The history of the Isle of Wight dates back to the Iron Age, with much evidence of settlement being discovered through archaeology and ancient structures which still stand today. Our timeline allows you to learn about the island’s rich and eventful heritage.
Old Battery completed
The Needles Battery was a military battery built on the cliff top above the Needles stacks in 1861–63 to guard the West end of the Solent and defend against enemy ships.
Old Battery completed1863
Old Battery tunnel constructed
To protect the facility from ground attack from the island side, a deep ditch with a retractable bridge was dug into the chalk. In 1885 a tunnel was dug towards the cliff face from the parade grounds and an elevator down to the beach was completed in 1887. Early searchlight experiments were conducted at the site between 1889 and 1892, with the present observation post housing a searchlight from 1899.
The site has been managed by the National Trust since 1982 and is open daily from mid-March to the end of October. It gives visitors an insight into how a Victorian battery would work and gives a glimpse into the life of a soldier based at the battery during the Second World War.
Old Battery tunnel constructed1885
New Battery completed
Concerns that subsidence problems and firing guns from The Old Battery was causing the cliffs to crumble led to the construction of the New Battery higher up the cliff - at a height of 120 metres above sea level - in 1895.
The batteries were both Grade II listed and were manned during the World Wars, with German U boats sinking two ships off The Needles during World War I.
In World War II, anti-aircraft guns defended the Isle of Wight, but repeated German air attacks necessitated improvements in the fortifications at the site. The guns at the batteries also fired on German torpedo boats attempting night landings and troops trained for the D-Day landing on the neighbouring cliffs. After the war, the Ministry of Defence deactivated the batteries.
New Battery completed1895
Marconi’s radio transmissions
It was from The Needles that Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor and electrical engineer, broadcast his pioneering radio transmissions in 1897.
Marconi’s radio transmissions1897
Marconi establishes wireless communication between France and England
In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi established wireless communication between France and England across the English Channel. He erected permanent wireless stations at The Needles, Bournemouth and Dorset.
Situated within The Needles is the world famous Marconi Monument, which marks the precise location where Marconi undertook his pioneering work at the end of the 19th Century, which led to radio and all telecommunications as we know it today.
Marconi establishes wireless communication between France and England1899
German submarine sinks ships off The Needles
In January the German Submarine UB35 sank two ships off The Needles.
The first, on the 20th January, was the 9,044 ton armed escort ship SS Mechanician. Two torpedoes tore open the 500 foot hull, killing 13 of the crew. The survivors abandoned the ship on The Shingles. The great ship sank into the pebbles and was never seen again.
Two days later UB35 torpedoed the 3,677 ton SS Serrana west of the Needles. The armed merchant ship got as far as The Needles Channel before she broke in half and sank, with only two members of the crew surviving. With the end of the war in 1918 the military left The Needles and the Island's own territorial infantry regiment converted into 530 Coastal Artillery Regiment, coming to The Needles periodically for practice.
German submarine sinks ships off The Needles1917
Second World War
The Second World War in Europe started early for a Cowes man at The Needles. On the 23rd August 1939, eight days before the German invasion of Poland, R. J. Davies reported to the local drill hall of the Island territorial regiment. At 4:30pm he and his comrades found themselves in the back of a truck bound for The Needles Battery. He said, "I never donned civilian clothes again until April 1946”.
Second World War1939
After hostilities ceased in 1945, both batteries were deactivated and the downs were repopulated by rabbits again. The batteries were put up for disposal in 1952 and in 1954 the guns were scrapped.
Top secret space rocket and missile centre built
Between 1955 and 1971 a top secret missile and space rocket development centre was built on the site of old Needles Battery site. There were up to 240 people working at its 2,000 sq ft of control rooms at any one time. There, they developed the space rockets called 'Black Night' and 'Black Arrow’.
Having launched 22 test missions, the Black Knight rocket was very successful. Originally, it was intended purely as a test rocket, but in the early 1960s it was used to carry research modules into the upper atmosphere and in 1971 the only all British satellite was launched into orbit.