A story about Steep Holm's military history should probably start with the island's third and final name change. The word 'holm' is Danish for 'river island' and the description 'Steep Holm' almost certainly came into use during the Viking era. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 914 AD a great force of ships commanded by two Danish Earls came into the area and conducted a series of raids. Historians generally agree that the islands in the Bristol Channel were used as refuges and raiding bases by the Vikings during this period. Prior to the arrival of the Danes, the island had been called Steopanreolice and earlier, in Celtic times, it was known as Ronech.
My interest in visiting Steep Holm related to a much later period however. In 1865, in the face of rising anxiety about the state of Britain's defences, the island was designated as a fortress and work began on a new landing platform on the south side, a circular military road on the plateau, a 49,000 gallon underground water tank, barracks, stores and six separate gun batteries (four of which would be doubles with ammunition stores underneath).
Steep Holm was one of four forts that deployed coastal artillery to stop enemy ships gaining access to the Severn Estuary and threatening places like Bristol and Gloucester. The batteries at Lavernock Point in Wales, Flat Holm, Steep Holm and Brean Down were carefully located so as to cover all of the approaches. Early in the 20th Century the Victorian guns were removed from Lavernock Point and Brean Down for scrap but removal from the islands was an expensive undertaking and so on Steep Holm nine of the original gun barrels remain in situ - mostly in the emplacements that originally housed them.
During the First World War the island was used as a lookout by the Coastguard and, after occupation by various colourful characters, contractors started to dismantling many of the military structures and buildings in the 1930s. Everything changed with the threat to Britain posed by Nazi Germany from 1939 onwards. In May 1941 plans were laid to refortify the island and in July of that year troops from the 930 Port Construction and Repair Company started work. Sadly, three men from the Company died when the Royal Navy tender New Roseland capsized in heavy seas. Sgt John Harwood, Cpl G. Bull and Sapper W. Moyse became the first and only known wartime casualties at Steep Holm (Sgt Harwood is buried under a CWGC headstone in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery).
The War Artist, Miss Ray Howard-Jones painted a picture of one of the guns in 1941 - 6' Naval Gun Emplacement, Gallipoli Gun, Steep Holm (IWM ART LD5325). There are clues as to who manned the batteries in some of the remaining buildings.
The big guns on the island were never used in anger. Gunners are reported as saying that they were frustrated when low flying German bombers skimming the waves could not be touched because the guns could not be sufficiently depressed. By the end of 1943 the batteries on Steep Holm were reduced to 'care and maintenance' status and at the end of hostilities German POWs were drafted in to dismantle the installations and remove the railway winches and trolleys. The wartime pier was demolished after the naval guns were taken away for scrap.
And what of the island now? Well it's been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is a haven for birds and other wildlife. Whilst I was there I walked out onto the pebble promenantry which is exposed at low tide and watched seals feeding in the surf. The island is now owned by The Kenneth Allsop Trust (a registered charity). For more information I recommend the book Steep Holm's Pioneers by Stan and Joan Rendell.