The day the train gun was tested at Tide Mills

Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon

IN 1860 a Mr Anderson published a paper suggesting that guns could be mounted on railway carriages to give them better mobility. Guns on trains may seem to be a good idea, but there is a big problem with recoil which means the size of gun needs to be restricted, especially if it is fired transversely, that is to say at 90 degrees to the track.

Guns mounted on trains were used during the American Civil War and also by the British during the Boer War. However, before this, the guns were tested out between Seaford and Newhaven.

The gun, called “The Flying Martello Tower” by the local press was the work of the 1st Sussex (Royal Engineer)Volunteer Reserve force who were responsible for defending the Sussex coast.

The idea was to have a mobile gun mounted on a railway carriage on tracks at three locations; from Hastings to Pevensey, from Seaford to Newhaven and from Brighton to Littlehampton. The guns could be used to counter the gun-boats of an invading army.

The official trial took place on the afternoon of Saturday, May 19, 1894, and quite a crowd gathered near the Tide Mills to watch the experiment. The train consisted of two third class carriages armoured with iron plating, the heavy gun and an engine to pull them along. One carriage was to accommodate the ammunition and gunpowder and the second to transport the gun crew. The actual weapon used was a 40lb Armstrong breech-loaded gun. This weapon had been invented by Sir William Armstrong a few years earlier at the Woolwich Arsenal. It had immediately become the weapon of choice for the military, particularly the navy. You may recall me recently writing about how an Armstrong Gun was used in 1860 (shortly after it was developed) in order to destroy Martello Tower number 71 at Langney near Eastbourne.

This time the gun was mounted on a railway carriage, on a turntable which could be manoeuvred by men, by pushing round poles which had been inserted into a capstan. The gun was shielded behind a large armoured turret which had a ‘porthole’ cut into it to allow the range and direction to be determined. The gun-train was built at the London Brighton & South Coast Railway works in Brighton by Mr R J Billington who was assisted by Colonel Pollock of the Royal Artillery.

The event was arranged by the commanding officer of the Sussex Volunteers, Sir Julian Goldsmid MP, and he invited some important guests from London to witness the event. These included the Marquis of Abergavenny (the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, Prince Hugo Schoenburg-Waldenburg (1822-1897) (the prince was also a Prussian general), Lord Henry Thynne (An MP who served under Disraeli) Earl Russel, several MPs and Sir Henry Wood VC (a veteran of the Indian Wars where he was awarded the Victoria Cross). They had travelled down to Sussex by train and had been treated to lunch at Brighton. After lunch the “retreat” was sounded by Private Martin Leonard Lanfried (1834-1902) who had been the bugler that started off the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. The party then set off for Newhaven to witness the experiment.

The man in charge of the gun was Captain Brigden, Sergeant G Russell was in charge of the train and Bombardier Hockney was the gun-layer. There were also other men needed to transverse the gun to ensure the target was hit.

The gun was fired several times towards a cask which had been moored in Seaford Bay, at a distance of about a mile and a half. The first shot was fired by General Sir Francis Grenfell (1841-1925) a veteran of the Zulu Wars and Inspector General at the War Office.

It was found that that there was no problem with the re-coil as the train had been attached to the rails by special clips. The second shot was fired by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford (1846-1919) followed by many more until the target was destroyed.

The experiment was deemed to be a great success by General Sir William Goodenough (1833-1898) the Inspector General of Artillery and when the firing finished the public were invited to inspect the new machine which was hailed to be a ‘new development in defensive warfare’

This appears however to be the last that was heard of the gun. The special tracks along the Sussex coast were never built and I can find no further reports of the “Flying Martello Tower”