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Portland Harbour

Portland Harbour is located beside the Isle of Portland, Dorset, on the south coast of England. When completed in 1872, its 520-hectare surface area made it the largest man made harbour in the world, and it is still the third largest today, after the 4,500-hectare Ras Laffan Harbour in Qatar and the 1,500-hectare Cherbourg Harbour in France. It is naturally protected by Portland to the south, Chesil Beach to the west and mainland Dorset to the north. It consists of four breakwaters — two southern and two northern. These have a total length of 4.57 km and enclose approximately 520 hectares of water. The initial southern breakwaters were built between 1849 and 1872, and Portland Harbour was a Royal Navy base until 1995.


Creation of harbour of refuge and breakwaters (1844–1872)

Historically the original harbour was formed by the protection offered by the south coast of England, Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland. This gave protection from the weather to ships from all directions except the east. The natural shelter was used by ships for centuries, and Romans valued the area's strategic importance. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII built Portland Castle and Sandsfoot Castle to defend the anchorage.

A refuge harbour had been suggested in 1794, however parliamentary approval was not granted until 1844. Construction of the modern harbour began in 1845 when the Royal Navy established a base at Portland for replenishment of the fleet. The new base at Portland was to be the first naval anchorage specifically designed for the new steam navy. The construction of the initial two breakwaters - the southern pair - began in 1849, after HRH Prince Albert laid the foundation stone on 25 July 1849. They were designed by engineer James Meadows Rendel, and the work carried out under civil engineer John Towlerton Leather, with Rendel as engineer in chief (until his death in 1856), and John Coode as resident engineer. The two southern breakwaters were declared complete by HRH Edward the Prince of Wales on 10 August 1872. The construction work had become Dorset's greatest tourist attraction, and the country's most expensive public project.

During 1848, HM Prison Portland was opened to provide convict labour, to quarry the stone needed to construct the breakwaters and the harbour defences. These were known as the Admiralty Quarries, and provided 10,000 tons of stone per week for use on the breakwaters. The Admiralty Railway was created to transport the stone down to the harbour.

Construction of harbour defences

A set of various defences were created to defend the harbour. The Verne Citadel, was designed by Captain Crosman R.E., and built between 1860-81. The 56 acre fortress was designed for 1000 troops, and gun emplacements were built facing seawards on three sides. Located on the highest point of Portland, Verne Hill, it sits in a commanding position overlooking Portland Harbour. Below the eastern side of the citadel, East Weare Battery was built during the 1860s. The detention barracks of East Weare Camp were built above the battery circa 1880. On the end of the inner breakwater the Inner Pierhead Fort was built, and on the outer breakwater the circular Portland Breakwater Fort, also known as Chequered Fort. In Weymouth, across the other side of the harbour, Nothe Fort was built at the end of the Nothe Peninsula, and completed in 1872. In 1892 the Verne High Angle Battery was built in a disused Portland Stone quarry near the Verne Citadel, but was decommissioned in 1906.

Establishment of Royal Navy at Portland

The harbour became a Royal Navy base with dockyard, refuelling and training facilities. For some time Portland was the base for the Channel and then the Home Fleets and a depot for submarines. The harbour became a coaling and later oiling depot for the Royal Navy. With the coal machinery now redundant, a tidal creek named the Mere was partly filled in for a vast fuel tank farm.

The nearby Royal Naval Hospital in Castletown served Portland's naval base from the late 19th century until 1957, when the hospital was handed over to the NHS. It featured an underground operating theatre. The development of both the torpedo and the submarine led to Portland Harbour becoming a centre for research into underwater warfare, and a torpedo factory was built on the north side of the harbour in 1891, at Wyke Regis. As part of defence works against the threat torpedo attack, work commenced on two northern breakwaters to complete the enclosed harbour. This project began in 1893 and was completed in 1906. In 1902 Upton Fort, was built north of Weymouth at Osmington to defend Weymouth and the approaches to Portland harbour. During that same year Blacknor Fort, situated on the western cliffs of Portland, was completed. By 1903 the East Weares Rifle Range served the navy and other military soldiers on the eastern side of the island. In 1905, the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse was built, situated on the southern end of northeast breakwater, and continues to operate today.

Robert Whitehead's Torpedo Works at Wyke Regis ended up using the northern-most breakwater for torpedo testing and practice firing, while a purpose-built pier projecting into the harbour from the factory was also used for a similar role. The factory continued operating until its closure and demolition in 1997. The site of the factory is now a housing estate, named Whitehead Drive, and includes a memorial stone and plaque to commemorate the factory.

For training purposes, in February 1862, the training ship Boscawen arrived at Portland. HMS Britannia had been the first training ship at Portland but later moved to Dartmouth. The original Boscawen at Portland left in 1873 and was replaced by HMS Trafalgar, which took on the same name, and was removed when sold in 1906. As the Royal Navy grew in size towards the end of the 19th century, so additional accommodation was required for boys' training. Two old broadside ironclad warships were brought into service, first HMS Minotaur in 1898, to be followed by Agincourt in 1904, and these were named Boscawen II and Boscawen III respectively. Despite warships changing due to technology and development, much of the training of the boys still reflected life under sail. Conditions were harsh and punishment could be severe. The Boscawen training ships left Portland in 1905 and the name lapsed until 1932, when the naval base at Portland was commissioned. This shore base, or 'stone frigate' was called HMS Boscawen later to become, with the advent of the helicopter, HMS Osprey.

Role in both World Wars (1914-1945)

During both World War I and II the bay was filled with neutral ships at anchor waiting to be searched for materials that might be useful to the enemy. The increasing conflict with Germany before the Great War erupted saw the arrival of the Dreadnoughts to Portland, while drones in Portland's skies marked the coming of the flying pioneers. King George V watched aerial displays from the royal yacht in the harbour in May 1912. This occasion saw a biplane to be the first British flight from a moving ship, and afterwards the king took the first ever royal trip in a submarine. In 1914 the Grand Fleet assembled in Portland Harbour before sailing to Scapa Flow. A further barrier against submarine attack came in 1914 when the battleship HMS Hood was scuttled across the vulnerable southern entrance to the 1849 breakwaters.

The king visited Portland in 1936 to see Portland's top secret research and naval manoeuvres. The strategic importance of Portland's Naval Base and Dockyard during the rise of Second World War was fundamental, and as such the harbour came under fierce German air attack. In total Portland saw 48 air attacks, in which 532 bombs were dropped. In July 1940 the anti-aircraft ship HMS Foylebank was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers and sank in the harbour. The second of only two Victoria Crosses awarded for action in the United Kingdom was posthumously bestowed on Jack Foreman Mantle, who died at his post on HMS Foylebank. Although mortally wounded he continued to fire his gun against the attackers until he died. Mantle is buried in Portland's Royal Naval Cemetery, which overlooks the harbour. To combat the attacks various light and heavy anti-aircraft batteries were established around Portland. The Verne Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery is a remaining example of this.

In 1940 it was decided that an underground headquarters and communications centre should be constructed. By 1941, the Portland Naval Communication Headquarters was completed, built into the hillside at the rear of the dockyard. It continued to be operational during the Cold War too.

On 1 May 1944 the harbour was commissioned as USNAAB Portland-Weymouth. As part of the D-Day operations in Normandy, a number of Phoenix caissons were moored at Portland in 1944 before being towed to France. The harbour itself, along with Weymouth, was a major embarkation point for American troops during D-Day, particularly the US 1st Division who embarked for "Omaha Beach" in June 1944. The King, Prime Minister Churchill and Free French leader Gen. de Gaulle came to see the great D-Day preparations at Portland, when the harbour's activity was continuous. Following the end of the war Portland's part in the D-Day landings, and the liberation of Europe, was marked by a grand ceremony on 22 August 1945, when the American Ambassador, John D. Winant, unveiled a stone in Victoria Gardens commemorating the passing by the spot of 418,585 troops and 144,093 vehicles the previous June.

Post-war role and closure of naval base (1946-1995)

After the war, in 1946, ten Phoenix caissons were towed back to Portland Harbour, and in 1953 eight units were given to the Netherlands to repair breaches in the dykes following a violent North Sea storm. However two of the units remain permanently moored in the harbour today. The role of the two units still situated in Portland's harbour is as a wind break, which helps ships berth at Queen's Pier ('Q Pier') in the harbour. In the wake of the Cold War, the Admiralty Gunnery Establishment was established at Barrow Hill. Built between 1949–52, the establishment later worked alongside the HMS Osprey establishment at East Weares. Underwater weapons research was consolidated with the transfer to Portland of the Torpedo Experimental Establishment, Greenock, in 1959. It later became infamous for espionage infiltration, known as the Portland Spy Ring.

Portland's Royal Dockyard was closed in 1959, but the Naval Base on site remained open. The naval base's main occupation thereafter was Flag Officer Sea Training, which had been established there in 1958. FOST was a major success, and the harbour soon became the world's premier work-up and training base. FOST was reputed to have been a world centre of excellence in the Royal Navy for naval basic and advanced operational training, all situated at Portland. Since then almost every ship in the Royal Navy had at some time taken part there in training programmes, including simulated warfare. In addition many ships of NATO countries also trained and frequented at Portland Harbour. Part of the Falklands task force sailed from Portland in 1982 during the Falklands War.

With the advent of the helicopter and its importance as an anti-submarine weapon an airfield was formed. In 1959, the Royal Naval Helicopter Station HMS Osprey was officially opened, sharing the name with the shore establishment. The site was first built in 1917 as HMS Sarepta within the confines of Portland Harbour as a seaplane base. In 1919 No. 241 Squadron RAF (formed from RNAS flights operating there in 1918) was disbanded and aviation operations ceased. In 1946, Hoverfly R-4Bs moved in, the base's playing fields were taken over as a landing ground and it became the site of the modern heliport.

In 1984 two large accommodation blocks, totaling £25-30 million, were built as barracks/accommodation for the use of Royal Navy personnel, along with a swimming sports centre. However, in November 1992, as part of defence spending cuts, the closure was announced of both the naval base and the research establishments on Portland. There was opposition against the closure from the local economy, as well as all ranks of naval personnel, who felt Portland's surrounding coast was perfect for exercising ships.

Royal Navy operations ceased on 21 July 1995 and the harbour closed as a naval base on 29 March 1996, with the training facilities being relocated to Devonport. Following this the RNAS Portland HMS Osprey base also closed on 31 October 1999. The combined closure of all Portland-based establishments was believed to have cost the area 4,500 jobs, along with a loss of £40 million in the area's economy, according to a study carried out for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in 1995.

Modern Port

The Harbour was sold off by the Royal Navy in 1996 allowing it to be used as both a centre for water sports and as a service facility for Channel shipping. Portland Port Ltd, formed in December 1994, took possession of the site immediately and their purchase was completed on 12 December 1996. The port's aim was of developing the ship repair, leisure and tourism potential of the harbour. One of the first arrivals at the new set up was a prison ship HM Prison Weare, which remained in use until 2006. Renamed Jascon 27, the ship left Portland under tow in 2010, bound for Nigeria, to be refurbished for use as an oil industry accommodation vessel.

Portland Port Group became Statutory Harbour Authority for Portland Harbour on 1 January 1998, replacing the Queen's Harbour Master. In 2004 changes led to Portland Harbour Authority Ltd becoming the Statutory and Competent Harbour Authority and Portland Port Ltd the Port Operator. The commercial port has expanded since its initial establishment; the Britannia Passenger Terminal was opened by HRH Prince Philip on 14 July 1999. In April 2000 the contract was signed for a new bunkering jetty and berth, which came into service in 2005. However, despite published reports in 1996 revealing that Portland Port Ltd were interested in the renovation of historic coastal fortifications in the area, no restoration of any kind has taken place.

Commercial activities on the water include specialist diving services for vessels and repairs & maintenance as well as a bunkering (fuelling) station. The port is used by all nature of vessels from commercial ships such as bulkers, tankers, container carriers car carriers, survey and Reefers etc. to British and foreign naval vessels. Commercial activities on the land of the dock estate include fuel storage, natural gas storage, several engineering facilities and a shell fish specialist.

The Portland Harbour Revision Order 2010 provides for the creation of new berths and hardstand areas at the port in order to allow increased commercial activities over the next 50 years. These new facilities have been identified as part of a master plan and business strategy developed by Portland Port. The development is designed to increase berthing opportunities and provide more operational land.

The four identified areas for development are:

The port also sees various cruise ship calls bringing visitors to the Dorset area. The Britannia Cruise Terminal, which was opened in July 1999 and again refurbished in 2005 has seen the likes of Royal Caribbean, Azamara, Club Cruises, Saga and Crystal Cruises use it as a start point for excursions in the wider Dorset region and beyond. In recent years the number of cruise ship calls have increased at the port.


The harbour is a popular location for wind surfing, wreck diving and sailing. Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy which hosted sailing events in the 2012 Olympic Games, is located on the south-western shore of the harbour. The Royal Yachting Association had expressed interest in securing a suitable site locally for a number of decades, in order to make use of the harbour's natural advantages. However the opportunity did not develop until the end of the 20th century, with the removal of the navy. The academy was established as a not-for-profit company in 1999, and originally operated from various disused military buildings and facilities. In 2003 the academy was able to start redevelopment of the site. In 2005 WPNSA was selected to host the sailing events at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Additionally Osprey Quay became an 80 acres regeneration project commissioned by South West Regional Development Agency in 2001. By 2012 Osprey Quay had been transformed with huge investment, offering over 11 hectares, a total of 60,000 square metres of business space.

In October 2007 work commenced on a new marina and recreational boating facility. Some 250,000 tonnes of Portland Stone was used in creating the 875m breakwater and associated reclaimed land. This facility was open by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2009 and is situated directly adjacent to the National Sailing Academy. Apart from the usual freshwater, fuel, shore power and pump-out facilities the marina also has a bar/restaurant, 15 retail/business units and 5 larger commercial units.

In addition to Hood, there are other dive wrecks around the harbour:

Grade listed features

The harbour and dockyard has various buildings and structures that are Grade Listed.

The inner breakwater, with its jetty, former victualling store and Inner Pierhead Fort, are Grade II Listed. The victualling store was built around 1850. At the south-west end of Prince Consort Walk is a carved commemorative stone for the completion of the breakwaters in 1872. The outer breakwater is also Grade II Listed.

East Weare Battery was built in the 1860s to protect the harbour. In addition to this, The 'E' section of the battery is Grade II Listed and has become a scheduled monument too. East Weare Camp is Grade II Listed. One of the most dominant of the defence structures is the Portland Breakwater Fort, located on one of the outer breakwaters. It is Grade II Listed.

In 1993, the Dockyard Offices became Grade II Listed. At the end of Castletown village is the former Dockyard Police Station - also Grade II Listed. At the top of the Incline Road is the abandoned Old Engine Shed that once served the cable-operated inclined railway that ran to Castletown through the Navy Dockyard that is now Portland Port. The shed has been Grade II Listed since 2001.

Breakwater defences

Situated across Portland Harbour's four breakwater arms are various defensive structures and related monuments. Many of these are still in existence today, however are derelict and remain unopened to the public. At the Breakwater Fort is a World War II 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement, a pillbox, and a battery observation post. Further along the same arm, towards Portland, are two World War II coast artillery searchlights.

On the northeast breakwater, at the southern end, directly opposite the fort, is the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse. The site was also the location of a coastal battery, known as A Pier Head Battery, which opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. In 1944 emplacements were constructed to replace the 12-pounder guns with 6-pounders. A World War I torpedo station was also located on 'A' Head, using two 18 inch torpedo tubes which were operational from 1915 until 1918. It was put into operation again during World War II. During World War II a petroleum warfare site consisting of four flame throwers were located on 'A' Head. A World War II battery observation post survives.

On the North Eastern Breakwater, within the centre area, is a World War II coastal battery with coast artillery searchlights. Alongside is a coast artillery searchlight. Further along the arm is a 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement. On the far end of the North Eastern Breakwater, on the Weymouth side, is the site of B Pier Head Battery. The coastal battery opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. By 1913 the battery's armament included four 12-pounder guns and a 6-inch breech-loading (BL) Mk. VII gun. The battery was decommissioned in 1934. The same site featured a World War I torpedo station. Additionally there is a World War I battery observation post.

The Weymouth end breakwater features the C Pier Head Battery on the southern tip. The arm is known as the Bincleaves Groyne. The battery was opened in 1901 and was armed with two 12-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns for anti-torpedo craft defence. By the First World War the 12-pounder guns had been removed and replaced with a 6-inch breech-loading (BL) Mk. VII gun. The 6-inch gun was removed in 1924 and in 1934 two 12-pounder guns were transferred across from the recently decommissioned B Pier Head. In 1944 emplacements were constructed for two 6-pounder guns, but the guns were not mounted for a number of years. At the C Pier Head Battery a World War II petroleum warfare site was constructed. On site is a World War II 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement.

On-shore defences

Aside from the East Weare Battery, and other related constructions, there are a number of defences built within the harbour's dockyard and surrounding area.

During World War II a number of anti-invasion structures were placed at Balaclava Bay, including an anti boat landing obstacle, and a minefield. A little further south is a coast artillery searchlight. Another coast artillery searchlight was situated further south of this. A number of pillboxes were built around East Weare Battery.

As part of the defence for HMS Osprey, now demolished, a "Yarnold Sanger" pillbox is located on Incline Road, constructed during the Cold War. In addition to this a World War II pillbox, with a possible machine gun post, is located at Upper Osprey.

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