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Artillery being fired at Fort Crosby, 1 August 1940, with soldiers standing by

Fort Crosby: protecting the Mersey coast

The following post about Fort Crosby is based on a talk Alison Burns gave at the Recent Developments in Merseyside Archaeology conference, held in the Museum of Liverpool on 13th October 2018. Alison has also written about the Formby footprints (see the previous link for details).

New research is shedding light on a piece of Mersey defence which has a long history. Alison Burns has produced a booklet about Fort Crosby, with further detail coming from a desk-based assessment (a kind of investigation that uses documents, maps and other archival resources as opposed to excavation) by Mark Adams.

Defence of Mersey and country

The River Mersey has always been important for Britain’s defences. King John founded Liverpool itself partly because of his ambitions over in Ireland, the Mersey crossing at Hale Ford was important in the Civil War, and we all know about Western Approaches. But many installations have been built in the intervening period. Perch Rock, for example, built off the coast of New Brighton in 1826, defended the mouth of the Mersey and the Port of Liverpool. Its eighteen guns looked towards the Irish Sea in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

But in 1882 the whole of Britain’s coastal defences were reviewed by one Lord Morley. Morley found that the defence of Britain’s coasts was inadequate, and amongst other things recommended five batteries in the Mersey. These forts were to be at Liscard, North Shore, Seaforth, Crosby, plus the existing Perch Rock.

Fort Crosby

Photograph of ATS women and soliders at Fort Crosby, Liverpool
ATS girls and gun crews of 177 Heavy Battery Royal Artillery rush to ‘take post’ at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, England (public domain)

It took an incredibly long time to build Fort Crosby: starting in March 1906, work was only completed in October 1907.

From 1914 new troops used Crosby as a muster point, and they lived in the barracks at Sniggery. The fort itself had a surveillance role, as part of the Royal Observer Corps, as well as anti-shipping guns. In all it was a well-developed site, including practice trenches (visible in aerial photographs for years after) in preparation for the First World War.

Dragons’ teeth (anti-tank concrete pyramids) littered the foreshore, and barbed wire protected Formby. There was a starfish decoy (a mound of burning debris used to distract and blind bomber pilots) close by too. Starfish decoys were a slight concern, what with being built from large amounts of burning material so close to artillery and ammunition!

The Fort worked hand in hand with Maunsell Forts, stilted buildings out at sea giving another line of defence. There were three of these in the River Mersey.

After the Second World War

Muansell Towers from above.
Bromborough Dock, 8 December 1953, during the construction of 120ft Maunsell anti-aircraft forts for use in the Mersey estuary

Fort Crosby acted as a prisoner of war camp (Camp 678), holding German and Italian prisoners from 1945 to 1950. They worked on farms and on renovations in the nearby communities. Bert Trautmann, a goalkeeper for Manchester City, became a local legend because of his time here. (One of Trautmann’s achievements was to break his neck during a game but to continue playing!) The prisoners also made toys for local children.

The Maunsell Towers were no longer of use after the war, and were demolished. Territorial Army personnel used the anti-shipping guns of Fort Crosby to destroy them. Lack of gun training meant this took a long time. Only one in ten shots hit their mark! (Incidentally, there is no record of the anti-shipping guns being used against the enemy at any time.)

Reclamation by nature

The area around the fort was not cleared immediately after it fell into disuse. Closure came in 1958, but full demolition and landscaping had to wait until 1968. During this time the buildings had been vandalised, and occasional finds surfaced, like parts of uniforms or rifles.

Eventually, the sand dunes and grasses reclaimed the land; today, only the footing for the guns, plus a sewage pipe and a trig point are visible. Today, rubble from city centre Blitz site clearances protects the coast from erosion, although the area will always be changing.

Image: A 4-inch gun of 177 Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, being fired at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, 1 August 1940.
A 4 inch gun of 177 Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, being fired at Fort Crosby near Liverpool, England, 1 August 1940. This training operation formed part of British preparations to repel the threatened German invasion of 1940. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of an Albright and Wilson Self-Igniting Phosphorous grenade

World War II Grenades found in Kirkby

In 2009, workmen discovered twenty Second World War grenades in Ruffwood Drive, Kirkby, while digging foundations. Police carried out controlled explosions on the grenades.

The AW Bombs (manufactured by Albright and Wilson) were too unstable to move, and were originally designed to explode on impact.

Later in the week, another two A.W. grenades were found in the grounds of the same school.

Grenade manufacturing in Kirkby

Liverpool’s historic landscape influenced even this bit of history. The grenades were probably made at the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) in Kirkby, on the site which later became the Kirkby Industrial Estate.

A similar factory was sited in Speke, as well as other locations around the country.

In the 1930s and 40s the outskirts of Liverpool were popular for this kind of development. The flat landscape provided room for expansion, and the population was increasing rapidly. Following slum clearances in the city centre, men and women had moved to the outskirts. They formed the workforce needed by the factories.

The government of the time judged these areas to be relatively ‘safe’. A huge area of the country , from Bristol to Linlithgow in Scotland, was a fitting place for these factories.

The areas were a good distance from centres of population, but had good road and rail links. Because of this it was easy to take the finished products to where they were needed.

Image: Grenade, Hand or Projector, Drill, No 76 (S.I.P.) (& AW Bomb) (MUN 3306) The ‘live’ version of this grenade, known as the ‘Grenade, Hand or Projector, No. 76, S.I.P. Mk I’, consisted of a short-necked half-pint capacity glass bottle filled with an incendiary mixture and closed with a crown cap. The filling itself was made of yellow phosphorous (128cc), water (21cc), benzine (110cc) and a 3.5in piece of crude rubber, which partially dissolved during storage to give the … Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30021485