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McNabs History: Section 10

McNABS ISLAND, Halifax Co, Nova Scotia: An Historical Overview

Brian Kinsman / Parks and Recreation Division, NS Dept of Natural Resources: April '95

Go to Start | Contents | 10.1 Early Efforts | 10.2 Sherbrooke Tower | 10.3 Fort Ives | 10.4 Fort McNab | 10.5 Fort Hugonin | 10.6 Strawberry Battery | 10.7 Rifle Ranges


Fortifications developed on McNabs Island represent one element of a system of defences that have evolved around Halifax Harbour since the founding of Halifax in 1749. These fortifications include Citadel Hill (1749), Georges Island (1750), Point Pleasant (1762), York Redoubt (1793) and several defensive works on McNabs Island, beginning with Sherbrooke Tower, constructed on the seaward tip of Maugher Beach between 1815 and 1828. Later fortifications constructed on McNabs Island included Fort Ives (completed in 1870), Fort McNab (completed in 1892), Hugonin Battery (1899) and Strawberry Battery (1940). This evolving series of fortifications, later to become known as the Halifax Defence Complex or System, was to serve Halifax well over the years.

In 1965, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared that Halifax was "one of the four principal naval stations of the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries and as such was "of great national significance to Canada." The Board further indicated that the Halifax Defence System was unique on the North American Continent, containing as it does a complete conspectus of shore defences from the 18th century to the Second World War. To ensure the survival of the Defence System the Board recommended that representative examples of this compendum be protected. Fort McNab was to be preserved because of its important historical background and impressive extant resources.

For the most part, the fortifications on McNabs Island were maintained by the British until 1906 when the British garrison withdrew from Halifax. This is especially true for those forts constructed after 1865. Prior to this time some may have been manned by local militia members. Following the withdrawal of British troops, the fortifications on McNabs Island were infrequently manned except during both World Wars.

10.1 Early Efforts

The use of McNabs Island for military purposes was first considered in 1711 when DeLabat explored the possibility of fortifying Maugher Beach to protect the harbour and planned settlement on the island. Before either the settlement or fortification were constructed, however, Great Britain acquired mainland Nova Scotia from France under terms of the Treaty of Utreacht.

The British first seriously considered fortifications on McNabs Island in 1762 after France captured St. John's. Although 200 men of the Provincial Regiment began clearing brush and underwood at Ives Point in order to construct an artillery battery, the orders were soon rescinded.

In the early years of Halifax there was no magazine to store the military's gun powder. As a result, the gun powder was kept in a vessel anchored near the north end of McNabs Island. In 1812, a huge mooring chain with anchors was laid off the northern end of McNabs Island. From this chain the magazine ship was moored.

10.2 Sherbrooke Tower

Following the outbreak of the War of 1812, it was decided to protect Halifax Harbour with a fortification on Maugher Beach.

In 1815, construction began on a Martello Tower, similar to the one still standing at Point Pleasant, at the seaward tip of Maugher Beach. The fortification, known as Sherbrooke Tower, had walls seven feet thick, with the exterior composed of granite and the interior of brick (Figure 20). Piers notes that Sherbrooke Tower was the first of several such towers built in Halifax that was designed to be bomb-proof. He also believes this is the first definitive use of granite for building in Halifax. The final dimensions of the tower were 33 feet in height and 50 feet in diameter at the base. Originally planned as a two-story structure, a third story was added in 1828 to house a lighthouse. The ground floor was designed to accommodate four guns while three were intended for the second floor. Of the latter, one was to guard the harbour entrance, another faced up the harbour and the third could be aimed in any desired direction.

10.3 Fort Ives

Halifax's defences underwent a complete re-assessment in the 1860's as a result of deteriorating relations with the United States and rapidly changing military technology. The age of sail and smooth bore guns had come to an end and were being replaced by steam power, armour plate and rifled guns. To meet the new challenges, old forts were being rebuilt and new ones planned. Among the new forts was Fort Ives, at the northern end of McNabs Island.

In 1865, work began on Ives Point Battery on the site that was initially cleared in 1762 following the loss of St. John's. Built to protect the inner harbour channel between McNabs Island and York Redoubt/Point Pleasant, the original fortifications incorporated the newest advances in British coastal defence. It was a typical RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading) fort with two faces. The southwest face mounted three 10-inch RML's and covered the waters between Maugher Beach and York Redoubt (Figure 21). The west face mounted five 9-inch RML's and covered the channel toward Point Pleasant. A sixth 9-inch RML was mounted at the salient where the two faces met. The rear of the fort was enclosed by an earth parapet and a wooden palisade. An enemy attempting to reach the inner harbour would face a devastating broadside from Fort Ives. In many ways the fort was the linch-pin that knitted together the inner and outer harbour defences. The guns were in open emplacements protected by iron shields, making them unique in the defence complex.

Given its strategic location it is not surprising that Fort Ives underwent modifications to keep pace with technological improvements. The first improvement took place between 1888 and 1892 when breach loading guns were introduced. Much of the alteration was associated with Fort Ives' increasing importance to the submarine mining system for the harbour. The main field was located in the strategic channel between Ives Point and Point Pleasant. To protect this channel against enemy attack the British introduced light Quick Fire (QF) guns. A battery of three 6 pounder QF's was constructed just north of Fort Ives' palisade in 1890-91. Indicative of Fort Ives growing importance to the mine field were the construction of a test room and observation station by 1898.

This was only the beginning of modernization at Fort Ives. New breach loaders on central pivot mountings were introduced on the west face of the fort. The only RML's left were those on the southwest front and they had become obsolete. The new guns included two 6 inch BL's and two 12 pounder QF's. When completed in 1903 the fort had both counter bombardment and close defence responsibilities. Much of the new construction was related to Fort Ives' important role in mine defence. Searchlight (EL) emplacements were constructed to complement the 12 pounder QF's in providing protection to the main mine field.

When Canada assumed responsibility for the Halifax defences in 1906 a complete re-assessment was initiated. By this time the importance of the mine field had lessened. The chief threat was perceived to be light, fast torpedo boats. To meet this threat it was decided that the Quick Fire and searchlight defences at Halifax should be concentrated in the vicinity of the strategic Ives Point/Point Pleasant channel to prevent access to the inner harbour. All agreedthat the illuminated area in front of Fort Ives had to be enlarged. By 1912 four permanent searchlight emplacements with support facilities had been constructed.

Ives Point Battery was one of the more important components of Halifax's defences during World War I. The fort's electric lights were the only dispersed beams available for illumination of the main channel until the fall of 1915. Efficient searchlights and QF batteries had become even more important with the growing German submarine threat in the western Atlantic. Submarine nets were placed across the harbour; one running from Ives Point to Point Pleasant breakwater. Fort Ives was essential to the protection of this critical line of defence.

With the end of the First World War Fort Ives was closed down and placed in reserve status. During the 1920's training continued to be held at the fort. The only construction, however, was the repair and replacement of existing structures. No new construction was undertaken. When Halifax's defences were analyzed in the 1930's it was found that Fort Ives had become redundant. The decision to move the submarine net seaward to the area between Maugher Beach and York Redoubt confirmed the obsolescence of Fort Ives. The actual closing was delayed, however, because of the time needed to construct new forts further seaward and the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Europe. When war broke out in 1939 Fort Ives was partially operational. The searchlights were used until September of 1940 when the new emplacements at Strawberry Battery became available. While the fort continued to be used as a barracks until 1943 for all intents and purposes Fort Ives' active service in the Halifax Fortress had come to an end.

Fort Ives is the oldest extant fortification on McNabs Island and in several respects its most interesting. Perhaps the most important extant resource at Fort Ives is the RML battery and supporting buildings on the south front. Two of the 10 inch RML's are still mounted on their original carriages and platforms. These emplacements, their shields, ordnance, mountings and supporting buildings are a unique resource within the Halifax Defence Complex. The carriages and mountings are especially important given that they are the earliest surviving examples of this technology to remain in Halifax.Even more significant is the fact that these resources are situated alongside breech loading (BL) emplacements, the next stage in the development of coast artillery. Both BL and Quick Fire (QF) batteries are on the sit. When combined with the searchlight and submarine mining resources the importance of the site is even greater.

10.4 Fort McNab

By the 1880's a dramatic revolution in naval and military technology made changes in the Halifax defence system essential. Steam propulsion, powerful breach loading guns and the advent of the motor torpedo boat transformed naval warfare. Defence schemes established for years became obsolete. Britain's overseas empire seemed threatened. A metamorphosis in British defence policy and coast defence strategy was the result.

The Royal Navy bore the brunt of responsibility in the new scheme. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 adopted the "Two Power Standard" whereby the strength of the Royal Navy would be at least equal to that of the combined fleets of the next two largest navies. To be effective, however, the fleet had to be concentrated in home waters. The protection of exposed overseas ports, such as Halifax, would be the responsibility of improved coastal fortifications.

The home authorities decided to strengthen the advanced line of defence for Halifax. A new fort with long range breech loading guns was planned for the southern end of McNabs Island. Construction of Fort McNab began in 1888 and was completed in 1892. The armament included one 10 inch breech loader (BL) and two 6 inch BL's. The effectiveness of the new guns was increased by the installation of an elaborate fire control system.

Since Fort McNab was built at a time of rapidly changing technology, it is not surprising that major renovations were needed within a dozen years of its completion. The main changes involved the guns and their mounts. More powerful guns on central pivot mountings were introduced by 1906. The included one 9.2 inch BL and two 6 inch BL's. By this time, however, Britain had concluded that war with the united States was only a remote possibility and that her forces at Halifax could be withdrawn. The Canadian Government agreed to take over all the defences, including the newly renovated Fort McNab.

As the diplomatic situation in Europe deteriorated, plans were developed to defend Halifax against enemy action. An Examination System was established to control marine traffic into the port. The decision to make Fort McNab responsible for the examination anchorage necessitated certain changes. Searchlight emplacements were constructed in 1914 to enable the fort to carry out its additional role more effectively. A 6 pound QF gun was mounted on the parapet of the fort to act as a "bring-to" gun. Throughout the war Fort McNab also remained one of the more important counter-bombardment batteries in the Halifax defence system. Substantial improvements were made to the living quarters of its large garrison. All this activity came to an end with the signing of the Armistice. The examination battery remained partially manned until January of 1919 when the fort was officially closed down.

In the interwar period Fort McNab was neglected, as was the entire defence system. While all realized that Fort McNab's armament was no longer powerful enough to deal with a modern threat nothing was done to improve its effectiveness. The only important construction during these years was the replacement of temporary wartime buildings with more permanent structures. The old 9.2 inch barrel was replaced in 1921 but nothing else was done. By 1932 retrenchment hit the Halifax defences with full force. Fort McNab was one of the forts closed down by the department of national Defence. In effect, the fort was put in moth-balls.

All of this changed with the deteriorating political situation in Europe. In 1937 a complete re-assessment of the coast defence was undertaken by Major B.D. Treatt, R.A. His major recommendation was the construction of two new powerful counter-bombardment batteries at Hartlen Point and Chebucto Head. Fort McNab's 9.2 inch BL was to be transferred to one of the new forts, while its 6 inch battery was to be retained for "close defence" and examination purposes. New electric lights were to be provided for the fort. Over the next two years a general re-allocation of coastal guns in Canada took place. McNab's 6 inch group were sent to the West Coast and were replaced with 6 inch guns from Quebec City. The installation of the guns marked the return of Fort McNab to operational status. By September of 1939 it was ready, but just barely, to assume its role in the protection of Halifax.

Fort McNab had three main roles during World War II. First of all it was a counter bombardment battery for close in defence. Secondly it controlled the searchlights on the southern end of the island. Thirdly, Fort McNab oversaw the examination anchorage. Many changes occurred at Fort McNab during World War II. A new Battery Command Post was constructed in 1940-41. As planned the 9.2 inch BL was removed in 1942 and shifted to Hartlen Point (Devils Battery). A year later a 75mm gun was mounted to replace the 6 pounder as the examination or "bring-to" gun. In 1944 the 6 inch group was replaced with more modern 6 inch guns from Sandwich Battery. The final major improvement to the fort during the war was the construction of a radar post in 1945.

When the war ended Fort McNab was entirely dismantled and placed in "heavy maintenance." By 1948 the Department of National Defence was having second thoughts about the closure and ordered its reactivation. The final armament change occurred in 1953 when a 4 inch twin naval gun replaced No. 2 6 inch gun. The fort operated until January of 1960 when its was dismantled and closed for the last time.

Fort McNab was the first of the breech loading forts to be built in Halifax. It represents a technological breakthrough in the science of coastal defence. According to one authority it is a "textbook example of the new style of coast fortifications" adopted by the Royal Engineers in the 1880's. Even more than this, Fort McNab represents an evolution of coast defence technology from the 1880's to the 1940's. Advances in ordnance, detection and fire control are all represented at the site. Among its more important extant resources are the largest breech loading emplacement in Halifax, early position finding cells (sometimes more generally called range finding cells), an extensive magazine complex, searchlight defences and a radar post. Taken together these resources present a unique microcosm of coastal defence evolution from the 1880's to the 1940's.

10.5 Fort Hugonin

Hugonin Battery, situated a few hundred yards south of Ives Point Battery, was constructed in 1899-1900. The fort was simply designed, with emplacements for four quick-firing guns, subterranean magazines, crew shelters and a few free-standing buildings. During World War I some temporary buildings were erected and by the mid-1920's most were in a poor state of repair. In 1922 two of the guns were removed to the practice battery near Sandwich Point. The remaining guns were still in place at the outbreak of the Second World War and the fort was manned for the first winter as an interim measure. In 1940 Hugonin Battery was taken out of action and the guns mounted at Strawberry Battery. Hugonin Battery continued to be used in other capacities by the Department of National Defense until the early 1990s.

10.6 Strawberry Battery

Strawberry Battery, located just north of Fort McNab, was constructed in 1939-40 to replace Hugonin Battery. Two QF guns from Hugonin were installed at Strawberry in May, 1940, at which time the emplacements, searchlights and associated features were substantially complete. At the end of World War II the works were left unaltered for two years and then totally dismantled between November 1947 and January 1948, the guns being removed to Fort McNab. Later in 1948 the military had second thoughts and the rearmament of Strawberry Battery was ordered in September, 1948. The fort was finally decommissioned in 1956.

10.7 Rifle Ranges

At the south end of McNabs Island, near Fort McNab, two 800-yard rifle ranges were constructed, one for use by sailors and the other by soldiers who regularly camped on the island.

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This Internet version of McNabs Island: An Historical Overview is provided by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists (FNSN) as a contribution to the park planning process.