Hartlepool’s Heugh Battery was one of many erected in the mid 19th Century to defend British ports from attack and it was not unusual to have served through two World Wars and protected the coast for over a hundred years. However Heugh Battery stands apart from all other sites as along with the neighbouring Lighthouse Battery, at the Heugh Lighthouse, these were the only British coast defence guns to engage enemy warships in battle. The storm of steel that erupted on a winter’s morning in 1914 was the first attack on Britain since 1797. It was here that the first soldiers were killed on home ground during the First World War and it was for this action that the first pair of Military Medals to be struck was awarded.
The first canon mounted on Hartlepool’s shore may well have been placed close to the Heugh, during the late 16th century, and we know that guns were fired in anger from around here in 1650 when they were used against a frigate attacking a local boat. By 1740 eight guns were mounted just outside the present battery gates in Soulby’s Point Battery, which by the Napoleonic Wars had been renamed East Battery. Abandoned in 1817 East Battery was once again rearmed by the Militia in 1855 as a stopgap measure before their new guns arrived.
The Heugh and Lighthouse Battery were built side by side on the East Battery site in 1860 along with a third battery further north at Fairy Cove. Great efforts were made to strengthen the crumbling cliffs but to little avail at Fairy Cove, where the battery began to topple into the sea a few years later. Heugh Battery mounted four 68pr smooth bore canon while the Lighthouse Battery held two. These could fire out to about a mile and a half but with no great accuracy. They were replaced during the 1880’s by more powerful and accurate 64pr rifled guns. Being the larger site Heugh Battery held most of the stores, offices and workshops and there was also accommodation for the two permanent gunners who lived here. In war the guns would have been manned by part time local men belonging to the Militia or as the century drew to a close, the Volunteer Artillery, aided by a sprinkling of regular gunners. During peacetime the permanent gunners acted as caretakers, living quiet lives in the empty battery. Games of billiards were to be had in the nearby barracks and hours could be whiled away tending the batteries vegetable patch.
Heugh Gun Battery. Photo by Paul Jennings
In 1893 new batteries mounting powerful 6 inch breech loading guns on carriages, which raised the barrels up over the emplacements to fire, made their debut. The cliffs had also been reinforced by a new promenade and the Lighthouse Battery was upgraded for one new gun while two more were placed just north of the town. Heugh Battery was overlooked as an ‘old stone work’ of little value and relegated for the Volunteers practice. However the new guns were both complicated and slow and soon rendered obsolete. After much discussion it was decided to completely rebuild the Heugh Battery for a pair of the most modern guns so that in 1900 virtually all the old site was torn down and two concrete emplacements were built with a strong underground magazine between giving the layout that we see at the battery today. The new guns, the famous Vickers 6 inch Mk VII could at this time hurl a hundred pound shell out to seven miles or more. Lighthouse Battery received similar treatment in 1908 and the older defences were swept away leaving Hartlepool armed with just three 6 inch guns. That same year the Volunteers transferred to the Territorial Force swapping their old blues for khaki. The Heugh Battery had entered the 20th Century.
The day the First World War broke out the gunners were on their way to summer camp only to be turned around at the railway station and sent back to man the guns. Preparations proceeded apace, barbed wire and barricades were erected in the nearby streets and local houses commandeered. The Coastguard War Station was moved into the Heugh Lighthouse and the Fortress Commander moved into the battery to be closer to his men. From dawn to dusk the guns were ready for action. It came on a misty morning just before Christmas on the 16th December 1914.
Determined to bombard the north east coast, five German battleships slipped through an offshore minefield in the breaking dawn. Two made their way toward the unarmed towns of Whitby and Scarborough while the remaining three steamed for Hartlepool. A sixth waited offshore laying mines to snare any British ships drawn out by the raid. The Hartlepool raiders, SMS Seydlitz, Moltke and Blucher slipped through fog to be spotted by a small flotilla of British destroyers. Dwarfed by the battle cruisers the destroyers bravely attacked but out run and outgunned they soon fell away. Crippled, the commanders boat HMS Doon floundered in the sea with three sailors dead. The raiders closed on the town and the battery guns now faced the combined armament of the German ships. The odds were not good, a mere 3 guns to 108.
There was confusion at the batteries. South Gare on the river Tees had identified the raiders as friendly and some of the gunners were convinced that such magnificent vessels could only be British. All doubts were dispelled at 8.03am when the first salvo crashed into the promenade between Heugh and the Lighthouse batteries. One shell ploughed through a ‘machine gun nest’ manned by the Durham Light Infantry and gunners quickly ran from the batteries to give assistance to the stricken men. They too were swept away by the second salvo.
Seydlitz and Moltke soon moved on to begin a general shelling of the town but Blucher remained stationary to concentrate on the batteries. The lighthouse gun broke down leaving only the Heugh Battery to engage the raiders. Nevertheless Bluchers heavy guns could not silence the battery. Unbeknown to the Germans, prior to the war the Commander had erected a camouflage screen that made the battery appear higher. This, combined with the time delay fuse the Germans used that morning, meant that the shells merely bounced off the gun platforms or just sailed over the battery. Realising the guns could not be silenced Blucher changed tactics and began to lay down a barrage of smoke in front of the battery in an attempt to blind them.
The force of the shelling kept putting the Heugh rangefinder out of action, the communication lines were cut and when the lighthouse gun was finally repaired it could not fire as the lighthouse now stood in the way. Only as the German vessels retreated were all battery guns able to fire uninterrupted again, but the range was too great to cause real damage.
In all the Germans fired around 1150 shells into the town over a period of 45 minutes, killing 108 men, women and children, and wounding 467 others. The batteries were luckier, although struck a number of times the shells merely bounced away before exploding and little damage was done. Eight soldiers were killed, most by the first shell just outside the battery gates. The Germans did not escape unscathed however, 9 sailors died on the Blucher when a gun turret was hit and at least superficial damage was inflicted on the other vessels.
After the bombardment Heugh Battery took on a new role as a training ground for Siege Batteries being dispatched to the Western Front and over 2,000 men were taught to handle heavy guns here. Yet despite all this Heugh Battery received no upgrades during the war, rather the decision was made, with the support of Winston Churchill, to consolidate the Tees Defences with the construction of a pair of batteries for 9.2 inch guns at Palliser Battery, to the North of the Town, and Pasley Battery near South Gare. Unfortunately Palliser battery did not last long and shut down in less than a decade after disputes over the lease.
After the war, the defences were gradually run down and once again the Heugh and Lighthouse Battery's held the only guns allocated to Hartlepool’s defence. These were further reduced in 1936 when the Heugh and Lighthouse Batteries were amalgamated. One Heugh gun was removed and the emplacement abandoned so that the new Heugh Battery incorporating the lighthouse gun remained a two gun site. This pair remained Hartlepool’s only defence at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Second World War began quietly on the home front but once France Fell in May 1940 a desperate scramble to fortify the coast began. Hartlepool received many new guns and Heugh Battery became the core of a whole range of new defences around the Town Moor. The battery received a new cookhouse and huts to cater for the influx of men, a rifle range and trench were constructed for training and many local houses were once again commandeered for accommodation. In preparation for the desperation with which defence would be undertaken, the old parade ground made way for a large gas decontamination block.
World War II Field Gun. Photo by Andrew Curtis
The batteries final upgrade came in late 1941 when the occupied emplacements were completely rebuilt for 6 inch Mk 24 dual purpose Coast Defence Anti Aircraft guns. These were powerful weapons on high angle mounts which could be ranged against both ships and distant aircraft. Their range, at almost 14 miles, was almost double that of earlier models. Improvements in control and communications meant that the battery now sat at the centre of a web of observation posts and rangefinders and even a Radar station, all strung out along the coast and linked to a Plotting Room just behind the battery.
The Heugh guns never fired in anger during the war, the only recorded incident being the unconfirmed shooting down of an aircraft by a Lewis gun from the abandoned emplacement. The occasional warning shot was fired over uncooperative merchantmen, but generally the days were quiet and the guns silent. After 1943 coast defence began to wind down as the men took up new postings in the run up to D-Day and finally in 1944 the battery was mothballed.
It was not the end however. The battery was reopened by enthusiastic Territorial’s in 1947. They took their work just as seriously as their predecessors ever had and by giving home to surplus war weapons quickly turned Heugh Battery into a Coast Defence Anti Aircraft training facility. But the writing was on the wall, the initial enthusiasm was blunted by the arrival of large numbers of disinterested National Servicemen, while elsewhere the Government questioned the value of such sites against Russian jets and guided missiles. In 1956 all coast guns were withdrawn and the following year the army returned the site to the town council.
The Lighthouse Battery was demolished almost immediately but Heugh Battery managed to survive for a while as an archery club, reverting as one old gunner remarked, from the most modern to the most ancient. Abandoned again, decay set in and most of the buildings had to be demolished and the gun pits and magazine filled in.
It has now been restored and operates as the Heugh Gun Battery Museum, giving a unique history to the only British gun battery to have fired it's guns in anger during the First World War.
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