Monday, July 08, 2013

Two if by sea

It was back in June of last year that we talked about the bizarre little "Battle of Clatsop Plains" where a single Japanese submarine lobbed some random 5" shells at the continent of North America and succeeded in sinking the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery Corps.

The whole magilla was one of those fascinating but utterly trivial bits of history that have always intrigued me. But as part of the whole conversation about the events of June 1942 and their part in the final quietus given fixed fortifications by airpower I commented:
"These brick-and-mortar (or steel-and-concrete) fortifications) were a huge part of human geopolitics, economics, and society for, what, something like 400-500 years? Pretty much from the invention of cannon to the middle of the last century. They squatted pretty much everywhere human beings traveled by land or sea, peering out or down at the passageway they blocked off with a frown, ready to hammer away at anyone or anything that tried to pass through against the wishes of the holder. They helped make and break nations and empires, rerouted trade, shaped people's lives and politics for generation after generation.

And in a single human lifetime they were gone. Sure, there are minor tactical fortifications and bunkers here and there. But these huge coastal defense forts, their cannons, logistical support, infrastructure...gone as if they had never been.

That's a hell of a huge change. And yet we don't really even think about it other than to sort of shrug..."
I think that's a pretty good summation of my thinking about these structures; like an abandoned colossus, they are fraught and yet empty, a clanging reminder of what was important at the same time they remind us of how so much has changed.

Here are yet another example of "abandoned strongholds": the Maunsell Sea Forts.

Apparently the British Ministry of Defense set up about ten of these proto-oil-drilling-platforms in the early Forties as a sort of unsinkable antiaircraft/patrol vessel in the waters of the narrow seas of southeastern England:
"Part of the Thames Estuary defense network, the anti-aircraft tower-forts were constructed in 1942, with each fort consisting of a cluster of seven stilted buildings surrounding a central command tower. When operational, catwalks connected the buildings. Built on land and then transported to their watery homes, the forts were designed by Guy Maunsell, a British civil engineer, later known for innovations in concrete bridge design. Originally there were three of these forts (in the Thames approaches), but only two are left standing: the Redsands Fort and the Shivering Sands Fort."
Note that the structures referred to here, and shown in the picture above, are the "Army" forts. The Royal Navy had another four of these things but built on a very different design:

The all of these structures were designed to destroy or deter German aircraft, either commerce raiders or mine-layers. I have no real idea how successful they were at doing this; one suspects perhaps not particularly, since the Luftwaffe doesn't seem to have bothered to really try and destroy them.

They were abandoned soon after the end of the war and their subsequent history ranges between the faintly grubby and rather sordid to completely ridiculous.

And when I say ridiculous, I mean that in a good way; the tale of the "Principality of Sealand" is right up there with the great burlesques of history;
"On 2 September 1967, the fort was occupied by Major Paddy Roy Bates, a British subject and pirate radio broadcaster, intend(ing) to broadcast his pirate radio station, Radio Essex, from the platform. In 1968, British workmen entered what Bates claimed to be his territorial waters in order to service a navigational buoy near the platform. Michael Bates (son of Paddy Roy Bates) tried to scare the workmen off by firing warning shots from the former fort. As Bates was a British subject at the time, he was summoned to court in England on firearms charges following the incident. But the court ruled that as the platform (which Bates was now calling "Sealand") was outside British jurisdiction, being beyond the then three-mile limit of the country's waters, the case could not proceed. In 1975, Bates introduced a constitution for Sealand, followed by a flag, a national anthem, a currency and passports.

In August 1978, while Bates and his wife were in England, Alexander Achenbach, who describes himself as the Prime Minister of Sealand, hired several German and Dutch mercenaries to spearhead an attack of Roughs Tower. They stormed the tower with speedboats, jet skis and helicopters, and took Bates' son hostage. Bates was able to retake the tower and capture Achenbach and the mercenaries. Achenbach, a German lawyer who held a Sealand passport, was charged with treason against Sealand and was held unless he paid DM 75,000 (more than US$35,000 or £23,000). The governments of the Netherlands, Austria and Germany petitioned the British government for his release, but the United Kingdom disavowed his imprisonment, citing the 1968 court decision. Germany then sent a diplomat from its London embassy to Roughs Tower to negotiate for Achenbach's release. Roy Bates relented after several weeks of negotiations and subsequently claimed that the diplomat's visit constituted de facto recognition of Sealand by Germany.

Following his repatriation, Achenbach and Gernot Pütz established a "government in exile", sometimes known as the Sealand Rebel Government, or Sealandic Rebel Government, in Germany. Achenbach's appointed successor, Johannes Seiger, continues to claim via his website that he is Sealand's legitimate ruling authority."
Prime Minister of Sealand, indeed...

I hate to even admit this, but the first thing I thought of when I saw pictures of these things was; Waterworld!

Yes, I'm a dork; I actually watched that dog, though in my own defense it wasn't until it was out on video. But you get the connection, right? Freakish industrial artifacts sitting derelict and alone in the middle of the limitless ocean.

We just seem to have...outgrown seems like the wrong word, but...changed all out of compass with these fixed fortifications. Like the hand loom and the wooden plough they seem hopelessly outmoded; unlike the loom and the plough they seem useless even for antiquarians and handcrafters. One can still weave a shirt on a hand loom and plough a furrow with a wooden moldboard plow. What earthly use are these damn things other than as rookeries for seabirds and the setting for the adventures of radio pirates and loopy fantasists with comical principalities?

At any rate, there they sit, slowly losing their war against the sky and sea, strange artifacts that seem as antiquated and obsolete as the Pyramids for all that they are younger than my own father.


I wonder if being a Knight of Sealand would help me get out of parking tickets?

Something to look in to another day...


basilbeast said...

Lost Martians from the "War of the Worlds"?

great story and images though.


Ael said...

Sealand reportedly has decent internet connectivity. Might be convenient for some people to put a server or two there.

teo said...

Back then we have found a very concentrated and cheap energy source. Oil.
That commodity made the rice of mobility very low and condemned fixed defences to the trash bin.

Very interesting observation as usual , Chief. I have a better understanding of many events since I have been reading your blog.

FDChief said...

teo: Not sure if the internal combustion engine itself doomed the old forts as much as the combination of that and powered flight. Once you could attack these things from above they really lost their usefulness quickly.

Plus, as you point out, with increased mobility came increased tactical flexibility. You could bypass a big fixed fort more easily and so as a defender it made more sense to move to "moveable" fortifications; dug-in infantry and tanks covering minefields and all with air cover...

teo said...

Powered flight needs ...power.
Internal combustion could provide it. No other source of energy light and powerful enough is known.

Of course forts have continued to exist long after they lost their usefulness. In a more "underground" form they still exist.

You identified the inflexion point in the collective mental universe.
If - or rather when - fuel becomes prohibitive and society much poorer a return of the old fortifications is a given.
Mobility is very expensive. Energy rich societies have the wealth and manufacturing base to support large mobile forces of planes and ships necessary to cover space.
Energy poor ones can afford only to build some sort of fortifications in time, sometimes decades, and to man them with some grunts - as cheap as possible - armed with fixed weapons.

As I see it, it's an energy equation as anything else in the living world.
Availability of high energy concentration food offered advantages to fast predators. Armored turtles lost. A low energy density foodstuff environment would wipe out the fast super predators in an instant.

In the 40' US went over 200 mil tonnes of oil produced. Plus Mexico and Venezuela - that was really big. It was a society who had access to over 300 mil tonnes of oil. Plus the enormous manufacturing sector - that worked on coal - which produced millions of engines to use that energy bounty.
The only blockage was a mental one, which allowed forts to survive up to that moment.
You identified the moment when that blockage was broken in the end by the reality of the new age.
Who knows how many others exist in our time also.