Maunsell Forts (Redsands U6)
After my first attempt at the Red Sands Forts trip was postponed due to the risk of high winds in the Thames, the second trip albeit on the rather ominously dated Friday, 13th August, proved to be much more successful. Somewhat not surprisingly, the weather on the day proved to be a rather all too familiar overcast and grey mid-August day as we departed the pierhead at Southend, the greyness of the sky almost merging with the sea to give a rather eerie sense of both excitement and foreboding as we set sail. The Maunsell Forts were constructed during World War II as defensive measures against air and sea attacks by Nazi Germany. These forts, with designs specific for both the army and the navy, were named after their designer Guy Anson Maunsell. The Maunsell Naval Forts included the Rough Sand Fort (U1), Sunk Head Fort (U2), Tongue Sands Fort (U3), and the Knock John Fort (U4); whilst the Maunsell Army Forts included the Nore Fort (U5), Red Sands Fort (U6), Shivering Sands Fort (U7), and the Liverpool Army Forts. The U standing for the Forts official code-name, Uncle. For this article we will be predominantly focusing on the army forts which were constructed in the Thames Estuary, including the Nore Forts off Sheerness (now demolished); the Red Sands Forts, and the Shivering Sands Forts, situated further out in the Thames Estuary. All the London forts saw action during WWII, where “[t]hey jointly shot down 22 enemy aircraft and 30 V1 flying bombs.” (Red Sands: The Abandoned Estuary Sea Forts From The Second World War, 2013). However, the forts were not designed to last beyond the end of the War and soon fell into a state of rusty, forlorn disrepair, in-between a brief period as bastions of the pirate radio movements during the 1960s.
The three River Mersey forts were called Queens AA Towers, Formby AA Towers and Burbo AA Towers. These forts were constructed at Bromborough Dock and installed in Liverpool Bay, although they never saw action during WWII and were demolished by 1955. Bromborough Dock was situated on the banks of the River Mersey at Bromborough and was once the largest private dock in the world. Permission for construction was granted by the Bromborough Dock Act of 1923 and it remained fully operational until 1969 until eventually closing in 1986 following the Bromborough Dock Act of the same year.
The Forts were initially designed in 1942 as part of a plan to help protect the London ports from attack. Guy Maunsell had designed a self-burying footing system that firmly anchored each tower in place. Construction began in August 1942, and the last tower was completed sixteen months later. At each site, the Bofors gun platform was erected first to defend the construction crews as they assembled the rest of the fort. (MSW, 2020).
For the Thames forts, Maunsell had adapted the design that he had used for the forts on the River Mersey to take into account the River Thames being less deep at the planned points of construction. The plan was to construct seven forts (49 towers). However, in the event, only three were built, at a cost of £724,000. HM Fort Nore (U5) was deployed between 20th May and 4th July 1943. HM Fort Red Sands (U6) between 23rd July and 3rd September. HM Fort Shivering Sands (U7) was deployed between 18th September and 13th December. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date). Guy Anson Maunsell was a civil engineer and a former commissioned officer who served in the Royal Engineers during WW1, who, in his spare time, had a keen interest in Jersey cows. Maunsell had worked on a number of projects pre-war included Putney Bridge and the Storstrømsbroen (Storstrom Bridge, pictured left) in south-east Denmark (Asquith, no date), and post war he established his own company, G. Maunsell & Partners, who were responsible for a number of civil engineering projects including the “Narrows Bridge (1957-9) in Perth, Australia (then the world’s largest pre-stressed concrete bridge)” (Asquith, no date) and the Hammersmith flyover in London.
The army forts each consisted of seven towers connected by steel walkways with each of the towers having a different function, with five being gun towers containing anti-aircraft and bofars anti-aircraft guns with one tower positioned with a search light and the other a control tower. Buildings were constructed of steel with two internal floors and measured 36 feet by 36 feet. The gun towers are arranged in a circle around the control tower (equipped with radar), with the searchlight tower further away. This disposition was based on the successful layout of land fortifications. The outer towers were connected to the central tower by tubular steel walkways (now demolished). The searchlight tower was the power station for the whole fort, and was equipped with three 30kW diesel generators. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)
As with the Navy forts, the Army forts were fabricated, fitted out and equipped on the south bank of the Thames at Red Lion Wharf, a disused and derelict cement factory that Maunsell had discovered between Northfleet and Gravesend. (A London Inheritance, no date; Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date).
The bases support the four raking columns of each fort. The cylindrical columns (or legs) are concrete reinforced with 32mm diameter steel bar. They are 19.8m high, with an external diameter of 90mm and wall thicknesses of 300mm. The columns were precast in three sections, joined by solid concrete. A cast-in-situ 4.3m square x 1.2m deep concrete cap, with a 1.8m diameter hole through it, joins the legs with the steel pod above, which is connected to two 13.1m long steel joists embedded in the cap. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)
The forts consisted of a central observation tower, surrounded by anti-aircraft gun towers and a searchlight tower. The Red Sands Forts were operated by the army with crews spending a period of 4 weeks on-board the forts followed by a 10-day rest period ashore. Situated in nearby proximity to the forts is the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm consisting of some 30 wind turbines, and having lived on the Thames Estuary a number of years now, I can reliably surmise that these turbines are regularly put to good use.
The parallel walls of the octagonal pods are 11m apart and constructed in 6.3mm steel plate, with steel-framed windows. The walls of the living accommodation are insulated with hardboard and all floors have a 19mm layer of asphalt. Armoured parapets surround the armour-plated top deck (pod roof) and the magazine chambers. The armouring is made up of two steel plates with a layer of stones embedded in tarmacadam between. (Thames Estuary Sea Forts, no date)
Because the Ministry of Defence believed that a combination of bad weather and tidal action would quickly destroy them after the war, no thought was taken for their disposal (MSW, 2020). This led to maintenance crews being stationed on the forts following the end of WWII from May 1945 through to April 1956, when it was decided to abandon the forts. The ship Baalbeck crashed into the Nore group of Towers in 1st March 1963, knocking over the bofars tower and a gun tower, killing four members of the maintenance crew. The Nores Towers were subsequently demolished in 1969 following another incident in June 1963, when another ship crashed into the Shivering Sands Fort demolishing a gun tower. Sunk Head Fort was destroyed by the Royal Engineers shortly after the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act became law in 1967, whilst Roughs has been occupied since 1967 as the quasi-independent Principality of Sealand. Whilst Tongue Fort collapsed in 1996 following a severe storm.
Project RedSands (https://project-redsand.com) who maintain and look after the Red Sands Forts, and who hope to reinstate the Fort back to its original condition. The Red Sands Forts were described by the photographer Scott Amling in 2018: “The forts had this rust and patina in the surface of the metal sides and you could see how they were constructed… [and] … [t]he winter fog and lack of visibility on added to the mystery of the forts.” (Olito, no date).
The forts certainly have an eery science fiction feel to them, reminiscent of water-bound At-At Walkers from the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back or something out of War of the Worlds. Given the grey and leaden sky we had throughout our trip, this seemed almost an appropriate context to great these eerie monoliths who have stood deserted for so many years in the face of time and tide. One can only imagine what it must have been like for those stationed on board during the Second World War. It is perhaps not surprising that they were used in the 1968 Doctor Who serial Fury from the Deep starring Patrick Troughton as The Doctor, where the forts stood in for a North Sea Gas Refinery besieged by a seaweed-type creature. Sadly, this is one of the early Dr. Who serials that has been lost to time, although this series was re-released as an animated version of the story during 2020. (Troughton, Hines and Maddern, 2020).
The Maunsell Forts have their own Twitter account which can be followed via @MaunsellForts.