WW2 Thames Estuary Coastal (Maundsley) Forts

Dec 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: European Coastline, Scratch Building

During WW2, the British government built a series of offshore platforms designed by Guy Maundsley, as Anti Aircraft (AA)  defence platforms.  They were intended to provide static defence support for shipping convoys gathering in the Thames shipping channels before transit to their destinations, as well as to prevent inshore raids by enemy surface craft.

Abandoned by the military after WW2 and stripped of equipment, sealed and left as derelict by 1958, the “forts” rose to public attention during the 1960’s for being commandeered by pirate radio station operators such as Radios Caroline and Essex.  One of them, Rough’s Fort became known as “Sealand” and declared itself an independent principality due to being outside the then offshore limit of British territorial waters.  Sealand today remains occupied by descendants and supporters of the original captors and insists upon it’s independent sovereignty.  Read more about Sealand on their website.

As far as I’ve been able to research, there were two types of forts built in seven locations.

Army-Red-Sands-1964(Photo: Redsands Army Fort in 1964, from bobleroi.co.uk)

The army-built gun platforms had a resemblance to modern offshore oil platforms below the main deck, but with the legs configured as a massive 4-leg “tridod”.

The army forts used clusters of towers, with several gun towers, a radio tower, and at least one searchlight tower.

Project Redsands website has a treasure trove of photographs and computer generated 3D images, and is the home site for a plan to restore and preserve the army fort at RedSands.

Naval-Knock-John(Photo: Knock John Navy Fort, from bobleroi.co.uk)

The navy forts used two huge cylinder legs (inside which was built accomodation decks and ammunition magazines, generator rooms etc) on top of which was a two-tier deck.

The lower (main-gun) deck apparently was steel-built, similar to warship design, whilst the upper (control and secondary armament) deck was a mixed concrete and steel structure with teak deck extensions.

Perhaps it was navy experience of everything-in-one-hull that drew them to single platform installations compared to the army’s multi-platform ensembles?

An excellent source of photographic materials is Bob LeRoi’s website.

Thanks to Sealand, there seems to be far more information available online about the naval towers, than about the army platforms, and it is the naval type that I’m going to focus on in this article.  However, that focus is maybe why I found less info about the army towers – I’m sure it’s available and the links above are good starting points.

The seven forts finally built, had multiple duties –

To meet the special needs of the Admiralty & War Office 1:

  • Break up enemy aircraft formations.
  • Prevent laying of mines
  • Prevent E-boat shipping raids in coastal waters.
  • Act as early warning outposts of hostile aircraft
  • Release patrol vessels for other duties.

From that list comes a multitude of scenarios for the wargamer.  And, most fortunately, the naval platforms at least, are very easy to make as scratch-built wargaming models, albeit with a slightly rough appearance if made quickly.

Here’s an example project – let’s say you want to make one of the naval towers for use with 15mm wargames figures.

The first thing to think about is the legs – that should be easy using a couple of toilet tissue tubes.  Then the main gun deck – again easy enough to get a representational thickness, just use a piece of 5 or 6mm balsa board.

For the main deck buildings (below the control deck) a couple of empty cigarette packets (the flip top card type) would be about the right dimensions.

Naval-Control-DeckThen for the hexagonal control deck and light armament platform, some thinner balsa wood, around the 2-3mm thickness should suffice.

For the actual control and radar tower, you’ll need to do some proper modelling.  Balsa or plasti-card for this.

Combining the plan-view here with the photo above, the lower floor of the tower was octagonal to match the secondary gun deck and you need to leave sufficient free space on the gun deck for two 40mm Bofors guns and four Lewis gun positions.  The upper floor was square as represented by the inner walls on this control tower plan (click it to get a bigger view).

At this point, I’m not sure if the Lewis guns were on the same deck as the Bofors, or above them on the roof of the octagonal part of the tower at the positions marked in red on the plan.  The green markers are the “centres of Bofors predictors” – I’m assuming those were the range-finders and flight tracking equipment, linked to the tracking and elevation for the guns.

In the photo of Knock John fort above, you can clearly see the placement for the 3.7-inch (95mm) anti-aircraft guns on the lower (main) deck, at either end of the platform – they give you a good idea of the platform’s size for proportional scaling.

Naval-1943-Line-DrawingNot shown in the photo above, but clearly seen in this 1943 Royal Navy drawing, during operational use, at one end of the platform was a “dolphin” scaffold used for embarking and disembarking.  Essentially this was a series of open decks on open-sided girder risers, with ladders connecting each level.

It was square and about the same size as the diameter of the round legs.  To make a representational wargames model, I’d say this was an optional feature – easy enough to scratch build, but a pain to master for metal or resin production – it would be best done using plastic-injection production, which is expensive.

The naval drawing also clearly displays the positions of the 3.7-inch and 40mm guns, but does not clarify the position of the Lewis guns.  It also shows hints of the radar structure on top of the square part of the tower, and indicates the overall thickness of the main deck structure.


Photo: Knock John Naval Fort, 1992 by RAF Manston – this aerial photo shows exceptionally clearly the deck shapes and wings.  It also demonstrates that the Bofors and Lewis gun “centres”, on the control deck plan, could not have been gun positions on the roof of the octagonal operations centre.  The 3.7 inch gun can still be seen on the main deck, and the upper deck square wings were the position of the Bofors guns.  I’ve not yet identified the purpose of the circular platforms on the side wings – perhaps multi-barrel .50 machine guns or similar?

Overall, there’s enough detail in the drawings and photos, to make a rudimentary scratch-built wargames model of the naval tower.  The beauty of this design being that it is such an unusual structure, it could be used in a multitude of wargaming genres, not just WW2 coastal defence.  So let’s look at a few possible scenarios for it.

First and most obvious use for the tower would be as part of the surface defences against a German bomber attack heading for London.  With many RAF and USAF fighter airfields to the north in Essex, and to the south in Kent, the towers were permanently manned ack-ack positions in the centre of the flight paths popular during the 1940-41 Blitz period, even though they were not built until 1943.

Another use would be with the excellent Coastal Naval skirmish rules from Skytrex, and their extensive 1:600 (3mm) scale naval wargames models, but you’d need to make the tower’s model a lot smaller and use different materials than those introduced above.

If your aerial warfare preference is for 1:144 (12mm wargames scale models) a tower built for 18mm (1:100) or 15mm (1:120) using the indicated raw materials, would also be over-scale, and you’d need to rethink what you used – at that scale, the pillar legs would only need to be about an inch in diameter, not the 2-inches of the cardboard toilet tissue tubes – perhaps use something like the card tube from “Smarties” sweets?

Fortunately, for 1:100 / 18mm wargamers using BattleFront’s Flames of War wargaming models and miniatures, there are a number of plastic kit manufacturers who produce E-boat, MTB, MGB and similar models in 1:100, including a couple who also have U-boats in the same scale.  There it gets interesting.  I’ll leave those scenarios to your imagination.

For the ultimate in skirmishing, you could actually set the platform as the battleground – a boarding by kommando or German Naval marines – even one of those crazy stunt assaults that typified early war activity by the Fallschirmjaeger (think Maginot Line assaults with gliders and paratroopers landing on the fort rooves).  This type of game would allow use of 25-28mm figures and models, but obviously would need a serious upscaling of the tower model (3-4 inch plastic household drainage pipe for the tower’s legs?).

Beyond WW2, I’ve seen similar platforms, to both the army and the navy towers, depicted in computer games.  In particular, they’d work great with Mechwarrior, BattleTech, and Dirtside games – albeit modelled at the 1:300 / 6mm scale.  You could probably work them into Games Workshop Space Marine style games – both at 28mm and Epic (6-8mm) scales.  In fact, in any of those game genres, they’d be perfect as game objectives, just as they would in Flames of War or other WW2 games.  If the main game involved coastal craft scrapping it out with each other, you could make the primary objective to be to land assault troops on the tower to capture it – defenders having to prevent the transfer of those troops from marine craft to tower.

Don’t underestimate these towers’ firepower either – in WW2, the Germans used the formidable 88mm (both Flak and Pak versions) for harbour and coastal defence against surface and air attack, and it was highly effective against small craft.  Imagine the  larger 3.7 inch naval anti-aircraft in place of those 88mm’s.

The Maundsley naval towers each had two 3.7-inch (95mm) guns plus two 40mm Bofors rapid fire guns.

The larger calibre was also known to be fitted as standard on small warships, and later it was the heavy calibre of choice for late-war tank-hunter tanks, including the Russian’s super-heavy tanks.  A couple of hits from these would sink an E-boat.

The Bofors was also a formidable early-war anti-tank weapon (if the crews had AP ammunition) and it’s rate of fire would quickly turn a wooden-hulled German gunboat into a colander, before it got too close for the guns to depress far enough – they were installed against aerial targets, remember?  That said, the naval towers’ guns could depress far more than their army counterparts’ weapons could, due to tower design.

Army-Red-Sands-aerialPhoto: Red Sands Army Fort 1960’s, unknown source, probably RAF – note the two gangways leading left of photo, there’s another two towers there in this 7-tower cluster-fort.  Towers with “winged roof” were the gun towers for the 40mm Bofors guns.

The Army towers appear to have only used the 40mm Bofors (I need to research this more).  Additionally, due to their design, any attacking vessels would be “below depression” much further out from the army towers, than from the naval towers.

This might also be why the army’s tower clusters were closer to shore than the naval towers, and closer together (average 3-4 miles instead of 7-8 miles apart).

OK, so there’s some ideas for you to wargame something a little different.  What’s my interest?

Well first up I’m going to have a play and make some scratch-builts in different scales (I’ll photo the builds and finished items, and write them up here in the LRL projects blog, when I get the chance).  I plan doing this just for the fun of experimenting with them to see how they turn out.  Depending on results, I might actually remaster them for the wargames model catalogue in the Long Range Logistics Depot.

If you’ve read this far, and you think that it’d be a good idea for me to master and produce the towers, please add a comment below to let me know your preferred scale, and which of the two types would be your preferred design if they were available to buy.  Also remember to add your ideas for wargame scenarios using them.



[wordbay]WW2 (e-boat, MTB, MGB, U-boat, Bofors, 88mm)[/wordbay]

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