The mystery of Cape Town’s disappearing gun [1885]

Gordon_R

Executive Member
Joined
Jul 5, 2009
Messages
6,408
#1
A bit of unique military history that very few people (including myself) had any idea about. A gun battery on Signal Hill constructed in 1885, during a heightened state of world tension between Britain and Russia. Long since abandoned, it has recently been excavated, and will be turned into a small museum.

Photo Gallery, may be slow to load: http://www.bbc.com/travel/gallery/20190423-the-mystery-of-cape-towns-disappearing-gun
According to Cape Town archaeology and heritage specialist Tim Hart, “never was the Cape’s defences so furiously strengthened than during a short-lived and pretty obscure historical event in 1885.” At the time, Hart explained, Britain ruled India, Russia occupied territory in Afghanistan nearby and both countries were worried that the other wanted to extend its control throughout Central Asia. This tension briefly brought Britain and Russia to the brink of war, and Britain feared Russian aggression in India would threaten all of its colonies – including South Africa. When the British military heard that Russia might send warships to South Africa, the British installed modern breech-loading cannons around the Cape, including three huge and mysterious ‘disappearing guns’.

“What made disappearing guns unique was their ability to hide from enemy fire by lowering themselves into a gun pit,” Hart said. “These guns were fitted with hydraulic lifting mechanisms for the artillery crew to lift the barrel from its loading position under a protective shield into a firing position and rotate it towards the target. After it fired, it would disappear back into a vault under a protective shield. These were extremely rare military mechanisms and great examples of mid-Victorian engineering.”
Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panjdeh_incident
The Panjdeh incident of 1885 was a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Russia caused by the Russian Empire's expansion southeast toward Afghanistan and India. After nearly completing their conquest of central Asia the Russians captured an Afghan border fort. Seeing a threat to India, Britain came close to threatening war. Both sides backed down and the matter was settled by diplomacy. The effect was to stop further Russian expansion in Asia, except for the Pamirs, and to define the northwest border of Afghanistan.
 

Geoff.D

Executive Member
Joined
Aug 4, 2005
Messages
9,930
#2
Some photos still available of other sites that were well preserved in New Zealand and the USA.
I am checking with my cousin. My Aunt served in the Women's Coastal defence unit based in the cape and I am sure she actually did duty on a gun emplacement on Signal Hill and other locations in the cape.
 

Gordon_R

Executive Member
Joined
Jul 5, 2009
Messages
6,408
#3
Some photos still available of other sites that were well preserved in New Zealand and the USA.
I am checking with my cousin. My Aunt served in the Women's Coastal defence unit based in the cape and I am sure she actually did duty on a gun emplacement on Signal Hill and other locations in the cape.
The article makes it clear that the gun was abandoned sometime prior to 1913, since it used black-powder (the same as the noon-gun), which was replaced with more powerful smokeless propellants.

I hope your aunt was not serving in 1885 (joke!)

Edit: I have just finished reading a history book about the Crimean War (1853-56), and tensions between Britain and Russia have been high for a long time. History sometimes repeats itself...
 

Geoff.D

Executive Member
Joined
Aug 4, 2005
Messages
9,930
#4
Yes correct. But I am pretty sure the site was close to the emplacement she served on, I have a vague memory of a photo taken at the site. The photo had a monstrous gun barrel lying on the ground with all these ladies sitting on it. No idea if the photos are still around though.
 

Gordon_R

Executive Member
Joined
Jul 5, 2009
Messages
6,408
#5
Yes correct. But I am pretty sure the site was close to the emplacement she served on, I have a vague memory of a photo taken at the site. The photo had a monstrous gun barrel lying on the ground with all these ladies sitting on it. No idea if the photos are still around though.
Ah, that makes some sense. the article implies that it was quite big.

There are a lot of gun emplacements on Signal Hill, if you have every hiked in the area. However, there are no longer any gun barrels lying around.

Oh, didn't realise there is a whole series of disappearing guns, as listed in this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearing_gun

Edit: Photo from New Zealand: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BL_8-...sappearing_gun_Devonport_NZ_November_2008.jpg
Mk VII guns were installed on disappearing mountings in Australia and New Zealand as coast-defence guns during the "Russian scares" of the 1880s. In the event, no Russian invasion occurred and the guns were rarely if ever fired.
 
Last edited:

Gordon_R

Executive Member
Joined
Jul 5, 2009
Messages
6,408
#7
Why call it a disappearing gun when clearly calling it a pop-up gun is more accurate?
Semantics. When it is down, it is hard to see, and hard to shoot at.

There are cases where the gun was fixed, but the shield surrounding it was lowered for firing.

They became instantly obsolete when aircraft observation and bombers were introduced.
 

TooFastTim

Expert Member
Joined
Nov 15, 2006
Messages
1,328
#8
The Russian threat at that time was taken seriously all around the empire.

HMVS Cerberus was constructed to defend the Colony of Victoria (Australia didn't exist then) from a possible Russian attack.
 

Solarion

Honorary Master
Joined
Nov 14, 2012
Messages
18,248
#9
Britain sure had her hands full back then. Add the Russian threats and Boer Wars into that. Very busy history indeed. Cool find!!
 

garyc

Expert Member
Joined
Jun 30, 2010
Messages
2,542
#16
The Victorian era engineers built some very interesting military installations. This is probably the most impressive of their coastal batteries for those that have some time to watch it.

 

Gordon_R

Executive Member
Joined
Jul 5, 2009
Messages
6,408
#17
The Victorian era engineers built some very interesting military installations. This is probably the most impressive of their coastal batteries for those that have some time to watch it.
Non video source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100-ton_gun
The 100-ton gun (also known as the Armstrong 100-ton gun) was a 17.72 inches (450 mm) rifled muzzle-loading (RML) gun made by Elswick Ordnance Company, the armaments division of the British manufacturing company Armstrong Whitworth, owned by William Armstrong. The 15 guns Armstrong made armed two Italian battleships and, to counter these, British fortifications at Malta and Gibraltar.
Edit: Quite archaic systems, muzzle loading, which took forever to fire!?
 
Top