British Coastal Defences of the Falkland Islands

While researching remnants of the 1982 Falklands conflict1TRIVIA – Events of 1982 remained a conflict because war was technically never declared by either side. I became aware of a far greater depth of twentieth century military history than I had expected. The Falkland Islands, in particular around the sheltered harbour of Stanley (also known as Port Stanley) have been the focus of British defences since before the First World War, providing safe anchorage for British warships and access to the South Atlantic and to warships attempting to return to mainland Europe via the perilous Cape Horn. This strategic importance was realised in late 1914 when the Battle of the Falklands saw British warships give chase to a small German fleet intent on retaliation and ultimately defeat them in the sea battle. In the 1940s the threat was from the Japanese which saw a rapid armouring of the Islands, much of which remains today. This article seeks to chart the development of land based coastal defences on the Falkland Islands primarily during the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 periods.

Background

Before I tackle the history of the coastal defences in the rest of the article, I think it’s important to understand the context of the Falkland Islands in relation to the rest of the world. Occupation of the Islands only date back to the late C18 and early C19 when after a series of claims to the islands, the British held out to assume control over the remote islands in the South Atlantic. Over 8,500 miles from mainland GB, control of the Falklands went a long way to securing shipping passing south around Cape Horn. And in an era when ruling the waves meant ruling the world, British possession of the islands was worth upholding.

As far as natural resources go, the islands have very little. Almost no crops can grow, the local stone is unsuitable for construction, sheep are about the only domesticated livestock that can survive. What this means is all building materials must be imported, along with fuel and food. There was little, if any local labour available for the construction of fortifications. Also consider movement around the islands; the fact that surfaced roads as we know them were not in place for the main periods of fortification, but any movement cross country is met with deep peat bogs and boulder fields. Terrain the soldiers of 1982 know all too well. Movement was quicker by sea, and I expect most of the movement of armaments from the ships to shore would have been direct to the destination and not via a land route.

And then there is the weather. Unpredictable and relentless.

Defences on the Falklands appear temporary, they are not build into cliff tops and encased in reinforced concrete. They have been hand build and guns hoisted into place using block and tackle and the skill of the sailors and crew who were tasked with moving the unwieldy ordnance across water and bog. And if the 1914 battleship diaries are anything to go by, they did it in a rushed attempt to prevent a German naval fleet from capturing the islands.

First World War

The defining event of the Islands role in the First World War was the Battle of the Falklands. The role that events around Stanley Harbour would play can’t be underestimated, and in particular that of HMS Canopus.

HMS Canopus was armed with four 12 inch Mark VIII breach loading (12″ Mk.VIII BL) guns, twin mounted in turrets fore (front) and aft (rear) on the ship; twelve 6 inch (6″) guns, six on each side in casemates; fourteen 12 pounders 12 CWT (12-pdr); two 12 pounder 8 CWT field guns and four 3 pounder (3-pdr) guns. There were six ships in the Canopus class; HMS Canopus, Albion, Glory, Goliath, Ocean and Vengeance. However, advances in technology in the 15 years since their construction meant that in 1914 the new Dreadnaught class battleships made the Canopus class ships somewhat outdated. With their formidable armament they could hold their own against most elements of German naval forces, even if they did not have sufficient speed. Acknowledging the shortcomings and strengths of HMS Canopus, a decision was made to beach the huge warship on shallow mud flats within Stanley Harbour and utilise the range and accuracy of the large arsenal of ordnance to protect the harbour.

The Canopus was moored head and stern in Stanley Harbour. Having beached just before high water and her double-bottom compartments being filled, she was immovable and made a solid gun platform. From this position we commanded the entrance with two of the 12-inch guns and four of the 6-inch and covered in the opposite direction a large arc to seaward over the intervening land.

My War at Sea 1914-1916: A captain’s life with the Royal Navy during the First World War, Heathcoat S. Grant

It was from this position that the Canopus fired the opening shots of the Battle of the Falklands, and as a result the German fleet abandoned their attempts to destroy the wireless station outside Stanley and possibly even capture the harbour. As British ships left Stanley in hot pursuit, the Battle of the Falklands spilled out into the South Atlantic and eventually led to a British naval success.

But as well as the formidable gun platform provided the Canopus, shore batteries were landed along the coast of Port William (the body of water outside Stanley Harbour) and Stanley between 14 – 26 November 1914. This was no mean feat as little machinery or even roads would have been available, the equipment being moved on wooden sleds, pulled by horses and men. And consider, each 12-pounder 12 CWT gun without mounting or ammunition (hundredweight = 50.8 kg) weighed 610 kilograms. Canopus deposited seven of these guns around the coast at:

  • Ordnance Point – three 12-pounders provided control over a minefield also laid by the ships company between Arrow Point and Yorke Point.
  • Hookers Point – single 12-pounder and a machine gun defending the southern approaches to Stanley around Cape Pembroke. This battery was also supplemented with 50 local volunteers.
  • Arrow Point – single 12-pounder covering the minefield in conjunction with the battery at Ordnance Point. This gun also had sight and fire into the entrance to Stanley Harbour and was used as a look-out.
  • Lake Point – two 12-pounders were sited on the entrance to Harriet Bay, this battery was the furthest from the harbour.
A 12-pounder (weight of the shell) 12 CWT (weight of the gun) was also referred to as a 3-inch Quick Firing (QF) gun

From the ships log it appears that the crew deployed to the land and man the batteries returned to the ship on 17 December 1914 before the battleship set sail the next day. I can find no record of the ordnance being recovered from these stations.


Two barrels reportedly from HMS Lancaster at the Stanley Museum © Frontline Ulster 2021

It wasn’t just Canopus that provided armament to the Islands. From ships logs2http://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-05-HMS_Lancaster.htm on HMS Lancaster, an armoured cruiser, it appears that it was this ship that dispatched the first two land-based 6″ guns to the Islands later in the war. When fully armed, the Lancaster had a compliment of two twin 6-inch Mk.VII BL guns and ten single Mk.VII guns.

Work started dismounting the guns from the ship on 15 January 1917 before they were landed and moved to Sapper Hill (one 6″ gun landed on 19 January) and Mount Low (one 6″ gun landed on 22 January). It appears the guns were ready for inspection on 9 February when the Lancaster weighed anchor and made for Punta Arenas.

The month previously (December 1916) the ship also landed 12-pounder guns and stores, but without note of their destinations. They were returned to the ship on 2 February 1917, so it is assumed that they were deployed for shore defence while the ship was in harbour.

Second World War

At the outbreak of war in 1939 the Falkland Islands were defended by the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF), a part-time militia based in Port Stanley. This force was around 14 officers and 440 other ranks in strength, with 1 officer and 62 other ranks on detached duty on South Georgia (supplemented by 1 Norwegian officer and 13 other ranks). It was nearly 3 years later before British troops would be sent to the Islands, surprisingly in response to a perceived threat from the Japanese. Based on a telegram received by the Governor on 4 May 1942, the British Government had decided to “send one British Infantry Battalion with (…) ancillary troops and aircraft (…) total strength around 1,500 certainly not more than 2,000.”3National Archives (Falkland Islands) WAR-W2G-1-1. Suggested garrison These troops would initially be garrisoned in temporary accommodation until a hunted camp could be completed. It was noted however that a coast defence detachment would be sent out at a later date.

With little detail of where the weapons came from, or when they were landed, but the coastal defences appeared to consist of:

  • Two Naval 6″ guns (Canopus and Sapper Hill)
  • One Naval 4″ gun (Mount Low)4During the war an additional 4″ Naval gun was added to the establishment.
  • Two 12-pdr guns (Charles Point)
  • Two 3-pdr guns (Ordnance Point, relocated from Tussac Point)5National Archives (Falkland Islands) WAR-W2G-1-24. Imperial troops. Withdrawal of garrison

Two Coast Defence Electric Light (CDEL) searchlights were also installed in 1941/42 to provide illumination to Port William and enable the engagement of targets at night.6National Archives (Falkland Islands) WAR-W2H-4-19. Defence electric lights for illumination of entrance to Port William The first full operational test of these lights was conducted on the night of 22/23 February 1942. While one battery of two lights was originally proposed at Cape Pembroke, it was eventually settled that one light would be installed at Charles Point Battery, and one at Ordnance Point Battery.

Each searchlight position comprised a Directing Station (DS), an Engine House (EH) running a Dorman diesel 4-cylinder engine coupled to a three-phase / 22 kW / 220 Ampere / 100 Volt DC / 1,000 RPM Mersey generating set and a single Electric Light Emplacement (ELE). They each had an illuminating arc of 166 degrees. After being placed into care and maintenance after the war the generating sets were leased to the local government and finally abandoned in 1954 after a local buyer could not be found. The Falklands treasury was charged £50 for the pleasure.

By April 1943 the War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting had agreed to consider the draw-down of troops in the South Atlantic. A reduction in the garrison of 62 officers and 1,372 other ranks was planned7National Archives CAB-79-26-36. However, the provision of a troopship or transport to remove the personnel had implications that needed considering and it was proposed to delay relief until early 1944. At this point the troops would have been garrisoned on the Islands for 18 months and concerns were raised that “conditions (…) were liable to cause deterioration in the efficiency of the Garrison.”8National Archives CAB-79-27-57

Less than 2 years later, in February 1945, the decision was made to withdraw the British garrison in the Falkland Islands in the coming months. At this late stage in the war it consisted of “an infantry company and certain other personnel totalling 182 other ranks.”9National Archives CAB-79-29-25 Once British troops had been withdrawn the Island defence would return to the Falkland Island’s Defence Force (FIDF) of around 400 part-time soldiers. Responsibility for Coastal Defence also returned to the FIDF, who manned all but the 3-pdr AMTB (Anti Motor Torpedo Boat) battery at Charles Point.10National Archives (Falkland Islands) WAR-W2H-4-19. Defence electric lights for illumination of entrance to Port William


Site Visits

It was by chance that on visiting the Falklands I stumbled across the extent of the military heritage from both 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 that remains, including a lot of ordnance. I was unable to visit all of the sites mentioned in the records I have since found, but those I did visit did not disappoint. I will try to detail and interpret what remains based on the documents and information previously referenced in the sections above.

Canopus Battery

Canopus Hill is so called after the battleship of the same name and lies to the east of Stanley Harbour on a small hill now overlooking the airfield. What remains is a battery of two 6″ Breech Loading (BL) Mk. VII guns manufactured in 1900 (No. 1230) and 1902 (No. 735) by Elswick Ordnance Company (EOC). These guns are likely to have come from HMS Lancaster who offloaded two of her 6″ BL guns in 1917.

At the start of 1942 there was only one gun situated at Canopus, the second 6″ BL being sited on Sappers Hill to the west of Stanley. After a proposal by the Gunnery Officer in the same year, I believe the gun was re-sited from Sappers Hill to Canopus. The Officer also noted that the original Canopus gun was not well sighted and he suggested it be relocated 50yds further up the hill, and that the Command Post and rangefinder were also too low and should be elevated. I am unsure if this work was completed but the guns now sit on the highest point of the hill (32m above sea level). When new 6″ supercharged ammunition was introduced in 1942, these guns had an impressive range of 15,000yds (13.7km).

The battery is situated on Canopus Hill and can be access either by parking along the road to the south or at the airport.

Battery Observation Post

A very low profile Battery Observation Post (BOP) situated on the land side of the battery and between the two guns. Inside the BOP the rangefinder would calculate distance and bearing to targets and the guns would be ordered to adjust and engage. The date of construction is unconfirmed but I would estimate during the 1942 rearming of the coastal defences. In the Gunnery Officer’s report of the same year, it was noted that the command post and the rangefinder may have been two different structures, but both were too low and an elevated platform position was reccomended. I didn’t find this location on my visit, and it may not have been constructed.

Often inside a BOP is a concrete plinth for the rangefinder, but there is no such plinth inside this structure. Perhaps given the scarcity of concrete a mobile mount was used instead.

Magazine

I believe this was the site for ammunition storage on Canopus Hill. Dug into the bedrock, the level of the magazine has been reduced to as not to impede the arc of fire, and also to protect them from enemy fire. Two distinct buildings may reflect the addition of the second gun in 1942; doubling the ammunition storage capacity. Ammunition contained in the magazine would not be considered “ready use” and both shells and propellant brought to the gun for an imminent action would have been stored much nearer the guns.

Ordnance Point Battery

A Quick Fire (QF) 4 inch Mk.IV naval gun on a pedestal mount at Ordnance Point, East Falkland. The gun has a range of 10,200 yards (9.3 km) and a rate of fire of 15-20 rounds per minute with an experienced crew.

In the 1942 Ordnance Officers report form the Falkland Islands, Ordnance Point was the site of a 3 pounder battery, but future work recommended the re-siting of the 4″ gun on Mount Low. This was dependant on two additional 6″ guns being delivered to the islands. This will have taken place in 1943 at the earliest, and so this may be the date of installation of the gun at this point.

The battery is now within a nature reserve open to the public and can be walked to from a newly constructed car park. You will also see plenty of ground dwelling Magellanic penguins on the headland.

Ammunition Storage

This small structure is likely to be the ammunition locker for the 4in QF guns. You can see from the profile of the roof that the construction is very poor. It is likely that it is only some internal steel reinforcement that is keeping the roof in place.

Searchlight Emplacement

A Coastal Defence Electric Light (CDEL) searchlight was constructed at Ordnance Point and the the first operational test was conducted on 22/23 February 1942. Remains of two structures associated with this light can be seen on the cliff edge to the north east of the battery.

Charles Point Battery

Equipped in 1942 with a CDEL, Charles Point was designated the Examination Battery for shipping entering Port William.

From archive records, the two first world war vintage 12-pdr guns had been relocated here by 1942 from Signal Hill and Arrow Point. The guns had a range of 9,600 yards (8.8km) and were designated as the examination battery for ships anchored in Port William. There was also a command post and 9′ rangefinder described as being “well sited.”

It appears as if the battery had not been decommissioned, but placed into a state of preservation. The barrels had been blocked at the muzzle by an unfired shell, and the breech on each gun with a wooden plug that has been tarred in position. The evidence of ammunition crates strewn around the ready use lockers and small magazine on site also suggest the site had not been fully stripped.

The site sits on the private land of Murrell Farm, and tours (mainly of the penguins) can be taken by contacting Kidney Cove Tours. There is no road to the site and it takes approximately 45 minutes across boggy farmland to reach the battery.

Battery Observation Post

A much more practical BOP constructed at Charles Point. Albeit from wood and corrugated iron, the elevated position and large window apertures reflect the use of this site as the examination battery for shipping wishing to enter Stanley Harbour. A searchlight was also sited here and most likely directed from this command post.

We know from the records that a 9′ rangefinder was located here, and this would explain the large width of the building.

Magazine

Possibly a replacement for an earlier larger building, but this brick build structure would have housed the 12-pdr ammunition consisting of shells and propellant charges. There are a number of empty wooden crates around the area that would have help the propellant charges; sensitive to heat and sparks. It is for this reason that brass screws have been used in their construction.

The crate reads “J.W.I.&Co 1917 C.33 IV. N” – if anyone has any more information this it would be gratefully received.

A solitary chimney stack remains where once there was a barrack block.

Sapper Hill Battery

Not much remains of the battery at Sapper Hill, once site of a BL 6″ Mk. VII gun. From the top of the hill it had a range of 15,000 yards (with new supercharged ammunition issued in 1942) but was set too far inland to be effective beyond the water at Port William. The recommendation of the inspecting Gunnery Officer in 1942 was to move the gun immediately to join the existing 6″ Mk. VII at Canopus. It is assumed this work was carried out and it is those two guns that remain today in situ at Canopus. The only remaining feature that is readily identifiable at Sapper Hill is the magazine building, which has been repurposed into switch room for the nearby antenna.

References

  • Website National Archives (Falkland Island Government) – A great resource including large archives of PDF documents available for free. The majority of information on dates and events came from this resource.
  • Website The British Empire – Website outlining the history of the Falkland Islands including key events.
  • Website Naval History – A copy of the captains log from HMS Lancaster is available online and details the landing of 6″ guns to the Falkland Islands.
  • Website Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust
  • Book (available on Kindle for free) My War at Sea 1914-1916: A captain’s life with the Royal Navy during the First World War, Heathcoat S. Grant

All photographs © Frontline Ulster unless otherwise credited.