All photographs in this gallery have been kindly provided by Tim Willasey-Wilsey ©
The defence of Trincomalee and the 6 inch battery at Hood’s Tower.
Trincomalee in northern Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest natural harbours. Britain held it from 1795 until independence in 1948. In spite of its strategic value Britain devoted surprisingly few resources to its defence. This would come to haunt the Admiralty during the Second World War when Admiral Somerville was obliged to move his base from Trinco (as it was widely known) to Addu Atoll in the Maldives because of the Japanese threat. Many of the guns formerly used to defend Trincomalee can still be viewed around the two main forts, Frederick and Ostenberg.
During a recent visit I obtained permission to enter the naval base and see Fort Ostenberg and the Sri Lankan Navy’s museum at Hood’s Tower, named after Admiral Sir Samuel Hood who played such a significant role in turning Trincomalee into one of Britain’s most important naval bases. Hood himself died in Madras (now Chennai) where his grave can still be seen in St Mary’s Church in Fort St George. The Hood’s Tower museum is best known for its graphic displays detailing the Sri Lankan Navy’s long struggle against the Tamil Tigers.
However tucked behind the main museum is an almost perfectly preserved 6 inch battery of three Mark VII guns intended for the defence of Trincomalee harbour. The battery was installed in 1920 and there is an image of the guns being hauled up the steep hill from the naval base by teams of elephants. The battery may never have been fired in anger, even during the disastrous Japanese air attack on Trincomalee on the 9th April 1942 during which extensive damage was inflicted on the naval base and its oil tank farm. Several ships left harbour in the hope of escaping the Japanese dive bombers but many were sunk including the light aircraft carrier H.M.S.Hermes.
By the time that Britain was asked to leave Trincomalee naval base in 1957 by the newly independent government the battery was already obsolete. Much of the machinery for transferring the shells to the 3 guns had been removed as were the breeches of the weapons themselves. Nonetheless the whole installation represents one of the best preserved 6 inch batteries in existence.
Nearby stands what is labelled as a Muzzle Loading (RML) 12 inch 25 ton gun. However from its size and markings it is probably a 10 inch 18 ton RML. This is a Mark II version probably installed in the 1870s. A second identical gun (painted silver) can be found next to the parade ground at Fort Frederick a couple of miles away. Beside it is what appears to be a Mark I 9 inch 12 ton RML. However the markings on both these silver-painted guns have completely eroded.
Some of these older guns date from the period when defence of Britain’s main naval bases overseas was a hot topic in military circles. Donald MacKenzie Schurman describes how, in 1877, the growing threat of war with Russia stimulated attention to imperial defence. Colonies expressed concern that war with Russia might see their trade and harbours menaced by the Russian navy. One idea was to defend all the coaling stations but the list drawn up in 1873 was too long. The most reasonable basis for the Royal Navy to request military defence would be decide on the strategic value of each site; based partly on its proximity to global trading routes. A committee eventually judged Trincomalee to be the seventh most important site for defence; after Simons Town (at the Cape of Good Hope), Hong Kong, Singapore, Port Royal (Jamaica), St Lucia, and King George’s Sound (Western Australia).
A major problem immediately faced the committee; there were only 34 guns which could be requisitioned for land defence. The Defence Committee recommended these available guns be immediately sent out. In 1888 £2.6 million was allocated to defence of harbours and coaling stations. However progress in building the defences was slow. By the late 1880s work on Trincomalee and Colombo had begun, although further delay was caused by a decision to switch from muzzle loading to breech loading guns. Some of the old muzzle loaders are doubtless the ones still in evidence around the town to this day.
The three 6 inch guns are marked as follows;
BL 6.IN WIRE VII. Details covered by label 1904
BL 6.IN WIRE VII. No L/2342 RGF 1914
BL 6.IN WIRE VII No L/2486 VSM 1918
The RML 10 inch 18 ton gun at Hood's Tower is marked No 291 and 18-0-00
Boyd, Andrew. The Royal Navy in Eastern waters. London; Seaforth, 2017
Willasey-Wilsey, Tim. “The Column to Admiral Sir Samuel Hood” http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/misc/hood.html
Donald MacKenzie Schurman. Imperial Defence 1868-1887
Kennedy, Greg and Neilson, Keith. Far-flung lines: Studies in Imperial Defence in honour of Donald MacKenzie . London; Routledge, 1997
May, Lt-Col Edward. Principles and problems of Imperial Defence. London, Swan, Sonnenschein, 1903
Treatise on the construction and manufacture of ordnance in the British Service. London; HMSO, 1877