Friday, March 27, 2015

Fort Hubberstone nr Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire. Anglo-Zulu War

As every serviceman will confirm there are barracks and postings they both love and hate: in the USA we have West Point, in the UK we have Aldershot, Colchester and Catterick. In Wales there was a place called Fort Hubberstone, where recruits to the 24th Regt of Foot were often sent when enlisting. 



Compared to the exotic locations of India, South Africa and Mauritius it was a place to be avoided if at all possible. Warts and all this is the story of Fort Hubberstone. Fort Hubberstone is close to the town of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire and formed part of the defences of the Milford Haven waterway. The Haven is a drowned river valley where the Cleddau River meets the sea and is a wonderful natural harbour, one of the deepest in the world, and provides excellent shelter. The only harbours that are of similar size are Kowloon in Hong Kong and Columbo in Sri Lanka. Lord Nelson himself thought it second only to Trincomalee (Columbo) and its size has resulted in it becoming the UK's largest oil port.

The location of this excellent natural harbour is also of great strategic importance to Britain as it commands the sea lanes of the South Western Approaches and would provide safe anchorage from a very large fleet. This importance was recognised as early as 1485 when Henry V11 landed on its shores with an invasion fleet from France and by 1590 the entrance was defended by a pair of forts. These were converted into Napoleonic blockhouses in the early 1800's.

In 1812 the Admiralty established a Royal Dockyard on the shores of the Haven at what became Pembroke Dock. It developed into the main construction yard of the Navy during the first half of the 19th Century, building the first Royal vessel (Victoria & Albert) in 1842 and the largest ever wooden man-o-war, the Duke of Wellington, in the 1850's. It was clear that an area of such importance needed defending and the reason for the defences came in the mid 1840s with a resurgence in French military activity. The French had landed an invasion force at Fishguard, some 15 miles from the Haven in 1797: the Royal navy soon sorted that incursion out!

Plans were drawn up to defend the Haven with a major system of large heavily armed forts designed to have an interlocking field of fire: a young Royal Engineer officer named Gordon planned the forts, we know him as Gordon of Khartoum.

Hubberstone was built as part of the defensive system of fortifications and was one of the last to be constructed being built between 1863 and 1865. The programme of construction began in 1849 with Fort Hubberstone being one of the last started. It was sited in an excellent location on a headland near Milford on the north bank some halfway between the mouth of the Haven and Pembroke Dock. From its position its guns dominated the seas as far as the mouth of the Haven enabling it to rake the bows of approaching vessels, a tactic known as 'bow raking'. The warships could not return fire from the bows and any shot which penetrated the bow would travel the length of the gun deck causing much carnage. Hubberstone's guns could also operate in a crossfire with the guns at Fort Popton on the opposite bank. The Haven forts were all built with the idea of this crossfire in mind as wooden hulled warships could not accommodate crews to fire at both port and starboard batteries at the same time. If engaging against one fort a vessel would be open to fire from the other fort.

Hubberstone was the last layer of Haven defences before the dockyard at Pembroke, which had its own guns in Martello like tower structures. To enter the Haven an attacking fleet had to pass between the East & West blockhouses on either side of the mouth on the site of the old Tudor and Napoleonic positions. They then would arrive between Fort Dale and Fort Thorn Island firing from the front and the forts at Hubberstone, Stack Rocks and South Hook firing from the front. A chain could be placed across the Haven at this point to halt ships at that point. Beyond this point they again faced a crossfire from the fort at Chapel Bay on the south bank and the fort at South Hook on the north bank with Fort Stack Rocks in the Haven itself and all the while getting pounded from Fort Hubberstone and Fort Popton. Once past this obstacle the artillery towers in the Dockyard would be engaged, supported by Fort Scoveston which was some way inland.

To counter an attack by land Fort St Catherine's was built some 10 miles to the East at Tenby, the nearest good landing beaches to the dockyard. Pembroke Dock had a garrison of some 2000 troops as well as the fortified dockyard with its garrison of Marines and a Volunteer defence battalion. Hubberstone was one of the largest of the Haven forts and it mounted a formidable battery of coastal artillery. It was built with 28 9 inch guns and by 1872 8 7 inch rifled muzzle loaders were added on Montcrieff, Disappearing Carriages to absorb the recoil. The guns were mounted on a half circle of rail to the rear of each gun position to enable them to traverse. Finally in 1881 the guns appear to have been replaced with 10 inch weapons in barrette mountings. As well as an artillery platform, the fort served as a defensible barracks with some 250 men.

The gunners to man these forts were supplied by the Welsh militia regiments. In 1853 the Pembrokeshire Militia were converted to Artillery Militia to be joined in 1861 by the Carmarthen Militia and in 1877 by the Cardigan Militia. Together with the Glamorgan Artillery Militia they formed the 4th Welsh Division of the Royal Artillery serving as garrison troops in the Haven forts. Live firing was part of the routine in this bleak location each battery was allocated 90 charges and 45 projectiles to fire against floating targets in the Haven. Practice was needed as there were many complaints from local farmers that shells were screaming low over the roofs of local farms, on one occasion shells were fired into a local wood bringing trees down onto the road; it remains unclear if the area was cleared before the shelling commenced!
In 1885 the Royal Pembrokeshire Artillery Militia relocated from Haverfordwest to Fort Hubberstone; it was also a recruiting area for the 24th Regt of Foot. Of note is that in the Western Mail (a Welsh newspaper) in 1900 problems of recruitment were pointed out in the use of Fort Hubberstone as compared to recruitment towns in South Wales. The fort had a negative effect on recruits who, seeing it for the first time, did not like what they saw. The paper states 'where preliminary drill is carried out on the billeting system, young men naturally prefer the freedom of such places as Aberystwyth, Swansea and Carmarthen to being brought straight into barracks. Barracks are advantageous to drill and discipline, but are countered by bad recruiting'.

(Western Mail 16.7.1900).
During its active life the fort saw considerable activity with recruiting and militia training. During the 1860s and 70s there were a series of intensive exercises involving the Haven's defensive system. In May 1894 Hubberstone was used in experiments to illuminate targets with searchlights so they could be engaged at night. In 1875 Lt Walter of the militia was murdered by a Doctor Alder in a drunken brawl. The active life of the fort came to an end in 1908 when the Haldane Army Reforms were introduced and the militia regiments were disbanded, being replaced by the more flexible Territorial Army.

In 1919 there was a proposal to use the now derelict Fort Hubberstone to house homeless working class families during a housing shortage. Due to the grim and bleak location this proposal was never taken up. The 24th (SWB) served in Pembrokeshire from 1897 to 1899 when they garrisoned Pembroke Dock and were based at the formidable barracks overlooking the town. The County history refers to their arrival in detail.

'When the Devons left they were replaced by the 2nd Battalion of the 24th South Welsh Borderers (24th Foot). Every Pembrokeshire schoolboy knew about this regiment and its heroic defence of Rorke's Drift mission station in Natal during the Zulu war eighteen years earlier. The 24th marched through South Wales to Pembroke Dock and was given a tumultuous welcome all along the route by thousands of people. When approaching Pembroke Dock the marching soldiers detoured to Pembroke, where a vast crowd in the castle gave them a rousing reception and regaled them with refreshments. There was an official welcome from the Mayor, Councillor Samuel J Allen, who accompanied by officials in a four horse break, members of the Corporation on foot and the band of the 1st Volunteer Battalion Welch Regiment (E COY), then proceeded the regiment to Pembroke Dock. There the streets were lined three or four deep with cheering crowds as the 24th, bayonets fixed and colours flying, marched past'.

* The 24th ceased to exist in that name in 1881 when after the Cardwell reforms of 1881 the Regiment became known as the South Welsh Borderers. Many a recruit shuddered at being sent to HUBBERSTONE but it is part of the rich tapestry of this time.

Graham Mason
Anglo-Zulu War Researcher