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Britain's Island Fortresses (Hardback)

Defence of the Empire, 1756–1956

Maritime > Naval > Royal Navy Military P&S History > British History

By Bill Clements
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 274
Illustrations: 50
ISBN: 9781526740304
Published: 4th September 2019



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During the 19th Century the Royal Navy played a key role defending the expanding British Empire. As sail gave way to steam power, there was a pressing requirement for coaling stations and dock facilities across the world’s oceans. These strategic bases needed fixed defences.

The author describes in detail, with the aid of historic photographs, maps and plans, the defences of the most important islands, Bermuda, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Jamaica and Singapore, and a number of lesser ones including Antigua, Ascension, Mauritius St Helena and St Lucia. He describes how the defences were modified over the years in order to meet the changing strategic needs of the Empire, and the technological changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Only three of these bases had to defend themselves in war (Hong Kong, Singapore and Ceylon) and the author relates the battles for these bases.

The book will appeal not only to readers whose interest is in the study of fortifications, but also to those readers interested in the maritime history of the British Empire.

Island Fortresses is well-written and well-researched, and is highly recommended.

Warship Annual 2021 Edition

Island Fortresses is well-written and well-researched, and is highly recommended.

Warship 2021

This excellent book, which is the product of much research into primary sources at the National Archives and elsewhere, contains a most useful appendix detailing the particulars of the artillery, guns and mortars used in these forts. The book’s bibliography, glossary of terms and index are comprehensive and add to its value as a work of reference. Although this well-written and easy-to-read book is not about ships, it discusses and evaluates an important component of the maritime scene from 1756 to 1956. Consequently, it will be of value to all those interested in the maritime history of the British Empire and how the Royal Navy was enabled to provide its protective shield. Excellent and highly recommended.

World Ship Society - Marine News, April 2020

... will presumably enthral fortification enthusiasts.

Journal of the Victorian Military Society

As featured in

Fortress Study Group

As featured in

Coastal Defence Journal

Key documentation to learn about British expansion outside its borders.

Read the full Spanish review here

Miniaturas JM

Is this a book I’d recommend? I would. I feel that Bill Clements has successfully achieved what he set out to do in covering the development of the fortifications of some of the key islands of Britain’s imperial defences. As I’ve said, I enjoyed reading it and think that readers of The Naval Review may also find it thought provoking.

The Naval Review, February 2020 – reviewed by ANDY FIELD

These colonies, as part of the British Empire, were strategically essential, and as such, needed their own defences. A building programme that was only dwarfed by what was going on at home in the Victorian era was embarked upon, described in superb detail by Bill Clements.

Books Monthly

This book will appeal not only to readers whose interest is in the study of fortifications, but also to those readers interested in the maritime history of the British Empire.

Pillbox Study Group

Britain’s Island Fortresses provides a comprehensive description of the planning, siting, construction, armament and manning of the fortresses. Supported by numerous photographs, both historical and current, and original plans, the book also describes all the generations of fortress guns and a glossary of fortress artillery terms, many of which are derived from French.

Read the full review here

Australian Naval Institute

This book catalogues the overseas defences of the British Empire. It is a story of the conflicting demands of cost and security across Great Britain's naval staging posts for its far-flung commercial interests. Bill Clements' book has successfully navigated a path through a complex story, without becoming too bogged down in detail, but equally without becoming bland. The race to maintain up-to date armaments is also charted as technology made older weapons obsolete; this in a time span encompassing the Seven Years' War through to World War II.

Readers with an interest in WWII will find the chapters on Singapore and Hong Kong to be of particular value. The book is liberally provided with plans, line drawings and photographs to give a good representative feel for the defences. The Islands of Bermuda, Jamaica, St Helena, Antigua and St. Lucia, Ceylon, Mauritius and Ascension Island are all covered too.

The book should appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject of coastal fortifications, and perhaps even provide inspiration for a bit of "concrete sniffing" on family holidays abroad. It sheds light on a forgotten part of Great Britain's overseas history.

Not Quite Mechanised, Chris Kemp

The author provides an excellent review of one of the most neglected, but vital, elements in the military capabilities of the expanding British Empire. The Royal Navy has taken most of the focus of military historians and that in turn has provided focus on ships and sailors. However those ships could only operate with reliable bases and those bases had to be defended – Very Highly Recommended.

Read the full review here


The author demonstrates a real depth of knowledge in this meticulously researched book and for anyone with an interest in coastal artillery this will be an invaluable resource.

Read the full review here

Phil Curme

This volume is well-researched, well written and very readable and begs fair to become a ‘Standard Reference Work’ on its subject. Historians with an interest in the British Empire, British Empire defence and World Wars I and II may find it of interest, while military enthusiasts and hobbyists with an interest in both unusual fortifications and military operations of the Sixteenth – Twentieth Centuries may find it worthy of their attention.

Keith Rimmer, NZ Crown Mines

Some of these islands have not known invasions or battles, they had a period in which they were at the center of the geopolitical chessboard but gradually their importance was lost while other islands acquired a more important weight in the management of the Empire. However, they have all been important in the logistics of managing maritime traffic and as obligatory stops on every journey. It is important to know their story and this book is an extremely good way to do it.

Read the full Italian review here

Old Barbed Wire Blog

Detailed descriptions of the British Empire's worldwide fortress system.

Bookseller Buyers Guide

About Bill Clements

William 'Bill' Clements served in the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Rangers, commanding the 1st Battalion. He was Defence and Military Attache at the British embassies in Beijing and Rangoon.

He has long had a fascination for fortifications and is the author of Towers of Strength, Martello Towers Worldwide and The Fatal Fortress - The Guns and Fortification of Singapore 1819 – 1953 (all in print with Pen and Sword). He has contributed articles to the journals of the Fortress Study group, the Military History Society of Ireland and the Society for Army Historical Research. In 2011 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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