Culver Cliff and the Isle of Wight at War
By Tim Wander
For a brief moment in time, many years ago, this place was amongst the most important and most secret places on the entire south coast of England. It was guarded by huge guns, set in massive sentinels of concrete and brick. Behind them, hundreds of men and women, aided by the very latest technologies kept watch for every hour of every day, for the entire Second World War to keep this nation safe. Literally….Watching the Skies and Searching the Sea.
Tim’s new book - his first on military history has just been published. For nearly thirty years Tim has been fascinated with Culver Cliff and the military and social history of the Isle of Wight. This book has brought together many of his diverse interests in history and technology and paints a new picture of just how close the Isle of Wight came to invasion in 1940.
From his research an amazing story has emerged that celebrates and documents the thousands of military and civilian personal who operated, serviced and developed the huge number of defensive systems that protected the Isle of Wight and the British mainland.
His story starts with the French invasions and the pitched battles that raged across Culver Cliff over 500 years ago.
For a hundred years the coastline of the Isle of Wight was one of the heaviest and most fortified coastlines in the country. The 1850s saw a huge array of fortifications, barracks and gun batteries spring up to defend against the risk of a French invasion.
Ninety years later and for a large part of the Second World War, the Isle of Wight’s role was to act as a high density ‘gun platform’ with over 30 anti-aircraft batteries together with fixed and mobile searchlight detachments spread across the island. These were not designed to protect the Island or its inhabitants, but to project a wall of light and high explosive steel shrapnel into the air to protect the vital naval ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Later in the war the Island was to become essentially a huge garrison camp and refuelling site as tens of thousands of troops massed for D-Day. It also became one of the two sites for the highly ambitious Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO) project designed to provide allied troops with fuel during the invasion of northern Europe.
It is also clear that for a long period it was considered that the Island was essentially sacrificial and that should the enemy come, then the Island would fall. Most parts of the military during the first years of the Second World War believed that when the invasion came it would most likely be on the beaches of Sandown and Shanklin, the harbour of Bembridge and St Helens and the airfields at Bembridge and Sandown. As such the German invasion plans and British defensive plans both assumed that the Island would only be able to stand for some 60 hours.
The dark days of 1940 saw a country almost beaten. Churchill’s miracle on the beaches of Dunkirk had recovered most of an army. But it was one that had left every piece of equipment and all its munitions and supplies burning on the beaches of Northern France. This was, as Churchill said, our darkest hour and Britain stood alone. While the RAF fought overhead, vital and often experimental defensive systems of all types had to be hurriedly installed, trialled and tested to protect a country fighting for its very existence. For a brief moment some 25 young RAF engineers, struggling to build an emergency mobile radar system on Culver Cliff to replace the destroyed Ventnor Chain Home radar system actually held the fate of the nation in their hands.
Today almost all of this incredible history has been lost and much of what happened there during this time has been forgotten. Sadly nearly all the men and women who served there have also left us.
The huge concrete emplacements, isolated huts, Victorian Forts and buried bunkers that protected them and guarded us have fallen into disrepair and often disappeared. Even the huge Culver wireless station, one of the World’s first to be installed by the Royal Navy in 1900, which later would control the greatest invasion fleet in history, has been demolished without trace. But the little that has survived is important. These remains link us to that past.
I think it is important that their story is told and that we remember. Tim’s new book does all that and much more.
NOW Available. 500 pages and many full colour illustrations and previously unpublished b/w rare photographs of the gun batteries and defences around Culver Cliff including underground photographs in a then and now chapter.