BRITAIN’S ISLAND FORTRESSES: DEFENCE OF THE EMPIRE, 1756 – 1956

Reviewed by: ANDY FIELD

I had different reactions when I was asked to review this book. Told by the Reviews Editor that I was getting a book on defences in the Empire I thought “Great” (I know, I should get out more). When I received it and started to read it, I started thinking “One for the specialist here’, but by the time I’d finished it I was hooked. Bill Clements had started me thinking about wider issues related to Britain’s Imperial strategy.

Bill Clements knows his stuff. A former Army officer and military attaché, with a long-standing fascination with fortifications, he has already written two previous books, one on Martello Towers and the other on Singapore’s fortifications. He’s also made frequent contributions to the journals of the Fortress Study Group, the Military History Society of Ireland and the Society for Army Historical Research and he is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

When I started reading, I thought that I was looking at a niche topic, probably one with little appeal to the general reader. Bill Clements’ approach has been to consider Imperial defence through a study of nine former British controlled islands. Bermuda, Jamaica, St Helena, Antigua & St Lucia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Mauritius, Ascension, Singapore and Hong Kong are each covered in separate chapters, well illustrated and usually containing maps. Bill Clements decided not to include Gibraltar (I know, not an island, but still very important) and Malta as he felt that they had already been comprehensively covered in other works. This in no way detracts from the book, but I, for one, would have liked to have seen them included. (After all you could say the same for Singapore and Hong Kong.)

Be that as it may, Bill Clements takes each island in turn and details the changing ways the British developed, improved and abandoned defences in each of these islands through the centuries, in response to changing technology and a changing world scene. Start and finish dates are flexible. If the islands were occupied before 1756, the start of The Seven Years War, the earlier defences are also included.

After two chapters, when I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to be a particularly interesting read for the general reader, with discussions of works that had me thumbing to the Glossary, to find out what an epaulement, a cavalier, or a DEL were. (Defensive Electric Light, or searchlight to us post – 1914 types) and reading about what smooth bores had been replaced, when, why and by what.  It all seemed to be quite ‘samey’.

Then I started to be drawn into my mind. Recurring themes emerged. It will possibly come as no surprise to readers of The Naval Review that the Treasury has always been penny-pinching, frequently not providing adequate funding, or that equipment and buildings were often neglected in peace time.  Equally of no surprise, it seemed difficult for the Treasury, Colonial Office, War Office, Admiralty and Ordnance Board to work together. Consequently responses to emergencies were often ad hoc.

Whatever the original reasons behind their establishment as fortified islands, all seemed to gain a new importance once the Royal Navy had made the transition from sail to steam, and coaling stations became vital links in the chain of imperial defence. With their limited steaming ranges, warships without secure access to coal were useless, especially at a time when the major units of the battle fleet were stationed in Home waters and the Mediterranean Sea and the maritime security of the Empire relied on telegraph messages summoning ‘flying squadrons’ in times of tension.

Of which there were several, often when perceived French or more often, Russian threats to the British Empire loomed large in the minds of many. For example, in 1878, increased tensions with Russia over the Ottoman Empire prompted renewed fears of Russian raiders creating havoc overseas. The Colonial Defence Committee examined the defences of each of Britain’s coaling stations, and determined that whilst many needed improved defences, there were only 61 modern, 7” RML guns in total available to replace obsolete guns. Or 1885, at the time of the Pendjeh Crisis with Russia, when the unannounced arrival at Singapore of a Russian squadron, caused concern, mounting, as they did, more and more modern guns than Singapore’s defences.

Some of the islands never saw action at all, some nothing after the Napoleonic Wars. Ceylon was bombed by the Japanese and Singapore and Hong Kong were both captured, their fall being well covered in the last two chapters. I ended reading this book having thought a lot more about the logistical side of naval warfare in the 19th century as well as the problems faced by a European naval power in defending a world-wide empire, and I enjoyed the book a lot more because of this.  Any niggles? Only one and that was the maps. They were useful, if somewhat small and sometimes it seemed as if places referred to in the text didn’t appear on the map, which was a bit frustrating (That might just be me and my eyes though!).

Is this a book I’d recommend?  I would. I feel that Bill Clements has successfully achieved what he set out to do in covering the development of the fortifications of some of the key islands of Britain’s imperial defences. As I’ve said, I enjoyed reading it and think that readers of The Naval Review may also find it thought provoking. It may not be one for the general reader though. As for price £25 is about the going rate for a hard back these days. If that seems a bit pricey, it may be worth keeping an eye out in remainder bookshops or on the Pen and Sword website, where they often offer discounts. Or, you could support your local library, and borrow it.