The Forts... and
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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!
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
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!
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).
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
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
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
(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...
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
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.
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
||Left: The name of Radio City
can still be seen - roughly etched on one of the towers at
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Bob le-Roi's web site for detailed information on the forts
and pirate radio.
Whitstable at War feature pages for general stories of the
town during wartime