The Needles Batteries at War

AA Gun
• The First World War
     • Attacks by U Boats
• The Second World War
     • The Battle for the Air
     • Flight Lieutenant John Dundas
     • The Needles At War
     • D-Day Armada
     • Peace At Last

The First World War
During the First World War (1914-1918) the batteries were occupied using old railway carriages for accommodation, and the command post was given an armoured roof. Three blockhouses were constructed for an infantry garrison who defended the landward approach with barbed-wire entanglements and machine-guns.<Top>

U Boats Attack
All the combat took place offshore after the German High Command adopted unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. In January the German Submarine UB35 sank two ships off The Needles. The first, on the 20th January, was the huge 9,044 ton armed escort ship SS Mechanician. Two torpedoes ripped open the 500 foot hull, killing 13 of the crew. The survivers beached the ship on The Shingles and abandoned her. There was talk of salvage but the great ship sank into the pebbles and was never seen again.

Two days later UB35 torpedoed the 3,677 ton SS Serrana west of the Needles. The armed merchant ship limped as far as The Needles Channel before she broke in two and sank. Only two of the crew survived.

With the end of the war in 1918 the military left The Needles and the Island's own territorial infantry regiment was converted into 530 Coastal Artillery Regiment. They periodically came to The Needles for pratice.<Top>

The Second World War
The Second World War in Europe started early for a Cowes man at The Needles. On the 23rd August 1939, eight days before the German invasion of Poland, R.J.Davies reported to the local drill hall of the Island territorial regiment. At 4:30pm he and his comrades found themselves in the back of a truck bound for The Needles Battery. He said, "I never donned civilian clothes again until April 1946".

The two 9.2" guns and two machine guns were manned by about 50 men from Cowes and Freshwater. Conditions were very basic and leave was restricted, and as the war went from bad to worse, the garrison was repeatedly weakened. In 1940 there were only 15 men left to guard the battery, working shifts of 48 hours and putting up a dummy gun and soldiers to give the impression of greater strength.

Plans were made to fight on the Island. If the Germans invaded, they would first be attacked on the beaches, then Newport would be the point of defence. If Newport fell, the final defence was to be in West Wight.<Top>

The Battle for the Air
On 8th August 1940 The Needles garrison watched almost helplessly as the German Luftwaffe unleashed a devastating attack on coastal convoy CW9. The battle of convoy CW9 had started the night before but reached its climax in huge air battles over the Island's coastline from midday. When the leading ships of the battered convoy reached the Needles, the Germans launched their greatest attack, with 160 fighters, fighter bombers and Stuka dive bombers. Three RAF squadrons roared to the convoy's defence, and the sky above was twisted into a giant knot of 200 vapour trails while the ship's barrage balloons were shot down in flames and Stuka dive bombers screamed down to drop their bombs, raising pillars of water around the stricken ships. Two German and one British fighter crashed into the sea off The Needles. At the end of the day only four of the 29 ships were undamaged and seven had been sunk. Nineteen German and ten British aircraft had been destroyed.

Three days later another huge air battle took place when 176 German planes attacked the Dorset ports. One Messerschmitt and one Hurricane crashed into the sea off The Needles. On 25th August the RAF drove off a force of 150 German planes attacking Weymouth, one of the enemy's aircraft crashing nearby. Over the rest of August and September two German bombers and two Spitfires were shot down around The Needles.

Following their defeat in the Battle of Britain in 1940 the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing in 1941. On the 8th May a Heinkel bomber crashed at Farringford killing three of it crew and on the 7th July a further three Heinkels, returning from a raid on Bristol, were shot down in the sea just off The Needles. In 1942 another British plane, a Bristol Beaufighter, crashed off The Needles when its starboard propellor flew off. The crew were rescued.<Top>

John Dundas Memorial

John Dundas
The final air battle witnessed from The Needles was fought on the grey afternoon of the 28th November 1940 between a raiding group of Messerschmitt 109s under Major Helmut Wick, Germany's youngest major, who had already shot down over 50 allied aircraft, and a group of Spitfires led by Flight Lieutenant John Dundas. Both men were killed in the vicious battle, neither body was ever recovered from the sea. The British lost five Spitfires, but the Germans also lost one of their best officers, and they never appeared in such force in daylight again. A memorial for John Dundas, photograph on the right, can be found on the cliff path just east of Freshwater Bay.<Top>

The Needles At War
While the war roared overhead and at sea, The Needles defences were being transformed. In 1941, following machine-gun attacks by German fighters, the 9.2" guns were clad in steel. They were defended from land attack by barbed-wire emplacements and deep trenches dug to prevent German glider landings. In 1942, 700 land mines were laid, and the area traversed by infantry trenches, defended by machine-guns and a 60-pounder field gun. Forty infantry soldiers were stationed there for the batteries defence. The navy and RAF also arrived, to run the Port War Signal Station, in the Old Battery, and the radar. In 1941, electricity replaced oil lamps and candles.

In 1943 the radar-guided guns twice opened fire on German torpedo boats attempting a night attack, and the anti-aircraft guns damaged a Focke Wolf 190 fighter. By that time the Island had a garrison of 17,000 troops and thoughts turned to the Allied invasion of Europe. The Needles cliffs were used for training the troops for the invasion.

During the war the whole area of Alum Bay was often evacuated as far back as the Highdown Inn, and the hills and Warren Farm were occupied. For the duration of the war the areas' houses became military playthings, used for target practice and exercises.

The Needles Battery Road was marked out with canvas targets to be machine-gunned by Hawker Typhoons roaring over Headon Warren. Infantry threw phosphorous bombs at pits and army bren-gun carriers and armoured cars would tear about the High Down. Warships lying off the south coast would lob live artillery shells at Headon Warren; one of them fell in a field next to the Golf House. On one such occasion a young shepherd had not been warned and he was still minding sheep on the High Down as the shells came over his head!<Top>

The D-Day Armada
In June 1944 the people of the Island watched the extraordinary site of the Allied armada sailing away to the Normandy beaches, some 4,000 ships, the sky leaden with Allied warplanes. On the 5th June 1944 the Batteries watched part of the D-Day invasion force pass the Needles on its way to France. Following on the success of the Normandy landings enemy activity at the Needles was minimal.

Peace At Last
After hostilities ceased in 1945, and the troops left, both batteries were deactivated and the downs became the domain of the rabbit again. The batteries were moth-balled and put up for disposal in 1952. In 1954 the guns were scrapped.

Alum Bay and The Needles by J.C.Medland (ISBN 1809 392 03)
A. T. Gilliam author of Wight Air Wrecks (ISBN 0 7524 2376 2)