Two Victorian coastal defence batteries. The older of the two is a museum offering a number of exhibits and access to the searchlight position that gives a superb view over the Needles. The new battery and Highdown rocket site are also accessible and now host a small exhibit on the Black Knight programme.
1. With the construction of the New Battery, the weapons of the original fort were disposed of by throwing them off the cliff!
2. The Needles Old Battery was used to test Britain's first anti-aircraft gun in 1913. The 'Pom Pom' was installed on the Parade Ground and fired at a kite target flown from a Royal Navy destroyer.
3. On 28 October 1971 a Black Arrow rocket, the design of which had been tested at Highdown near the Needles New Battery, was launched into orbit. Known as Prospero it is to date the only UK launched satellite and is still in orbit.
Old Battery. The old battery was built on the tip of the headland and had six gun emplacements. Concerns that gunfire was causing the soft chalk to erode led to construction of the New Battery.
Highdown Rocket Site. The remote location of the Needles Battery, coupled with the seaward facing slopes, made it an ideal site for the static testing of rockets. From 1957-71 this site was used to support developments in Britain’s space and inter-continental ballistic missile programmes.
Needles Old Battery
Needles New Battery
Notes: Car parking is in Alum Bay followed by a (picturesque) 1 mile walk to the Needles Batteries.
Built on the recommendations of the 1859/60 Royal Commission on coastal defence, the Needles Battery guarded the western entrance into the Solent. Fears that the gunfire was eroding the soft chalk cliffs prompted construction of a new battery in the late nineteenth century and this site would later host tests of British space rockets.
HISTORY OF THE NEEDLES BATTERY
The western passage into Solent and onward to the rich port of Southampton has historically been heavily defended. Hurst Castle controlled entry from the 1540s whilst the mid-nineteenth century saw the construction of Fort Albert and Fort Victoria. However in 1852 Napoleon III was crowned Emperor of France and France commenced re-arming causing wide-scale alarm in Britain. This turned into panic in 1859 when France launched the world's first Ironclad warship, the Gloire, which instantly rendered the exclusively wooden hulled Royal Navy obsolete. Existing defences - including Forts Albert and Victoria - had been designed to fight wooden warships armed with smooth, round shot. The Glorie was not only more durable but better armed with rifled weaponry that could punch through armoured hulls on other ships. This also made the high brick walls of defences such as Fort Albert particularly vulnerable to effective fire from the sea and in response the British Government initiated a Royal Commission. This reported in 1860 and Lord Palmerston's government accepted its recommendations resulting in the biggest peacetime military building project in Britain's history; chains of forts protecting both land and sea approaches to key Naval dockyards. Despite the recent forts being only a few years old, a series of new defences were initiated in the Western section of the Isle of Wight; Bouldnor Battery, Cliff End Battery, Hatherwood Battery, Warden Point Battery and (what would later become known as) the Needles Old Battery.
Construction on the Needles Battery was commenced in September 1861 to a design by Major James Edwards of the Royal Engineers. It was built on land compulsory purchased from the Ward family of Cowes and by June 1863 it was complete. Initially equipped with six 7-inch breach loading guns these were eventually replaced with six 9-inch muzzle loaded guns that were surplus from the upgraded defences at Hurst Castle. Positioned on the edge of the headland the land approach was defended by a dry ditch with access via a drawbridge. Barracks were constructed for one Officer, 2 Non-Commissioned Officers and 21 Other Ranks.
The original battery had been built and armed to respond to threats from large, slow moving ships but by the end of the nineteenth century a new threat had emerged; the fast motor torpedo boat. To mitigate against this a new battery was built at sea level consisting of Quick Firing 6-pounder guns augmented by electric searchlights powered by a Robey steam engine. To facilitate fast beach access a lift shaft was sunk from the battery down to the beach. In 1899 a dedicated searchlight emplacement was built in the cliff.
By the end of the nineteenth century the original Needles Battery was proving inadequate; the site was too small to support the latest heavy ordnance whilst, somewhat alarmingly, the soft chalk cliffs were starting to suffer rapid erosion from the shock of gunfire. Accordingly the Needles New Battery was built further up the headland between 1893-5. Constructed with three gun emplacements these were augmented in 1900 with supporting magazines and administrative buildings. By 1904 three 9.2inch breach loading guns had been installed whilst the old fort had been relegated to a Fire Command Post.
Both new and old batteries were garrisoned during the World Wars. In 1914 the land defences were augmented by barbed wire whilst Nissan huts were erected for the troops. Aside from occasional use by the Territorial Army, the site was mothballed from 1919-39 but with the outbreak of the Second World War was again re-activated. Manned by 530 Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery the site was also equipped with anti-aircraft Oerlikon cannons. The defences were further upgraded as the war progressed including addition of radar facilities. But as the threat of German invasion passed the garrison was reduced.
After the Second World War the site was again decommissioned but was reactivated to support the post-war development of rocket technology. The UK had developed Blue Streak, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The next iteration, Black Knight, was ready for test in the mid-1950s and the Needles New Battery was modified to support static tests. The new facility, known as Highdown, saw the first successful test firing on 16 April 1957 with actual launches taking placed from Woomera in Southern Australia. Developments continued apace with Black Knight evolving into a two-stage rocket and then into the three stage Black Arrow. Testing again took place at Highdown and culminated in the successful launch (from Australia) of the only UK launched satellite to enter orbit. Highdown was decommissioned following the termination of the UK space programme at the end of 1971 and the supporting buildings demolished. Thereafter the site was purchased by the National Trust.