Two World Wars

The Role of Drake's Island 1900 - 1956

This period in the history of Drake's Island was predominantly influenced by the two World Wars which, for the whole of the Plymouth area, brought drastic changes in military personnel stationed in the various camps, including the manning of the Island, and the direct involvement of the city during 1939-45 through the extensive devastation of the blitz. In spite of these major occurrences the Island emerged unscathed and the closing years of its military use passed without any significant events taking place unless the blowing up of many of the Island's fortifications by the Army prior to their evacuation could be classed as such.

The inter-war years saw considerable changes in the organisation of troops responsible for manning the Island whose establishment in 1932 consisted of one captain, one district officer, two master gunners, one sergeant, one bombardier, three tradesmen, four gunners and five civilian district gunners. This Fire Command unit covered the defence of the nearby mainland as well.

In 1939 there were two 6 inch and five 12 pounder guns on the Island but within a month or two of hostilities some of these were removed and others took their place. A 40 m.m. A.A. gun was installed, the present pier constructed, the slipway strengthened, an ammunition hoist (replaced by the present new one) built and a tall gunnery control erected on top of the island which was demolished by the army in the 1950's. There were also concrete bunkers built, gun sites strengthened and a minefield control post operational from the island which would have detonated mines placed over much of the Sound, had an invasion taken place. By April, 1941, there were 490 troops stationed on this key Island. The number remained around this figure for most of the war. In spite of the German raids on Plymouth and its dockyard the island only suffered slightly from thirty-one incendiaries and several high explosive bombs falling on and around it. One person was injured and the canteen roof was damaged. The 40 m.m. gun engaged an enemy aircraft on 13th June, 1944.

The end of the war heralded for Drake's Island its last years as a military fortress during which its use and value to the overall defence plans of the country diminished to such an extent that by the 1950's it was deemed unnecessary to man it any longer. The scale and change in warfare through harnessing the atom finally brought to an end hundreds of years of military occupation and gave opportunities for this small Island to be put to other uses. In 1956 the Minister of Defence announced that the Coast Artillery was to be disbanded at which time the Island had six l2 pounder guns still operational and manned by twelve officers, eleven W.O.'s and N.C.O.'s and 114 rank and file. In December, 1956, Ministry of Supply contractors removed all the armaments and fittings and demolished much of the gun positions and other military features built during the last war.


Seven discarded old rifled muzzle loading guns left on the island's shore from about 1905 to 1940.

During the years before the outbreak of war in 1914 the armament on the island was three 12 pounder quick-firing guns in the lower battery, three 6 inch breech-loading guns in the main battery and three l2 pounder quick-firing guns in the casemates. There were three officers and sixty-nine non- commissioned men on duty. In 1914 the returns showed then that four officers, eleven sergeants, two trumpeters and 134 rank and file were stationed on the island from no. 45 company which garrisoned it until 1918 when it was entrusted to a new body, no. 3 Fire Command. At the close of the war in l918 the troops numbered twenty officers, five warrant officers, four sergeants, two trumpeters and 178 rank and file.

The concrete gun emplacements along the top of the Island date from at least l9l4 and make up the Island's main fortifications constructed this century. These were serviced from underground shell stores linked by tunnels which are now cleared. Search- lights were also operational from this period, powered by engines installed in the first of the casemates and sited in front of them. Seven old 9 inch rifled-muzzled loading guns were discarded from their positions around this time and were left close to the pier beach (see photographs) until they were cut up in 1940 for scrap.


One of the islsnd's First World War searchlights.


The three upper photographs in this section were taken by a soldier while on duty here in l9l4, are part of an extensive collection showing different aspects of life on the island from the hand operated fire engine, the start of the annual Battle-axe parade and an inspection of the casemates. The lower two show a shell hoist, still in position, and a six inch breech loading gun dating at least from the First World War in position on the island.


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