The Isle of Wight At War

Due to its strategic position near the entrance to Portsmouth and Southampton harbours, the Isle of Wight has been the focus of many a military invasion. Local author Fidelis Morgan marches briskly through the island’s bellicose history.

“… As we learn by their own accounts, at the very moment such mist swirled over the surface of the sea that the hostile fleet, on station at the Isle of Vecta as look-out and in ambush, was bypassed with the enemy in total ignorance, and thus unable to delay our attack, still less resist it. …” (Panegyric on Constantius Caesar 15)



“I’ve served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall I have no other home than this, nor any life at all. Last night I did not understand, but now the hour draws near That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.” The Roman Centurion’s Song, Rudyard Kipling.

The Romans came first, and built houses, vineyards and perhaps a road. They also gave it the name Vectis, which survives on the local buses.  {Roman villas at Brading and Newport open to the public}

Shortly after the Romans gave up on Britain, the Saxons arrived on the Island, swiftly followed by the Jutes, until the Saxons won it back. King Egbert of Wessex, sweetly donated the Island to Winchester Church in 826.   When, 71 years later, Viking ships threatened Brading, King Alfred (of the burnt cakes) forced a sea battle and saw them off. The following century it was the turn of the Danes to have a go.

“….and they brought much plunder with them to their ships, and sailed thence for the Isle of Wight, where they went about at will, encountering no resistance. No fleet by sea nor levies on land dared approach them however far inland they went. In every way it was a hard time, for they never ceased from their evil deeds.”
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1001

image007_0001They were more successful than the Vikings and took over a large part of West Wight. The name of Swainstone Manor is a relic of the Danish leader Swein (the swine!). Raiders from Flanders arrived in 1052 and 14 years later the big invasion – the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror gave the Island as a present to his friend William Fitz-Osborne {from whom derived the name Osborne House}. In turn the Conqueror’s son, Henry I, gave it to Richard de Redvers, whose son founded a monastery at Quarr. {mass and retreats available to public}.





image009In 1293, on her deathbed, the last of the Redvers, Isobella de Fortibus, one of the wealthiest magnates in the country, officially sold the Island to Edward I and the Island became part of England.






image010 Centuries of peaceful consolidation and building followed until 1335 when the French started sending ships. They successfully burned down Portsmouth and invaded the Island at St Helens in 1338 at the start of the Hundred Years War. They were eventually repulsed. But rich Islanders upped sticks, moving away in droves  (the ones who hadn’t been wiped out by the Black Death). With the population of this strategic place dwindling fast, an Act of Parliament threatened land confiscation to all who fled.

The French persisted with their invasions – between 1377 and 1404 successfully taking the north, landing over 1700 men, destroying Newport and surrounding villages and laying siege to Carisbrooke Castle.







image012Eventually the French went home, and the Hundred Years War ended without the Island becoming an outpost of France. Henry VIII came to the throne about 50 years later. He demanded the restocking of the navy at Portsmouth (think of The Mary Rose) then moved his plans to the Island, naturally dissolving the monastery at Quarr, then ordering major defences to be built on the Island – castles and forts at Sandown, Yarmouth {still there and open to public} East and West Cowes, {now The Royal Yacht Squadron}. By 1548 the Island boasted not only no further French landings, but “no hooded priests, no lawyers, no wolves and no foxes.”

Ten years later it was a different picture. Now the Spanish were coming in their Great Armada. The first major sea battle was fought off Ventnor. Many ships were lost. According to ongoing tradition the locals rushed to the beaches to plunder the richly carved wood and artefacts which had drifted ashore. Many Island homes acquired handsome wainscotting at this time {some of which can still be seen at East Dene in Bonchurch.}


The very year that the great and huge fleet of the Spaniard came by the Isle of Wight was at Maudlintide in the year of our Lord God 1588 in the which God defended us. God preserve our Queen and realm this day and for evermore, and send us truth and quietness withing ourselves.”
Rev John Baker, Vicar of Carisbrooke in his diary, 26th July 1588



In the seventeenth century Charles I was delighted by the military training manoeuvres he witnessed on Arreton Down. But when the Civil War broke out in 1642, the Island fell to the Parliamentarians with only one shot fired. Nonetheless in 1647 Charles chose the friendly Island for refuge. The Islanders promptly locked him up in Carisbrooke Castle and handed him over to Cromwell.

image015Another Revolution, this time in 1789 in France, started another wave of military activity on the Island. A huge new army barracks was built at Parkhurst {now the prison}. Fears about the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars came to nothing, and, rather, increased the prosperity of the Islanders, who provided supplies.


But revolutions burst out all over Europe in 1848 and in 1852 another Bonaparte, Napoleon III, assumed the title Emperor. Viscount Palmerston sprang into action and commissioned major defences on the Island – a military road was built between Blackgang and Freshwater {still there – marvellous view}, onshore forts at Yarmouth {Forts Victoria and Albert still there ~ FV now a planetarium and tourist centre} and batteries built on Culver Cliff and above The Needles {both still there}.   In addition 4 huge Forts were built in the middle of the


Spithead. These buildings in the sea, amazing feats of engineering, never saw any action, but can be seen from Ryde ferries and Culver Cliff.   {Spitbank Fort takes occasional tours. It is incredible.} No Man’s Land Fort has been converted to a luxury home with tennis courts, indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, gym, 2 helipads, bars and 21 ensuite bedrooms.   It is now and then seen on Estate Agents books with an asking price of over 5 million.


During the First World War the Victorian batteries on Culver Cliff and The Needles were fitted with anti-aircraft weapons.  Accommodation for the incoming soldiers was provided by old railway carriages. The Isle of Wight Rifles lost 700 men at the battle of Gaza and there are war memorials in many Island towns to the lives lost in that war.

But the Island saw even more serious action during Second World War. A very early radar station was built on St Boniface Down, and the old batteries were updated with swivel gun emplacements   {the bases can still be seen at Culver}. The Pipe Line Under The Ocean (PLUTO) was laid across the Island from Cowes to Shanklin before being dropped into the sea at Sandown Bay, bound for Cherbourg. It was laid in ten hours! {there are visible signs and a display at Shanklin Chine}.

One of the Ryde-Portsmouth ferries, laden with explosives, blew up mid Solent, and a Cowes- Southampton paddle steamer, The Gracie Fields, launched by the star in 1936, was sunk in the Dunkirk evacuations, causing Island resident John Betjeman to write: “we were proud of the Gracie Fields, for she was the glittering queen of our local line, and instead of taking an hour over her voyage, used to do it, churning like mad, in forty five minutes.”


A major air-raid – one of the famous Baedeker raids, in which the Luftwaffe targeted pretty places of no strategic importance with the aim of rewriting the guidebook to Britain – bombarded Cowes on the night of 4th May 1942. Fortunately a Polish warship, ORP Blyskawica, happened to be in port that night for a refit – the heavily armed destroyer had been built in Cowes. The Captain turned all his weaponry on the German planes and made a smokescreen which protected the northern part of the town. The guns became so hot they had to be constantly hosed down, and additional ammunition was brought speedily from Portsmouth. More than 70 locals were killed that night and a major part of the southern town destroyed, but there is no doubt that the Poles’ action saved Cowes. A small public square between Corries Cabin {best fish & chips on the Island} and the back of The Anchor pub {old coaching house pub in Cowes High Street} has been recently named Francki Place after the Captain. The ship is now a museum based in Gdynia.