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Site Visit – Magilligan Point

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:

  1. Ordnance Ground, Martello Tower constructed in 1812
  2. Upper Camp, circa 1900 (date estimate based on OS maps. Still in use today. The original Musketry Camp)
  3. Lower Tented Camp (later Nissen Huts constructed, used as POW camp. Also referred to as the Musketry Camp in some later plans)
  4. Magilligan Point Camp, June 1940 Coastal Artillery Battery
  5. Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, 1941

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A selection of the remaining Boundary Stones (BS) from Magilligan Point. None of the 3 is in their original positions, and all would pre-date WW2. The leftmost stone (BO) dates from the construction of the Martello Tower and its original position would have been marked Ordnance Stone on the OS map. The middle stone was located on the coast, but the erosion of the sands resulted in the stone being returned to camp for preservation. I am unsure where the third stone was located or when it dates from.

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.

Ordnance Survey map of circa 1830 showing the strategically short-lived Martello Tower and two Ordnance Stones denoting the “Boundary of the Ordnance.” One of these stones now sits outside Magilligan Point Bar.

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.

Magilligan Camp from the circa 1900 Ordnance Survey Map. Buildings can be seen, and their use has been established from a later 1915 plan of the camp.
Overlaying the details from the OSNI Historical Fourth Edition map, it is possible to see how the modern camp follows the layout of the original musketry camp. The upper pump house and water tank remain in situ (2018), as do the foundations for the Soldiers’ Home (NAAFI) building.

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.

1915 plan of Magilligan Musketry Camp from the Irish Military Archives – Maps, Plans and Drawings
Well and Pump House
From the earliest of maps, there has always been a permanent source of fresh water available on camp. These are two of the remaining four corrugated iron pump houses. The concrete wells can be seen behind the first galvanised building. This is marked on the map above as “pump and well, 8 feet deep” – of which there are 3 pumps and wells serving Magilligan Camp.
Target Shed
On the map is marked “FF Target Shed” (FF – Field Firing). While on the map of camp this shed is not in the same position when overlaid, as an ancillary building it may not have been plotted accurately, or indeed may have been moved. But this target shed on the range complex may be an original target shed (with a modern roof).
Soldiers Home
One of the largest and earliest buildings on site was the Soldiers’ Home. A precursor to the Navy Army and Airforce institute (NAAFI), this building was often the only place the soldiers could go to get away from the hustle and bustle of training and purchase home comforts.
Remarkably I have discovered a contemporary postcard from around the time of construction of the Soldiers’ Home.

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:

Magilligan Camp

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.

Google Earth © aerial imagery with the Defence of Britain overlay indicating existing and removed anti-aircraft and coastal artillery positions. Those at Magilligan Point are the most northernly and the first line of defence in protecting the important port at Londonderry from air and sea attack from the north.

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

Coastal Artillery

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.

A plan of the coastal artillery camp on the point from around 1941 shows the site fully developed. At this stage, I believe that only No. 2 and No. 3 emplacements were equipped with guns.
Here is an interesting image I discovered on an unrelated military forum. Sadly it is undated and uncredited, but I estimate the date to be in the early 1970s as it was taken by a soldier deployed on Operation Banner. The image shows that the Battery Observation Post is still on the roof of the Martello tower and that both No. 1 and No. 2 gun positions are in situ.

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

Anti-Landing Defences

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:

Anti-landing poles to prevent aircraft from landing at low tide

A rather nasty anti-landing obstacle
An encrusted reel of barbed wire
The unusual double-story pillbox watching over the Lough and the anti-landing defences

Timeline Review

  • 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.