The Heugh Costal Defence Battery stood ready for almost 100 years, but went into action against an enemy for less than an hour. However, in 2000, almost fifty years after it had been closed, a small group of amateur enthusiasts decided that the Heugh Battery and the 42 minute Bombardment of Hartlepool were too significant historically to be allowed to be forgotten. Working without funding, electricity or even permission to be on the site they formed the Heugh Battery Trust, had the site scheduled as an Ancient Monument and began to restore the site as a museum and tourist attraction.
Six years latter, Griff Rhys Jones, presenter of the BBC Restoration Programme, described the battery during filming of the TV show, as “A truly wonderful site worth preservation.” Mr. Rhys Jones also declared that it was his intention to visit the site again in the future.
It was on the morning of 16th December 1914 that three German battleships, carrying twenty 11” guns and dozens of smaller calibre armaments, emerged from a light fog off the north east coastal town of Hartlepool. Opposing them, the Heugh Coastal Defence Battery had two 6 inch guns, supported by the single 6 inch gun Lighthouse Battery.
When the German ships steamed out of range 118 civilians were dead, over 200 wounded, the town’s gas manometers were in flames and hundreds of houses were destroyed. Mark Marsay, in his definitive account of the Bombardment of Hartlepool, “The Day the East Coast Bled” estimated that property damage was £200,000 in 1916 values. Military losses were 15 killed and 37 wounded. Private Theophilis Jones of the Durham Light Infantry, who was on sentry duty when the attack commenced, was the first British soldier to be killed by enemy action on British soil during the Great War. A plaque now marks the spot where he died.
Originally built in 1859 the Heugh Battery was designed to guard against possible French invasion; the first armaments were nine 68 pounder breech loading cannon. These were progressively upgraded until 1907 when the guns that engaged the German battleships were emplaced. The Heugh Battery continued to receive new and updated guns after the Great War and ultimately contained Mk 24 radar aimed guns with a range of around 14 miles.
By the 1950’s the technology to launch a nuclear attack by long range missile had made coastal defence obsolete. So, after almost 100 years, the Heugh Battery was closed, the magazines and emplacements were backfilled and most of the buildings demolished. The site became a playground for generations of Headland children and the Battery Command post, with its commanding view of Hartlepool Bay, became home to a bird watching group.
However, the concrete revetments were too massive to be removed. It was their continued existence, nearly fifty years later, that fired the enthusiasm of the volunteers who became the Heugh Battery Trust.
Having the site scheduled as an Ancient Monument opened many doors for funding but ironically placed huge restrictions on the Trust as regards what it can do during its operations. Today there is still water ingress into the refurbished underground magazines and efforts to stem the leaks are hindered by the inability of the Battery Trust to do any digging on the site without the approval of English Heritage.
“Battle damage” Trust Chairman, John Southcott, explained as he pointed out the main features of the brick built, barrel roof of the magazine, “If the water is coming in because of deterioration of the site then we can repair it. However, if it’s due to battle damage then its part of the history of the site and so has to be left alone”.
The site was only accessible to visitors by appointment or on special open days until 2008 when it had the honour of being officially opened, on 18th November, by HRH the Duke of Gloucester. Visitors today can see not only the excavated magazines and restored revetments, with replica guns emplaced, but also the best collection of artillery pieces and associated artefacts anywhere in the north of England. The collection of large calibre guns exceeds that of the Leeds Armouries. The Heugh Battery also recently acquired a Challenger II Tank to go with their Ferret and Warrior armoured cars.
Steve Waites, Projects Director at the Battery, is happy to accompany visitors around the main workshop. Standing beside a grey painted 25 pound light artillery piece, he used the gun to illustrate how activities on the site are now entering a new phase “Until now most of the work has been preservation” he explained, “but now we are going beyond that with this Second World War 25 pounder which we are going to restore to working order.” The provenance of the gun is not totally clear but does have one verifiable claim to fame. The gun was definitely fired at Arnhem! Unfortunately not during the 1944 battle but at the 1977 filming of ‘A Bridge too Far’.
The Heugh Battery is located on Moor Terrace, The Headland, Hartlepool. The site is open 10:00 until 16:00 throughout the year Thursday to Sunday. Special events are advertised on the Trust Website (www.heughbattery.com). Admission is £4.00 for Adults. Children (under 16's)/NUS/OAP £2.50, Family Ticket (2 Adults and 2 Children) £11.00. Veterans, current service personnel and under 5's Free.