The Survival of the Biggest…

Keeper of Artillery, Nicholas Hall tells us how the British Army’s biggest gun survived from 1918 until today and why its arrival at Fort Nelson was the highlight of his career.

I heard about the existence of a British railway gun sometime in the late 1980s, whilst development of the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson was underway. Luckily for me, the Ordnance Society arranged a visit to the artillery ranges at Shoeburyness, Essex, in 1989. A highlight was viewing the last British railway gun to survive – the mighty 18-inch Railway Howitzer. Although no longer used for trials, it was maintained in excellent order as an ‘asset’. Little did I know that one day it would come to Fort Nelson.

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

But after my trip to Shoeburyness, I never forgot about it and wondered what would happen to the 180-tonne gun when the New Ranges were rationalised. It was transferred to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust and displayed near the Royal Artillery Museum at the Rotunda, Woolwich. When the Artillery Museum moved into the old Royal Arsenal, the Railway Howitzer was taken to Larkhill, the Royal Artillery’s new HQ. It was safe at Larkhill but it was rather tucked away, even from those on site. Before travelling to Fort Nelson, it had formed the exhibition centrepiece at the Het Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum) in Utrecht.

The First World War ended before any 18-inch Howitzers were ready, but four were completed soon afterwards.

Some were used for testing purposes on artillery ranges and one had a new lease of life in the Second World War – serving on a railway line in Kent, in readiness to blast the beaches if a German invasion force landed. Each 18-inch shell weighed about a ton but the howitzer was never fired in anger as the feared invasion never occurred.

Seeing the gun’s arrival at Fort Nelson has to be one of the most exciting days of my career and I am thrilled that we have it here for the First World War Centenary next year.

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of 65 Works Group 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers [Railway Infrastructure]  [CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of members from the 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Railway Infrastructure) 
[CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery, Fort Nelson

For more information about the arrival of the 18-inch Railway Howitzer at Fort Nelson, read the press release.