We haven’t covered coastal defenses a lot around here, just made one trip (by bicycle, even, that’s how lazy we are) to a Base-End Station that survived from its pre-WWII utility because it was recycled for other uses. The station, a tall concrete tower, survived first as an element of the national air defense system when we had one, and then, when we didn’t, really, as a means for the state to lay a scope on inshore fishermen to ensure compliance with a Federal near-ban n their livelihood, and finally by local gendarmes to keep a beady eye on coastal motorists and radio in the descriptions of the inevitable summer boozers and road ragists. The base-end station towers existed to serve the big guns that were aimed at deterring the approach of enemy warships. The guns themselves had a technology all their own.
Not many sites like that have survived, and the survival of others, such as battery installations, comes more because they are made of thousands of tons of reinforced concrete, and not the cheap stuff used in East Asian bridges and the foundation of your crackerbox home, than because anyone is attached to their historical mission. The mission was aborted — the United States Army closed its last installations in 1950, 63 years ago, and our coasts are now defended by little more than the SIG pistols on the hips of the Coast Guard. Because it’s been a very long time since coast artillery was taken seriously, most tribal knowledge about the system, from “what was in these gun positions” to “how did a crew serve a large gun” to ”how did the interlocking means of coastal defense work?” has been lost.
The Coast Defense Study Group is striving to save the information and coordinate local groups trying to save the sites. Many of the sites are threatened because they are, by definition, sited on prime oceanside or ocean-view real estate, prime enough that the difficulty of demolishing structures built to go toe-to-toe with DKM Bismarck or IJN Yamato can be overcome by sufficient density of cubic dollars.
You see, at one time the US had a comprehensive system of coast defense installations, both minefields (about which information is scarce even today), and artillery. Indeed, not just “at one time,” but at most times of tension and war, and quite a few times of peace, between Colonial times and that 1950 cut-off date (or the date in 1943 when, realizing that the Axis was not going to be bombarding our shores any time soon, the US began mothballing installations and sending Coast Artillery officers and men to the infantry), the Coast Artillery stood guard against enemy ships and aircraft. (Not submarines. Indeed, it was useless against U-boats, one of the facts that hastened Coast Artillery’s end).
The US had three major spasms of fort-building in the Age of Sail, and then renewed activity in the Civil War (which you will remember, began with the bombardment of a coast defense site) and again in the 20th Century, when reinforced concrete offered and ability to fight modern ships with breechloading guns, which the old brick and stone forts could not have done. All these installations are documented to one extent or another at CDSG.
There is information on how the sites observed, tracked, targeted and hit enemy ships. There is information about training and housing of officers and men. There is information about the guns themselves, those fascinating guns, “disappearing” mounts, and equipment, that drew us to the site, as well as maps of locations. (No range fans, unfortunately, at least not that we could find). The communications and drills are explained. Manuals and other period documents are carefully scanned and mounted on the site.
And then there is the curious mythical bird, the Oozlefinch. You see, CDSG also looks into the culture of the Coast Artillery, and the branch had its own mythical bird. The Oozlefinch was first sighted by a Coast Artillery officer circa 1905 — it was large and had large eyes remarkably resembling the dual objective lenses of an artillery optical rangefinder. (The officer may have been somewhat the worse for drink). The oozlefinch was flightless, or, in some versions of the legend, flew backwards. It appeared on many Coast Artillery informal graphics and documents, had a statue erected in its honor, and was the mascot of the Gridiron Club at Fort Monroe, VA (the former home of the Coast Artillery branch and school). The motto is intended to mean, “What the hell do we care?” but probably would have confused a Roman — or a Pope. The Oozlefinch survives as a mascot of Air Defense Artillery, a branch which did not exist in 1905.
Apart from the site, there’s a quarterly Journal and a quarterly newsletter, annual Conferences, and occasional tours of fortification sites. The Group also publishes (and republishes) modern and period books on coast defenses. They provide a number of informative .pdfs on site, for which they ask a small donation.
The Group studies seacoast fortifications worldwide, apparently, but seems to concentrate on the United States Coast Artillery (which was itself worldwide, or at least Pacific-wide, with extensive installations in the Phillipines, Hawaii, Panama, and a few in the Caribbean).
All in all, if you’re curious about big guns and their technology, the CDSG is worth a visit. If you’re a fan, membership is probably worth it.
Special Bonus W4 for European Readers
Alberto Tabone intends to explore surviving European island fortifications and produce video documentaries thereof. His site is Battleship Islands and his first (and to date only) video is about the English Channel island of Alderney, fortified by Britain in the Victorian Age and by Germany in World War II. Because Alderbey was never attacked in WWII and was surrendered intact, many of the German concrete works still stand. In some case, Alberto has used computer graphics to insert removed gun turrets, etc. as he guides you on a tour of the site. We recommend this only to Europeans not because it’s not interesting to the rest of the world, but because the DVD is region-locked and requires a European (Region 2) or regionless DVD player to view.
Battleship Islands is a good counterpart for CDSG.