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The Forts... and Whitstable


As time progresses, scars and remnants of the past inevitably evaporate amidst modernisation, reconstruction and progress. Such is the case with Whitstable and the marks left upon it by World War II. However, if you gaze across the Thames estuary from Tankerton Slopes, you will discover tiny wartime shapes that are etched almost indelibly on our northern skyline.


A view that you might get from Tankerton Slopes with
the Shivering Sands forts on the northeren horizon


These are the Maunsell forts and, despite their sinister shape and deadly purpose, they have become a  welcome part of the Whitstable scenery. We now devote a few pages to these edifices and, along the way, explore a superb collection of photos kindly made available to us by Peter Dalrymple.


The Whitstable View


Although we sometimes talk about 'Whitstable and the forts', we can only see three sets of forts with the naked eye from our coastline - the Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Knock John towers. If you stand on Tankerton Slopes near the St Anne's Road tennis courts and look north, the Red Sands fortification is away to the left and the Shivering Sands fort is tucked behind the Kentish Flats Wind Farm to the right.

On a clear day, you may also spot the Knock John fort even further to the right (ie North East). This is located a considerable distance off the coast of Herne Bay and is best viewed with binoculars.




These three forts are only part of the historical picture. Originally, there were seven scattered around the mouth of the Thames Estuary and they fell into two distinct categories - Navy and Army forts. As we will see, the two types are very different in structure and function.

Red Sands and Shivering sands are both examples of army forts and, as such, they have the same basic design. The Knock John is a navy fort and takes on a very different appearance.


First Step.... Why the Forts? 


The Thames Estuary was a vital sea artery for Britain. It was the gateway to the docklands of East London. It also served the industrial areas of the Medway towns and the naval base at Chatham. 

By 1940, those vital sea links were under serious threat. The German army was amassed on the channel coast of France, German submarines were operating around our shores, the Luftwaffe threatened from the skies and enemy sea mines were being dropped into the sea lanes. In fact, Whitstable has every reason to remember the laying of sea mines. On 11th October 1941, a large section of housing was torn apart at the junction of Victoria and Regent Street in the most devastating explosion suffered by the town. The culprit is believed to have been a mine delivered by parachute and aimed at the Thames estuary. It drifted inland on the prevailing wind. There were similar occurrences elsewhere in Whitstable - near Joy Lane and the shoreline at Wave Crest.

After the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe also commenced heavy bombing raids on London and some of these raids followed the course of the Thames to the capital. The wide expanse of undefended estuary provided the enemy with a convenient approach route away from land-based anti aircraft batteries. By way of example, it is worth noting that the anti- aircraft gun established on our own Seasalter Golf Course was close to the waters edge... but it was still some miles from the main sea lanes of the Thames and Medway. 

Faced with these headaches, the authorities turned to Guy Maunsell for a solution. Maunsell was a civil engineer and he had already put forward the idea of sea based platforms that could carry armaments. One of the beauties of his scheme was the fact that much of the construction work would be undertaken on land. The elements could then carried to the intended location and quickly sunk into position.

If you think about it, this approach was vital. It wasn't wise to spend too long building platforms on a poorly protected seascape when a battle raged overhead. Maunsell's fortifications could become operational very soon after they had left dock. As a result, they could swiftly provide their own protection at the same time as defending the estuary!


Location and Appearance


The first type to to be built was the Navy Fort. During 1942, four were placed in an arc across the outer reaches of the estuary from Felixstowe in the North to Margate in the south. They appear in blue on the map below.



As their name suggests, they were operated by the Royal Navy and they looked like this...



Their aim was to protect allied shipping against attack by air and sea.

Following the success of these platforms, the authorities commissioned three more forts for the Thames estuary. These were intended to confront the Luftwaffe on their bombing raids on London and keep a watch for mines. They were manned by the army and, unlike the navy forts, they were arranged in an East-West line - parallel with and along the southern edge of the main shipping lanes. They were also located closer to the mouth of the Thames. Thus, the army 'forts off Whitstable' had arrived and they brought three nautical names to the attention of  us landlubbers - The Nore, Red Sands and Shivering Sands (see the red entries on the map above).

The army forts were rather different in appearance and we will discuss this in more detail later. For the moment, we will just take a peek at one of Peter Dalrymple's photos.... 



The different  design reflected not only the slightly different usage... but also the rather different engineering problems presented by the particular section of sea bed upon which they were established.


Wartime Friends of Whitstable


Although not specifically designed for the purpose, forts such as Red Sands and Shivering Sands provided some protection to Whitstable. As a relatively quiet seaside town, we did not figure in the grand plans of the Luftwaffe but the town did suffer opportunist strikes and the occasional jettisoning of a bomb when an aircraft suffered problems that prevented it form reaching its target further west.

Although some miles off the coast of Whitstable, the activities of the army forts left lasting memories for many Whitstable Natives. John Harman recalls those days in this message.....  


'Red Sands Fort' from shore was right in front of us.  This could be seen from our upstairs window on Island Wall. I recall seeing the tracer bullets going up from there at night during the war!

John Harman
British Columbia


Sadly, one example of an airborne attack from the estuary was not countered by the guns of the Red Sands fort. It led to a low flying aircraft directing a bomb low over the harbour. The device hit an army depot located at Northwood Road garage and caused the most ferocious local fire of World War II. (Note: This and other local stories of the war are collated in our Whitstable at War feature).


Whitstable, Forts...  and Pirate Radio


Older Natives will remember the forts for their war time exploits in the fight for freedom against Nazi oppression. However, those of us born in the 'baby boom' that followed the conflict will have memories of another form of 'freedom' afforded by those estuary platforms. It was, of course, Pirate Radio of the 1960s. To youngsters of today, it is perhaps just a page from a school history book but, to us, it was all very real... and all so very  vibrant.

Prior to the Swinging Sixties, radio was pretty much the sole province of the BBC and it was very staid in its approach! Perhaps it didn't matter too much at first....  but, in the late 1950s, pop music began to take off with the arrival of Rock 'n Roll and young idols such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. At that stage, we entered an era of entertainment for young people... by young people. The Beeb monopoly and outmoded approach were simply not going to cope and we teenagers started to turn to other sources.

One such source had been around since 1933. This was a commercial station that transmitted from the safety of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. Radio Luxemburg seemed like a breath of fresh air with its evening transmission of pop music in English. However, it did have its problems! The signal tended to fade at regular intervals and it often disappeared amongst the chatter from foreign stations ! Elvis never sounded quite as good when he was interfered with by a Belgian shipping forecast! 

There was also the problem that, whilst Radio Luxemburg was legal in terms of transmission, it could be argued that it was illegal to receive it... under the terms of the UK radio licence! Even now, I can recall my old mum warning us that we would be caught out by the GPO. However, in the late 1950s, the GPO wasn't quite as efficient at preventing 'reception' as the Belgian shipping forecast. Thus, we continued to tinker with the tuning knob on our family radios (contained in bakelite or walnut boxes) and even built our own crystal sets!

As we moved into the 1960s, the issues became more acute. Britain started to become the centre of the universe for pop music... thanks to the Mersey Sound and exponents such as the Beatles, Swinging Blue Jeans and Searchers. Supply and demand became an issue... from both sides of the economic 'equation'. 

On the supply side, there were complaints about 'air time' for records on both the BBC and Radio Luxemburg - particularly from the growing number of  new and less well known record labels.

At the same time, demand was outstripping the relatively few pop programmes available on traditional radio stations. This was due to a massive new market that had money and few commitments - young people. As Britain recovered from war time, youngsters were occupying better paid jobs, enjoying a new freedom, determining their own future... and demanding their own entertainment. Pop music was also becoming inextricably linked to another massive market - fashion. 

We all seemed to have Dansette record players, dressed like our pop icons and kept a watchful eye on the Top Twenty. We also had something else.... the portable, battery powered transistor radio. Transistor radios were almost as important as the modern day mobile phone! They went everywhere... provided that they hadn't been 'confiscated until the end of term'!

I always feel that the new way of life and freedom of young people of the late 1950s and Swinging Sixties had roots firmly set in  wartime. Our parents had been brought up in the suppressive twenties and thirties. The war had not only deprived them of much of their own youth, it had also tired them of austerity and oppression. They wanted a new world and their attitude towards young people was far more liberal than anything that had gone before. In that social climate, the young took control of their own destiny, challenged old ways and created a future in the void left by war time. Arguably, they became the most inventive generation of all time. Not always right, mind you... but inventive nonetheless!  

There was a massive need for a new focus and considerable expansion in the world of broadcasting but it was unlikely to come from the British establishment. When establishment stands in the way of organised progress, progress is likely to come in a more haphazard way via ingenuity, individual enterprise.... and confrontation. So it was with radio. 

Several pirate radio stations started to transmit from ships operating outside of British territorial waters but within earshot of the massive audience of London and South East England. These included ventures such as Radio Veronica, Radio Caroline and Radio London. 


Radio Caroline beside the banks of the Thames
 (Picture by Dave Taylor during a pleasure cruise on
 the paddle steamer Waverley in 2004)


Other 'would be' pirates eyed up the cheaper and less rocky option of the Maunsell Forts. This brought pirate radio closer to Whitstable than the ship-based stations which largely operated to the north of the Thames estuary - off the coast of North Essex (R. London), Suffolk (R. Caroline) and Holland (R. Veronica). 

Between 1964 and 1967, fort-based radio stations came and went at intervals. They included...


Red Sands Fort Radio Invicta
King Radio
Radio 390
Shivering Sands Fort Radio Sutch
Radio City
Knock John Fort Radio Essex


Whilst I doubt that anyone made a fortune from the enterprises, there is no question that the stations attracted many listeners away from the BBC and sent shock waves through the corridors of Broadcasting House.

Proximity of the forts to Whitstable meant that the town served as a supply route for some stations. The system utilised both the harbour and some well known local fishing vessels. Some local people also became more more directly involved in the work of the stations.

It was a strange time. There we were.... sitting on Tankerton Slopes with our transistor radios... listening to the latest Beatles release from a radio station that we could see from the beach. We also heard adverts for local businesses. Somehow, it made us feel that we were part of it all even though we were inhabitants of a small and insignificant harbour town somewhere on the North Kent coast! It wasn't just me either......


I've fond memories of sitting on the sea wall on West Beach near the Spider Cafe with my tranny (NB in 1964 a tranny was a portable transistor radio!) tuned to Radio Caroline (sorry, Radio Sutch / City fans). 

Of course, Screaming Lord Sutch had his base in the corner shop at the the junction of High Street Terry's Lane.

Barry Freeman


Ahhh...the word 'tranny'! Trannies always came with handles or shoulder straps... or both. As the 1960s progressed, there were 'his' and 'hers' models.... with sedate black or brown leather cases for the lads... and pink, red or pale blue for the Tatty 'Eads. Our local electrical shops were littered with the latest devices. Participating establishments included Annis, Tele-Radio, Gaywoods and Grantham's. My first tranny came at Christmas from a new business venture.... Rentaset - the town's first TV rental company.  

Not only were pirate radio stations capable of meeting the needs of the young, they could react more quickly to public feeling than the Beeb and were less concerned as to whom they might upset. One example concerned John Lennon's infamous and totally misrepresented statement that The Beatleswere bigger than God. People in the USA started to burn discs of the 'Fab Four' but one of our local pirate radio stations hit back by playing non-stop Beatles music for an entire day. It was very satisfying for us Beatles fans on the beach!

The swinging years and pirate radio had quite an impact on life around town... just like it did on every other town. One Whitstable institution, the Pirie and Cavender book shop, started to publish the pop charts in its window and revamped its interior to provide a dedicated modern record section! The Record Centre, a vibrant new record shop, appeared close to the Oxford cinema. Youngsters congregated around juke boxes at Valentes, the amusement arcades (Jacques and Jimmys) and the new Ten Pin Bowling Alley.

Our view of the pirate radio stations was a curious one. We knew that the government regarded many of them as illegal and were fighting a legal battle to close them down. Thus, there was something about it all that appealed to the pioneering spirit and suggested that this was the last great buccaneering escapade of British coastal waters. Furthermore, anyone who could do something as clever as broadcast on radio waves deserved to be regarded on a par with the BBC and we tended to assume that pirate stations were sophisticated. 

With hindsight, I would suggest that this was probably an incorrect and somewhat rose tinted viewpoint! Some of the pirate radio stations were perhaps rather more haphazard than we realised at the time. 


Left: The name of Radio City can still be seen - roughly etched on one of the towers at Shivering Sands. 


For many stations, funding was not massive and stations changed hands and 'came and went'. Furthermore, broadcasting from the Maunsell forts was, in reality, a dangerous business and there were occasional injuries and even an accident that led to loss of life. 

A degree of infighting also developed between some of the parties involved and it culminated in the fatal shooting of the proprietor of one of the stations. This incident, combined with safety arguments, probably gave the government the leverage that it needed to tackle pirate radio despite its popularity. In effect, the battle against the pirates had suddenly became 'less of a vote loser'. 

In all, the prime era of pirate radio lasted just 3 to 4 years. However, there is no denying that it had far reaching consequences and, to some extent, created a legacy that we all enjoy today.   

In the wake of it all, the BBC was forced to re-examine itself in the context of a new and fast changing world. In 1967, it created Radio One - a station dedicated to pop music and targetting young people for the first time. Local radio arrived at much the same time and it was followed by commercial radio in 1973. One might even argue that the battle against the state owned BBC actually helped to pave the way for the privatisation of other government establishments and a general move towards commercial enterprises during the 1980s and beyond.

Would any of this have happened without pirate radio? Inevitably, I think the answer is 'yes'. After all, commercial TV had arrived in the mid-1950s. However, it may have taken longer to achieve without the Radio Carolines and Radio 390s of the Beatles era. If the era of the pirate stations had lasted longer it may have achieved even more.

Whatever your opinion on such issues, one thing cannot be disputed. The Maunsell Forts continued to fight oppression and serve the population for at least a decade after the last one was evacuated by the armed forces. Along the way, structures built by authority to defend an existing way of life actually helped to challenge that authority and pave the way for a vibrant and exciting new lifestyle! It can also be said that Whitstable played some small part in it. 


 The Ravages of Time on a Legacy


The remote marine location of the forts has been something of a double edged sword. Unlike land-based equivalents, they  have escaped both property developers and vandals. However, they have been subjected to the harsh North Sea weather for more than half a century and there has been little reason for government to maintain them in their original condition.

In fact, it could be argued that the forts have been something of a thorn in the side of the authorities. As we have seen, Pirate Radio irritated the establishment. Further problems arose when the Roughs Tower Navy fort was declared an independent state on the basis that, along with Sunk Head, it was located outside British territorial waters. Other forts have presented a hazard to shipping in the estuary and there have been some notable collisions with sad loss of life. 

All this has meant that the forts have suffered considerable damage and decay. Three  have disappeared for ever (The Nore, Sunk Head and Tongue Sands) and the others are in need of repair. Fortunately, the three forts visible from the Whitstable waterfront (Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Knock John) remain the best preserved in terms of their original construction. 


Project Redsand....


Action is now being taken to restore the forts and we would like to draw attention to Project Redsand. This is being run by a group of enthusiastic people committed to saving and preserving the Red Sands army fort. We suggest that you visit the project web site on a regular basis to keep up to date with developments and to see if you can help. 


Further Information


In preparing our pages on the Maunsell forts, it has not been our intention to go into great technical detail. If our brief account has prompted you to delve deeper we would point you to both the Project Redsand web site and that of Bob Le-Roi.....


Visit the official Project Redsand web site.

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Visit Bob le-Roi's web site for detailed information on the forts and pirate radio. bob-leroi-link.jpg (37913 bytes)

Visit our Whitstable at War feature pages for general stories of the town during wartime

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