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Fort Amherst and Fort Chain Rock Military Batteries

The Narrows, St. John's

Date Last Modified: November 15, 2015

Fort Amherst is located on the south side of The Narrows in St. John's harbour. It is a spot where many go to whale watch and view icebergs. But beneath the current lighthouse, you will find the remains of a WWII battery complex that consists of many rooms, stairways, old artillery guns, and much more. 

In 1771 the King of England ordered a defensive tower to be built at the head of St. John's harbour with the purpose of defending it and the surrounding fishing grounds from French enemy forces. Between 1773 and 1777 a casemated masonry tower with a lead roof and a barbette battery were built here. The battery was armed with four 18 pound cannons and four 24 pound cannons. It was named Fort Amherst after  Lieutenant General William Amherst in recognition of his leadership in the recapturing of St. John's from French forces in 1762. 

It was named Fort Amherst after Lieutenant General William Amherst in recognition of his leadership in the recapturing of St. John's from French forces in 1762. In the following year, this loss would push the French into signing the Treaty of Paris, causing them to lose all territory in North America except for the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

Source: The Rooms Archives

When British forces left North America they left the battery and tower intact.  In 1813 Newfoundland's first lighthouse was built here on top of the original battery. The foundation to the lighthouse can still be seen today underneath the current lighthouse.

 

In the wake of the first world war, the lighthouse and surrounding area were fortified once again creating a defensive battery for the protection of the harbour. The battery was never put to any practical use during the war. 

The WWII Battery

In November of 1940, the World War I battery was commissioned as a "Q" battery, also known as an examination battery by the Royal Canadian Navy. Royal Canadian Navy serviceman stationed here were in charge of locating and tracking unidentified ships nearing the harbour. If a ship with no credentials was found an examination boat would intercept the ship. The battery's orders were to open fire on any ship that did not cooperate with the examination boat. The battery was armed with two 75mm field guns. 

A large two story barrack was also built to the west of the site, between the cliff and the road (remains can be seen next to the entrance to the east coast trail along the road). These barracks housed 92 soldiers that manned the post war signal station and operated a controlled underwater minefield placed outside the narrows.  

In 1941 St. John's was becoming more and more important as a rallying point for convoy ships heading to the war in Europe. This called for the need to fortify and protect the harbour with military defenses. In the Fall of 1941 several buildings and a large, two gun batteries were built beneath the existing lighthouse by the Royal Canadian Navy. There was also a canteen, officers building, and several other buildings built above the lighthouse during this time.

The "B" troop of the 103rd Coast Battery unit of the Royal Canadian Artillery operated two casemated,  4.7 inch, quick-fire guns that replaced the original 75mm guns that were originally located at the battery site. These new guns were each 24 feet long and manufactured by Woolwich Arsenal in England, 1903. They were originally supposed to be put on improvised mounts on Partridge Island near Saint John, NB but were instead shipped to Fort Amherst due to the importance of operations in the area.

In 1946 the Royal Canadian Navy decommissioned the battery and the surrounding buildings leaving them to erode into the sea. The following year the lighthouse was returned to the Newfoundland Government and in 1954 the original stone lighthouse was demolished and the current one built. Two small bungalows were built with the new 20 foot high lighthouse for the lighthouse keeper. Today the light and fog horn are used as an important navigation tool for ships entering St. John's Harbour. 

The main stairway leading down to the battery is now blocked off by Parks Canada due to of the instability of the remains. Large sections of the battery have been washed away completely, while some have fallen down the hillside onto the rocks below. ​

South Side Hills Dams

The water supply for the battery came from a number of dams located on top of the Southside Hills. Water was dammed off and rerouted down a passage where it would gather behind another concrete dam located just above the original barracks. Soon after the dams were built and water began flowing it was discovered that the water was of very low quality and was unable to be used as drinking water. The dams were continued to be maintained and used for firefighting purposes. 

 

Hiking up the east coast trail from the Fort Amherst road you pass by many of these dams and retaining walls. On top of the hills, you will notice several of the ponds are still being held up by these concrete dams. 

March 3, 1941 U-boat Attack

On the night of March 3ʳᵈ, 1941 German U boat, U 587 under the command of Captain Ulrich Borcherdt, managed to sneak pass the military defence battery at Cape Spear and Signal Hill and fired three torpedoes at an old steamer ship entering St. John's harbour. One of the torpedoes missed and was caught in the anti-submarine nets that spanned the narrows. The other two hit the cliffs below the Fort Amherst battery sending a spray of water over the base. The purpose of the attack was to sink the sealing steamer the "Terra Nova" in hopes it would sink and block the narrows, disrupting military ships travelling through them.

 

The incident led to improvements in the harbours protection including new anti-torpedo nets across the harbour and a controlled minefield being placed off the harbours entrance in June of 1942 . 

Fort Chain Rock

Fort Chain Rock is located on the North side of the narrows, below the Queens Battery on Signal Hill.

It is believed that the Chain Rock Battery was the cities first defense battery. It was built around the same time Fort Amherst was built. It got its name because at the time it was constructed, it was an anchoring point for a large chain that would be placed across the Narrows at night as a defensive measure to prevent enemy ships from entering. 

In 1941 Fort Chain Rock was once used again to protect the Narrows. This time however it became the anchoring point of anti-submarine nets that spanned the harbour to protect it from enemy U-boats. The fort was later turned into a two gun AMTB battery to protect the minefield outside St. John's harbour. The two 75mm guns were originally stationed at Fort Amherst before being upgraded. Along with this, the troop was equipped with two 60 inch searchlights.

 

Today the area can be accessed at the lower entrance to the Signal Hill Hiking Trail. Several concrete buildings remain here today. Several old anchoring points can be seen near the water and the foundations to the original fort can be seen here as well. 

Sources

How the Fear of Nazi Attack Turned Newfoundland into an Armed Camp during World War II - by: Paul Collins

The First Landfall: Historic Lighthouses of Newfoundland and Labrador - by: David John Molloy 

Occupied St John's: A Social History of a City at War, 1939-1945 - by: Steven High

NL Archaeology Newspaper Article, March 13, 1989 by: Michael Harrington

"Wartime Ammunition Storage Tunnels Now Housing Explosives And Rum For Ageing" published by The Daily News on Friday, October 19, 1962

"St. John's and the Battle of the Atlantic"  By: Bill Rompkey's (editor)