Fort Nelson is shelling out £3.5 million on its redevelopment this summer, including its new Voice Of The Guns gallery. RACHEL JONES reports on how the project is going.
A ball of flame erupts from the muzzle of a Second World War field gun and fills the range of vision.
This spectacular but terrifying sight would be the last for anyone in the range of the 25-pounder used by the British in the 1940s.
But the explosion is simply on a computer screen in an office at Fort Nelson and is the result of some clever camera work.
The History Channel visited the fort on Portsdown Hill to film a re-enactment of the firing of the gun – one of the exhibits at the site which houses part of the Royal Armouries collection.
The crew wanted a shot in front of the barrel and adopted some film-making trickery to achieve the impressive result.
‘They didn’t put a cameraman in front of it, thankfully. They used a mirror,’ says Sean Mannie, head of Royal Armouries South, showing off the piece of film in his office at the fort.
‘It’s an amazing shot. It really brings home the power of these things.’
The piece of film, which also features a re-enactment of an army crew rushing towards and manning the gun, will run alongside the exhibit itself at Fort Nelson’s new Voice Of The Guns Gallery – part of a £3.5m redevelopment project.
Funded by £2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £1.5m from the Royal Armouries and other organisations, the project includes a new visitor centre and car park, a new glass gallery for the major exhibits, a state-of-the-art education centre and a new suite of galleries dedicated to the history of Fort Nelson and the people who built it. It is due to be completed this summer.
The work is necessary because visitor numbers have increased dramatically, doubling between 2000 and 2005, explains Sean. And some of the exhibits, particularly the 20th century guns, are starting to deteriorate and need to be housed in specially-designed buildings with environmental controls.
He says many options were considered, but there was never any real doubt that the Royal Armouries collections would stay at Fort Nelson.
‘Fort Nelson was specifically designed and built to house big guns so it’s perfect as a museum location. Where else can you install cannons in their original gun emplacements?’
The redevelopment will also allow the museum and its visitors to look further at the human cost of the weapons and conflict.
The Voice Of The Guns gallery has been named after the First World War poem by artillery officer Captain Gilbert Frankau. The building will feature a Voice Of The Guns banner and the first verse.
‘It’s a very evocative piece and we thought should we use it,’ says Sean. ‘But that’s what these things did and it’s very important to remember that although they are incredible pieces of technology they were built for a reason.’
Throughout the gallery there will be quotes from and stories surrounding the people who designed, used or were affected by the weapons.
And re-enactment films will create atmosphere and show further the human story surrounding the exhibits.
Visitors will also be able to continue doing what they’ve always done at Fort Nelson – enjoy living history displays and other events and explore the nooks and crannies of a fascinating historic building.
‘This is very exciting for the people of Portsmouth.
‘We’ll be able to protect the collection for a long time to come and continue housing it in an important building.
‘The forts mean a lot to local people, like myself, who have grown up with all the stories and myths surrounding them.’
Two sections of the supergun bound for Iraq and seized by UK Customs officials in 1990 are on display at the museum.
The world reacted in horror when eight huge pipes were found in crates during a search of a ship at Teesport Docks, Middlesbrough. Other parts of the supergun were seized in transit around Europe.
The parts being shipped had been labelled as pipelines and Royal Armouries also has a packaging label.
The intention of Saddam Hussein’s Project Babylon was to build a series of superguns with a massive range. The complete barrel was to be 500ft long.
The details are still sketchy and there is plenty of mystery surrounding the project. The design was based on research from a 1960s project led by Canadian artillery expert Gerald Bull. Bull was assassinated shortly before the parts were discovered.
Sean Mannie says: ‘The theory remains unproved and there are still a lot of questions. The intentions were unclear. But it’s a very important artefact because of the history of the time.’
The Turkish Bombard – or Dardanelles Gun – is thought of as the ‘original supergun’, due to its size and the fact that there was nothing quite like it in Europe at the time it was built.
So it will be exhibited alongside Saddam’s supergun in the Royal Armouries’ new Voice Of The Guns gallery.
Cast in 1464, it’s an example of the heavy artillery used so effectively by the Ottoman Turks. ‘It was the sort of thing used to smash great cities. Guns almost identical to this would have been used for the fall of Constantinople,’ says Sean Mannie.
The gun at Fort Nelson was cast for Sultan Mehmet II after his armies had breached the massive defensive walls of Constantinople in 1453, marking the fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire.
None of the weapons used in the siege are known to have survived but the bombard is thought to be very similar.
Battle of Waterloo gun
This French field gun was used at the Battle of Waterloo and kept by the British army at the end of the battle as a sort of trophy.
The gun is a six-pounder, which means the weight of the shot it fires is six pounds. It carries the initials of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Second World War anti-aircraft gun
These are the guns that would have been used to defend our cities during the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and throughout the Second World War.
There were batteries defending the Portsmouth area at Fort Nelson, Southwick, Crookhorn, Hayling Island and Southsea Common.
Most aircraft shot down during the early years of the war would have been destroyed by RAF pilots but by the end of the war the anti-aircraft guns were highly effective.
‘But they were always important for the morale of the people.’
‘If you were sitting in your Anderson shelter with bombs falling around you and you couldn’t see the planes above, you would want to hear that we were doing something to protect and fight back,’ says Sean Mannie.
Those manning the anti-aircraft guns included many women, who took on range-finding, plotting and other roles.
A blend of re-enactment using the gun, filmed at the fort by the History Channel, and archive footage will be projected on the wall in the new gallery.
Fort Nelson is one of the chain of defence structures built around Portsmouth in the 1860s because of a perceived threat from the French.
Commissioned by Lord Palmerston, the forts became known as Palmerston’s Folly because by the time they were completed, France had been invaded and defeated by Prussia.
Fort Nelson was disarmed around 1907. But it was during the first half of the 20th century that it saw its busiest period.
The fort was used as a transit camp during the First World War and a major anti-aircraft store and battery in the Second World War.
After 1945, it was used as a store by the Army and later the Royal Navy.
By the late 70s the fort was derelict and deserted.
Hampshire County Council rescued the site in 1979 and there was a gradual restoration.
In 1988 the Royal Armouries, which also has collections at the Tower of London and the national museum in Leeds, agreed to lease Fort Nelson from the council, which continued with the restoration.
It was opened as an artillery museum and historic monument in 1995.
Visit the fort
Fort Nelson is open while the building work continues. Admission is free but there may be charges for some events. Visit royalarmouries.org