The origins of a camp at Magilligan are difficult to ascertain, as I haven’t discovered any definitive records relating to the initial construction of the camp. A number of clues exist in the early Ordnance Survey maps of the area and in the local landscape that helps in charting the development of this fascinating and important site. Over the last 200 years of occupation, this spur of land has seen continued military use in many guises; a Napoleonic-era martello tower, a WW1 musketry camp, a three-gun WW2 coastal artillery battery, 1970’s internment camp and prison, and a modern MOD and PSNI training centre and range complex. The land itself is also home to a number of protected sites including vernacular Irish cottages, ancient monuments and the now-destroyed Mount Sandy Base Tower – one of only a handful of Ordnance Survey reference sites from the early C19 mapping of Ireland. In this article, I seek to relate the evidence on the ground to that from maps and plans to piece together a history of the site.
From what I can establish, there have been five major encampments at Magilligan:
- Ordnance Ground, Martello Tower constructed in 1812
- Upper Camp, circa 1900 (date estimate based on OS maps. Still in use today. The original Musketry Camp)
- Lower Tented Camp (later Nissen Huts constructed, used as POW camp. Also referred to as the Musketry Camp in some later plans)
- Magilligan Point Camp, June 1940 Coastal Artillery Battery
- Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, 1941
Table of Contents
Early Development to WW2
Military use of Magilligan (the townland of Lower Doaghs) started with the construction of the Martello Tower (NI Sites and Monuments Record) between 1812 and 1817 to protect the mouth of the River Foyle against French invasion; as was the paranoia of the time. While the tower appears on a circa 1830 OS map of the area, any further sign of encampment does not. The boundary denoted on the 1830 map confirms the extent of the ordnance ground, and two ordnance stones are also marked on the map – one of which remains and has been relocated to outside the Point Bar (image right), along with a later War Department (WD) boundary stone.
It is not until the circa 1900 edition of the OS map that there is a reference to a Rifle Range and a cluster of permanent buildings appear in the camp. During this time, encampments were just that; temporary tented accommodation away from soldiers’ resident barracks, but in most cases, permanent facilities existed such as toilets, ablutions and cookhouses. And it is these buildings around the periphery of land on which troops would have camped that can be seen. Note that it appears that Officers and Sergeants have permanent facilities, while Other Ranks would have initially been accommodated in tents.
By 1915, the Infantry Musketry Camp at Magilligan had developed and included a large range of permanent huts, accommodating 480 Other Ranks (OR) and 6 Officers. This was downgraded in 1918 when six of the accommodation huts were removed and transferred to the admiralty, and the bed spaces were reduced to 300; as reflected on the amended 1915 plans.
Following WW1, Magilligan Camp underwent development – the corrugated iron barrack blocks being replaced with brick. I am searching for plans for maps from this development, but after seeing 1923 referenced somewhere (I am still searching for the reference), the date seems to fit with the style of the building. The layout of the camp also appears to mirror that of the hutted camp. Here are a number of images of the new (old) barrack blocks:
Second World War
During the 1940’s Magilligan Point became a strategic position for the defence of Lough Foyle and the port at Londonderry. With neutral Ireland on the doorstep, the docks at Lisahally were the first stop after a long Atlantic crossing for American ships and their escorts, and the city of Londonderry soon became a key base for ships and aircraft in the Battle of the Atlantic. After being caught out in 1941 when enemy bombers ventured over Northern Ireland to attack critical manufacturing and infrastructure, an extensive anti-aircraft network was established around key areas, including Londonderry, as can be seen by the aerial photograph below. The most northern of these sites, and the key site to protecting the Lough and city, was the site at Magilligan Point.
Now a protected monument (NI Sites and Monuments Record), the well-preserved Heavy Anti-Aircraft site at Magilligan is still in the MOD training area, and as such, can’t be visited without permission. The site follows a standard 4-gun layout, with a command and control bunker, hardened shelter and mobile radar ramp.
Magilligan Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery
There have been two times in recent history when Brittania did not rule the waves; the early 19th Century (following the threat of invasion from Napoleon) and the early 20th Century (the overwhelming German naval machine WW1/2). Both eras saw a rapid construction programme of emplacements and weapon platforms around key areas of the British coastline. At Magilligan point, there is evidence of both – the 1812 Martello tower, and a WW2 coastal artillery battery. Interestingly there are no WW1 remains around Lough Foyle, as strategically Lough Swilly was strategically more important, being a deep water ‘fjord’ it was capable of protecting the entire Atlantic fleet should the need arise (and which it did during WW1 before they moved to Scappa Flow). Lough Swilly was heavily protected, initially by 7 forts, reducing to 2 (Lenan Head Fort and Fort Dunree) and finally 1 (Dunree) as coastal gun developments increased the range and accuracy of the weapons deployed here.
Construction of the WW2 coastal artillery battery started in late 1939 or early 1940 as 2 Officers and 39 OR deployed from Grey Point Fort to man the newly installed 6-inch guns at Magilligan in the summer of 1940. While 3 positions are marked on the map, it seems that in November 1940 No. 2 Gun was relocated, presumably to the new No. 3 position. I can only speculate as to this decision, but it is likely that while No. 1 and No. 2 positions gave good coverage into the Atlantic, there was no rear protection into the Lough, and with the U-boat threat very high at the time, it must have been decided to relocate to No. 3 position in order to provide an element of rear protection should an enemy vessel reach the lough.
Nearly 80 years after its construction there is not much remaining of what was the only coastal artillery battery protecting Lough Foyle. The living quarters (primarily the cookhouse and other ranks accommodation) were Nissen huts, which have now gone; but their concrete bases remain, as do the stone hearths for the stoves that would have adored the centre of each hut. The regimental institute was a larger building, which I am also assuming was made from corrugated iron sheet, as was the sergeant’s mess – common construction for temporary buildings of the time. Officers were accommodated in the now-demolished Point Hotel, and both the cottages and public house were requisitioned and utilised as accommodation, both living and administrative. The only gun position that remains in any substantial form is No. 3, where the position mounting bolts are visible along with the ready-use ammunition lockers under the position, but also the magazine and gun crew shelter are in good condition – if albeit sand covered and overgrown.
Of note, two notable identifiable features are the Barr & Stroud (rangefinder) position which is now the site of a modern CCTV mast, and possibly the eastern (No. 1) searchlight platform; although map overlays suggest the searchlight was closer to the rangefinder. Using the topography of the dunes, the rangefinder was positioned on the highest point behind No. 1 gun position, and the searchlight was on a man-made platform to its front. The 1812 Martello tower was also modified and used as the Battery Observation Post with No.2 gun close by.
Magilligan Coastal Artillery Battery
In what appears to be an unusual tactical decision given the concentration of defences in the area, the inner shore of Magilligan Point was protected by anti-landing scaffolding, and poles; of which some can still be seen today. For enemy aircraft or ships to land on this stretch of coastline, they would have neutralised the air defences (including the HAA battery within 100m of the beach) and the coastal artillery battery would have been put out of action, along with the garrison of troops manning both sites. There are a few telltale signs of these defences remaining:
- 1812 – Board of Ordnance purchases Magilligan point and constructs the Martello tower
- Pre-1900 – Tented camp and rifle range established at Lower Doaghs
- June 1910 – the North Irish Yeomanry had their annual training camp at Magilligan (source)
- WW1 – Hutted upper camp constructed and musketry camp developed (as per plan above)
- January 1918 – Six accommodation huts, a dry canteen and a coffee bar were removed from the upper camp and relocated to the Admiralty
- June 1922, the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment Battalion was sent to Enniskillen, then Magilligan, and Dublin by September.
- 1923 – Brick camp constructed to replace hutted upper camp. The layout appears to be the same as the hutted camp
- WW2 – Lower camp developed and Nissen huts were constructed on the tented camping ground. Magilligan point camp was constructed in support of the coastal artillery battery. Heavy anti-aircraft batteries and supporting infrastructure built at Lower Drummans
- 1 July 1940 – Two Officers and 39 Other Ranks move from Grey Point Fort to Magilligan Point to man two 6-inch Mk. VII Naval guns
- 1940 – 12 per gun and detachment moved from Londonderry to Magilligan
- November 1940 – No. 2 gun is relocated to a new position
- 1968 – LRGS CCF annual camp to Magilligan mentioned earth closets, even at this stage! (source)
- May 1972 – Eight Nissen huts of the lower camp became HM Prison Magilligan during internment
- 1980 – Magilligan camp used to temporarily house prisoners during a prison warders’ strike
In an outline history of the Defence Training Estate at Magilligan, mention is made of a POW camp on what is the site of the Magilligan Prison during 1942. I can find no evidence in support of this, and “Magilligan” does not feature in any literature on wartime POW camps. The first recorded use of this camp to house prisoners is during the Troubles when the camp was taken over in 1972., and in 1980 when during a prisoners strike a temporary prison was established, HM Prison Foyle, manned by soldiers from Shackleton Barracks, Barracks.