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Stop 3: (200 m) Inner gateway to Dale Fort – SM 822 052
The fort is now a field centre run by the Field Studies Council. It is private property, but it is fine for you to go through the outer entrance and down to the main gateway. Notice the defensive ditch outside the walls of the fort. There is a bridge over the ditch, which was once a drawbridge. Just inside the gateway is a public information board detailing the history of the fort.
This Victorian fort was completed in 1856 as a part of a system of twelve fortifications and barracks sited around the entrance to Milford Haven. These constructions were principally designed to deter the forces of Napoleon III of France from attacking the Haven and the naval dockyard at Pembroke Dock. Charles Louis Napoleon had been president of France since 1848, and in 1851 he was given an overwhelming mandate from the French electorate to dissolve the French Second Republic and become emperor. His fighting talk panicked the British government into improving coastal defences of southern England and Wales against invasion. As we now know, these were never used, except as a deterrent. They had only minor uses in later wars.
In the early years the fort was manned by a garrison of sixty soldiers, along with some of their wives and families. By 1861 it mounted seven large (68-pound) smooth bore muzzle-loading cannons facing out to sea, and two smaller (32-pound) cannons pointing inland, to defend against the building being outflanked from the landward side.
However, even by the time these cannons were installed, rapid developments in artillery and warship construction had made smooth bore, muzzle-loaders obsolete, so the outer cannons were converted to rifled (but still muzzle-loading) guns. These were more accurate, and able to fire solid shot that could penetrate the armour of the new ‘ironclad’ warships.
By the 1870s, with the threat of invasion long gone, the garrison had been reduced to eleven soldiers and their families.
In the 1890s, further improvements in warship technology meant that the guns of the fort were again inadequate. This led to an experiment with an unusual American invention, the Zalinski pneumatic dynamite gun. This was a weapon with a barrel 38 cm in diameter and 17 metres in length, which could fire a dynamite-filled shell weighing half a ton a distance of 3 km.
The propulsive force to fire the shell was compressed air, stored in huge underground tanks. Compressed air had to be used because conventional explosive charges would cause the dynamite to explode in the gun barrel.
Although this strange weapon was reliable and accurate, it was soon to be superseded by the invention of stable explosives that allowed an explosive shell to be fired from conventional guns. The Zalinski gun was only in place for a few years before being scrapped.
You can see photos of the gun on the fort information board. The remains of its circular gun emplacement are still in situ at the top of the fort above the laboratories.
In 1902 the fort was sold to Lieutenant Colonel A. Owen-Evans, who began converting it into a private residence for himself and his family. During the First World War Colonel Owen-Evans allowed it to be used as a military hospital. It was also a signal station and formed one end of the Haven’s boom defence.
After the Colonel’s death in 1925, the fort was sold to a Miss M.A Bland, later Mrs Lee-Roberts. She continued to make improvements to the property, such as introducing an electricity supply and building the glasshouse conservatories you can see just beyond the main doorway.
When Mrs Lee-Roberts moved out of the fort in 1942, it was taken over by the Admiralty and put to various wartime uses. These included watching for sea mines, and overseeing the ‘de-gaussing’ of ships in Milford Haven. Enemy aircraft dropped magnetic mines that sat on the sea bottom until they were set off by the magnetic field of a passing ship. De-gaussing involved altering a ship’s magnetic field using electric coils, so that it would not cause a mine to detonate.
Dale Fort was established as a field centre in 1947, and is now one of twenty-nine centres run by the Field Studies Council. It puts on courses in biology, geography and ecology, catering for students from primary school through to university level. It also organises courses for individuals and families covering a range of subjects, such as natural history, art, photography, history and archaeology.
Now walk back the way you came, and find the gate on the left with a signpost for the Coast Path.