Friday, 15 December 2017

Vaxholm Fortress - Stockholm's Lock

The island of Vaxholm is a leisurely boat ride from the city of Stockholm and makes for a lovely day trip with it's brightly coloured houses, picturesque harbour and quant waterside restaurants. There are two shipping routes through the archipelago which sits between the city of Stockholm and the open sea. Of these, the channel that runs between Vaxholm and Rindo is the most important and it is not surprising therefore, that Gustav Vasa chose to build a fortress on this spot in the 16th Century.

Vaxholm Fortress
Prior to the 19th Century Stockholm sat in the middle of a Swedish empire which incorporated what is now Finland along with Latvia and Estonia. More recently Vaxholm's strategic importance has been sharpened because, in the context of 19th Century Sweden, Stockholm faced directly into territory controlled by potential enemies - in particular Russia and Denmark.

Vaxholm's Strategic Importance
The islet on which the modern day fortress was first used for military purposes in 1548 when part of the Oksdupet channel was blocked in order to force shipping into the narrow passage past Vaxholm. In Vasa's era considerable improvements were made, including the construction of a three storey tower.

The fortress first proved its' value in 1598 when a Polish fleet was stopped by the guns deployed on the islet's ramparts. Similarly, a Danish fleet was sent packing fourteen years later in 1612. Just over 100 years later a Russian fleet was repulsed by the island's garrison of 400 men serving 80 guns.

Following the Finnish War of 1808-9 between Sweden and Russia further improvements were made to the fortress at Vaxholm and during the period 1833-63 the citadel was completely rebuilt. Two metre thick walls were lined with granite blocks and the fortress was armed with 150 230mm guns served by a garrison of 1038 artillerymen.

Early 20th Century Naval Gun
Through the ensuing one hundred years or so various improvements were made to the Vaxholm defences. During the World Wars the fort saw no action although in the early 1940s Polish submarine crews were imprisoned in the citadel. The cold war brought further developments including a post WW2 upgrade of the batteries.

Post War Artillery Cupolas
In the year 2000 the island's defences were decommissioned and the citadel was fully opened as the Fastnings Museum which was extended and improved in 2003 - home to a fascinating array of exhibits illustrating the history of Sweden's coastal defences. The islet on which the fortress sits is accessed via a chain ferry which runs back and forth to the nearby island harbour.

Vaxholm Chain Ferry
It is possible to walk right around the island and well worth doing so as many of the later defences are still intact including the last iteration of the main battery. The museum is superb and will easily soak up a couple of hours. Finally there is an cafe in the inner courtyard where al-fresco diners can enjoy a lunch sitting amongst decommissioned sea mines of all shapes and sizes.

For a taste of Vaxholm's beautiful water front click here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Britain's Last Invasion - Fishguard (1797)

A family walking holiday in beautiful Pembrokeshire proved to be a great opportunity to investigate the last invasion of Britain. Following the French Revolution, there was an expectation that the days of the aristocracy were numbered - not just on mainland Europe but also across the channel in the United Kingdom. The newly installed French revolutionary government thought that West Wales would be an excellent place to 'light the touch-paper'.

Llannwnda and Carregwastad Point
The French plan entailed landing a force of 15,000 men at Bantry Bay in Ireland. Two diversionary attacks were planned - one in West Wales (with an advance towards Bristol) and the other in Northumberland (with an advance towards Newcastle). The forces bound for Bantry Bay and Northumberland returned to France prematurely after suffering a number of setbacks. The third force, heading towards Fishguard, proceeded as planned - and on the 22nd February 1797 1,400 men of La Legion Noir under the command of renegade Irishman Colonel William Tate came ashore at Carregwastad Point, near Fishguard.

Llannwnda Church
St Gwyndaf's Church, Llannwnda
The invasion was a complete surprise but nevertheless the Pembrokeshire Militia were quickly mobilised under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Colby. Approximately 5,000 men from various local units were available to push back the invaders. 

Tate's men, however, seemed more inclined to explore the farmhouses and settlements close to the landing place. They lit fires, looted possessions and drank copious amounts of alcohol. St Gwyndaf's church at Llannwnda was ransacked and there were reports of violence against local civilians, including two rapes.

The next day the newly arrived County Militia units began to deploy on the heights (such as Carnwnda) around the villages where the French had spent their first night ashore. Tate's men were tired, cold and hungover. Morale was in freefall. By nightfall on the second day, the local British troops were settled in Fishguard. Tate decided that there was no point in continuing and he sent his second in command, Baron de Rochemure, and his ADC Francois L'Hanhard to negotiate a French withdrawal.

The author with his eldest Granddaughter, Scarlett
The two Frenchmen were guided into Fishguard by Thomas Williams of Caerlem, whose wife had been shot and raped, to a house in Fishguard which now serves as a public house - The Royal Oak.

The negotiation was initiated by Colonel Thomas Knox, commanding officer of the Fishguard Volunteers but undertaken by Lord Cawdor, Captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry. Cawdor insisted on unconditional surrender and the next morning the French mustered on Goodwick Sands where Tate gave up his sword in a final act of compliance.

The Surrender
In his excellent book 'Britain's Last Invasion: Fishguard 1797' J.E.Thomas describes the the scene on Goodwick Sands as 'pathetic'. Thomas draws from John Manners, 5th Duke of Rutland's Journal of a tour through North Wales (1805) who quoted eyewitness accounts saying that many of the French "were at this time very ill with flux, which they had brought over with them. Some of them were dead".

View of Fishguard Harbour - Goodwick Sands are to the Left
Amongst the myths and legends associated with this battle, are a number of stories concerning the role of local women in the successful defence of Fishguard. One woman, named Jemima Nicholas, is reputed to have captured six French soldiers. These stories invariably feature women dressed in traditional Welsh dress and some commentators wrongly attribute the French surrender to officers mistaking these angry Welsh ladies for the feared redcoats of the British Army.

Commemorative stone to Jemima Nicholas
Thomas says that when Jemima died in 1832 the Vicar of Fishguard wrote in the Parish Register: 'The woman was called Jemima Vawr i.e. Jemima the Great, from her heroic acts, she having marched against the French who landed hereabouts in 1797, and being of such personal powers as to be able to overcome most men in a fight. I recollect her well' (my italics).

What is there to see now? Well, there are a number of reference points on the battlefield. A monument at Carregwastad Point and another In Fishguard, Llannwnda Church, The Jemima Nicholas headstone in Fishguard and, nearby, The Royal Oak Public House. The topography is unchanged and at low tide it is a simple matter to stroll across Goodwick Sands. The most impressive vestige - by far - is the stunning Invasion Tapestry which can be viewed in Fishguard Library - 70 women, two years work and 97 different colours.