THE HISTORY OF THE BERRY HEAD FORTIFICATIONS
Written by: D Evans
Abbreviations used in the notes
BH = Berry Head ( Official guide book.) Torbay, n.d.
BM = British Library, the British Museum
DRM = Devonshire Regimental Museum, Wyvern Barracks, Exeter
DRO = Devon Record Office ( Exeter )
PLY = Letter-books, Royal Engineer's Library, Brompton Barracks, Chatham
PRO = Public Record Office (Kew )
Together with those of Maker Heights (now in Cornwall, but part of Devon then) the fortifications of Berry Head form the most impressive defences in the West Country to survive from the time of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Their purpose and function is possibly not apparent to the tens of thousands of visitors who come to the headland every year; in part because of the demolition at the end of the Napoleonic War of the temporary barrack blocks which had once filled the site, and of the disappearance of the sea ward-facing batteries which were their raison d'etre, but also because eighteenth-century fortifications are relatively unfamiliar to English people and their purpose not properly understood.
It may, for example, strike the visitor as odd that coast defence fortifications should face inland; yet in such a situation as Berry Head it would have been pointless erecting massive works on the sides facing the sea, as ships' guns of the time would have been unable to elevate their guns sufficiently to bear on the cliff top. Some protection against musketry was all that was required from that angle. The real threat to coast defence guns lay in their being captured by a raiding force which had been landed further down the coast, possibly unknown to the defenders, and the rear of such works therefore had to be strongly fortified.
The visitor may also wonder why two redoubts were constructed, and the knowledge that there was to have been a third might cause further puzzlement. The two redoubts (and the additional works proposed) in fact form a defensive system and are not to be considered as two separate small forts. The principal area to be defended was the tip of the headland, which contained the main barracks, store-rooms and magazine; the sole purpose of the other works was to defend this by presenting positions to an enemy which would have to be taken first. No eighteenth-century fort was expected to withstand a siege indefinitely; nothing, according to received opinion, was more certain than the result of a properly conducted siege.
The redoubts were constructed in response to the French invasion threats of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and so represent a different, earlier type of solution of the coastal defence to the Martello towers familiar to visitors of the Kent and Sussex coasts. In order to see the Berry Head defences in their historical context some account of the defence arrangements made in Devonshire has been given here.
The Board of Ordnance crops up frequently in the narrative which follows. A few words of explanation about this long-defunct Government department are in order here. It was constituted in 1597, at a time when there was no standing army or navy, forces being assembled when required on an ad hoc basis. Only the means of furnishing them with warlike stores needed to be established on a permanent basis. The Master-General of the Ordnance presided over a Board of four Principal Officers, who were individually answerable to the Master-General, there being no collective responsibility. Berry Head was the last fortification to be ordered during the Master-Generalship of the third Duke of Richmond: the design of the redoubts is partly due to him and the defensive scheme would have been much more elaborate if he had been able to initiate his projected alternative design before his fall from office in 1795.
The Board supplied both the Army and Navy, being subordinate to neither organisation. In 1683 the Board was reformed, and its duties increased. In addition to the issue of stores it now had to provide artillery and engineering trains, with the responsibilities for fortification this entailed. This caused a drastic change in the composition of the Board. The personnel were divided into Civil and Military sections, the members of the Board all being civilians originally. However, the great expansion of the Army during the early eighteenth century produced large permanent corps of Artillery and Engineers, and these began to be appointed to posts formerly held by civilians.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars this process had ensured that the department was largely staffed by Army officers. It consequently began to appear as a duplicate of the War Office, and the situation was rationalised in 1855 (the search for a scapegoat for the failures of the Crimean War also playing its part) by the abolition of the Board, its duties being merged with those of the War Office.
Much of the information which survives about the Berry Head defences therefore naturally comes from the records of the Board of Ordnance. Another most valuable source, which occasionally duplicates the Board's documents, is the sequence of letter-books from the Royal Engineers' office at Plymouth, which preserves fair copies of (not all) the letters exchanged between its commanding officer and the Master-General and Board.
As the Berry Head defences were never called upon to perform in action (the World War 2 anti-aircraft batteries had nothing to do with the fortifications as such) their relatively uneventful history can be best told by the reasonably complete documentation of their construction and disposal.
1 The best general account of the responses to the invasion threat is still that of H.F.B.Wheeler and A.M.Broadley, Napoleon and the Invasion of England, (2 vols., London, 1908).
For the French invasion plans, the same is still true of Edouard Desbriere's ill-arranged and flawed but indispensable Projets et tentatives de debarquement aux Iles britanniques, (5 vols. Paris, 1900-02.)