visit in 2021, I had the opportunity to explore some of the remaining defensive sites around this relatively small and inhospitable place. I wasn’t fully aware before I went of the extent of defences, but as my knowledge grew the available memory card space reduced. I have selected some of the most descriptive images to help tell the story of each battery as it remains today.
What remains of the forts is scattered around the capital, Georgetown. A colonial town, much of the architecture and history here is related to the pre-1922 era when the Island was governed by the Royal Navy. Building materials are scarce, so concrete use is limited and many of the large structures are constructed from blocks of pumice.
Fort Warren / Ricochet Battery (1815 – )
Not much remains of the small battery known as Ricochet Battery, but I believe this wall is part of the perimeter of the battery. A small ammunition locker is also purported to remain but I was unable to look for it on this visit.
Fort Cockburn (1815 – 1880) / Thornton (c. 1880 – )
Fort Hayes is billed as the best-preserved fort on Ascension, but Fort Thornton shouldn’t be written off so quickly. Arguably the presence of the lower half of a mid-C19 blockhouse which includes a sunken reservoir should make this small fort a contender. The last conflict which saw this fort armed was the First World War, and as a result, the holdfasts remaining are testament to the last guns mounted on them.
At the front of the fort is a holdfast for a 6-inch Mark I BL gun, the same as that found at Fort Hayes. As is conventional with guns of this calibre, there are ready use ammunition lockers, access for both the shell and cartridge lifts from the main magazine below. The magazine would have been added at the time the 6-inch guns were mounted and are also conventional of the era for the guns; a shell store, shifting lobby leading to a cartridge store, each with their respective lifts (not present) and a lighting corridor for the cartridge store.
There are also three smaller gun positions around the fort, each with two ready use ammunition lockers. These are probable 3-pounder gun positions; although in the 1913 roll of armaments, only two appear to have been mounted.
There are a number of other recesses in the curtain wall of the fort (annotated B on the map below), which may have held lighter armaments at one time. A number of lightweight bolts remain in some of them, but in no discernable pattern to identify the weapon mounted at one stage. These may have been for Maxim machine guns, but I can not confirm this.
All of the photographs below can also be viewed on Flickr along with lots more.
6-inch BL Emplacement
3-pounder QF Emplacements
Blockhouse and QF Magazine
Fort Hayes (Goat Hill)
Fort Hayes could be considered the primary fortification on Ascension between the demise of Fort Thornton and the end of the First World War. Perhaps not a great accolade, but the fort has some very nice features. At the end of its operational life, it was armed with a 6-inch BL Mark I gun and two 4.7-inch QF guns; the holdfasts and positions remain for all of these. The main magazine is centrally located and caters for the 6-inch and one of the 4.7-inch QF guns. Considering the labour involved to remove a large portion of the top of Goat Hill to create the fort, the tunnelling required to create the magazine is another feat altogether.
A second magazine exists to the rear of the fort which served the second 4.7-inch QF gun. Each of the 4.7-inch QF emplacements retains its holdfasts and two ready-use ammunition lockers around the base.
To the rear of the fort are two smaller emplacements, this time without ammunition lockers or full holdfasts. These may have mounted smaller weapons on pedestal mounts; perhaps including the two Maxim machine guns listed in the roll of 1913. These have been annotated as [A] on the plan below.
There is also what seems to be a firing step around the perimeter of the fort; enabling soldiers to move inside the fort freely and then step up to fire over the wall.
All of the photographs below can also be viewed on Flickr along with lots more.
6-inch BL Emplacement
4.7-inch QF Emplacements
Range Finder Pillar
The magazine at Fort Hayes houses artefacts from the Islands history. It is run and maintained by the Ascension Historical Society, and they can give tours of the fort by prior arrangement. There are some great original features such as the copper (non-sparking) frames around the lamp recesses and wooden door frames.
A second magazine was constructed in Fort Hayes to serve the second 4.7-inch QF gun to the rear of the fort.
I’m not sure when the reserve magazine was constructed, but it may have been at the same time as the fort itself, in the second half of the C19. There are three large vaulted rooms that would have held shells and propellants to supplement the smaller magazines beside the guns.
The magazine was emptied of ammunition during the First World War and it was converted to become an emergency hospital. It is now part of the Fort Hayes museum and artefacts from the Islands history are displayed here and maintained by the Ascension Island Historical Society.
The interior of the magazine has a split flooring; half being cast concrete and the other half of each room covered in wooden boards. I’ve not seen this before and can’t think of any specific purpose other than to provide a non-sparking surface for the storage of sensitive propellant in cartridges.
Fort Bedford (c. 1880 – )
It’s unlikely these guns have remained in-situ since their installation 140 years ago. The surrounding structures have certainly been demolished such as magazines, stores and shelter for the crew. What does remain, however, are two semi-circular emplacements, with a type-D pivot9Reference, front and rear racers, as well as traversing platforms and carriages. Metal fixings are still present on the inside of the parapet for the block and tackle to facilitate traversing the guns and also resetting the carriage to the forward position for firing.
All of the photographs below can be viewed on Flickr along with lots more.
New Fort Bedford (1903 – 1953)
I think Fort Bedford is a great example of an early C20 coastal artillery fort. It survived two iterations without much disruption to the original layout and construction; the original two 6-inch BL guns, and the latter 5.5-inch BL naval guns which remain in-situ. Along with each gun comes a subterranean shell store and cartridge store, each a carbon copy of each other.
Attached to each shell store is what may be a crew shelter, accessed by steps from the surface.
A Battery Observation Post with a rangefinding pillar sits slightly higher than the fort and is constructed in a less conventional style using local pumice cut into blocks. This is supplemented by two pillars in the middle of the fort, likely for each of the individual guns rangefinder to ensure accurate laying.
All of the photographs below can be viewed on Flickr along with lots more.
5.5-inch BL Emplacement
Did someone shoot at Fort Bedford?
There is some considerable damage to the front of one of the 5.5-inch shields. They are not the same as those on HMS Hood but have been fitted during the 1941 installation of the guns on Ascension.
There are a total of 6 bullet holes in the steel shield; three appear to be small arms such as .303″ and three are much larger, perhaps 20mm solid shot. How they got here I don’t know, but I’m sure there’s a good story.
Magazine (Cartridge Store)
Magazine (Shell Store)
Battery Observation Post
When living on an island 1,000 miles from the nearest continental landfall getting items on and off becomes a logistical challenge. It is no wonder that most of the ordnance that has been installed on Ascension Island was never removed after reaching the end of its effective operational life. Much was dumped in the sea, only to have been washed ashore or discovered by divers a century later. This section records as many of those items as I could find during my brief stay on the island.
You can also view this album on Flickr.
Bonus: 7-pounder Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) Mountain Gun
Technically not a coastal artillery piece, but I couldn’t leave out this beauty. A comparatively small 7-pounder gun, 200 lbs variant, on a mountain carriage dating from around 1870-1880 sits out the front of the old Marine Barracks in Georgetown (constructed c. 1830). Prior to the installation of the clock tower firing of the gun would have signalled the hour.
- 4Ascension Island Historical Society, Avis Part Two – http://heritage.org.ac
- 6National Archives MR 1/1771/12-14