During the 1950’s, between the Korean War (1950-52) and the Suez Crisis (1956), the Commander in Chief Portsmouth, who, on 21 February 1952 was appointed to the NATO post of Allied Commander in Chief Channel (CINCHAN), decided that to meet his National and NATO responsibilities he would require a Headquarters which could provide better facilities than those available in HM Dockyard.
The answer was to reopen the WW2 UGHQ at Fort Southwick. During the Suez Crisis (1956) the entire UGHQ was refurbished to an operational state. On 21st January 1966 the CINCHAN appointment was amalgamated with that of CINCEASTLANT (Commander in Chief Eastern Atlantic) and in consequence Channel staff moved to Northwood during 1968/69.
The underground headquarters remained operational as a communications centre (COMMCEN) for the proposed new Naval Home Command Organisation (CINHOME later CINCNAVHOME) but it became evident that it was too big and required modernisation as the communications equipment was long overdue for updating.
There was also a problem of water seepage; the tunnels were becoming extremely damp and it was considered unwise to install new communications equipment in damp underground tunnels. A further consideration was that, after investigation of a serious fire in the underground operations room at RAF Neatishead, the Ministry of Defence fire authorities submitted a report that the UGHQ at Fort Southwick was a fire hazard.
When it became clear that the cost of fully modernising the underground headquarters was out of the question on financial grounds it was decided to build a new COMMCEN in the parade ground above.
The fort was retained by the MOD as the headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Naval Home Command until the late 1990’s and it formed part of an Admiralty Research Establishment. It was also used by the DCSA (Defence Communications Services Agency) as a communications centre for the Royal Navy. The COMMCEN remained in use until 2001 when its function was transferred to the Portsmouth Naval Base.
The prefabricated windowless single storey block stands at the rear of the parade ground with a two stage hydraulic communications mast lying on its side on the ramparts to the rear of the building.
Once through the entrance door the commcen is on the left hand side of the main north - south spine corridor. All the rooms have been stripped of any original fixtures and fittings apart from some furniture and plant..
On the right hand side of the spine corridor are the domestic rooms with a secondary entrance on the east side of the building. At the far end on the right hand side of the spine corridor is the mains switch room which is still functioning providing power to the building.
The air conditioning plant room can only be accessed from outside the building on the east side this retains all its fans and filters and metal trunking feeding fresh air through to all the rooms in the commcen. The standby generators were also accessed from the east side of the building, these have now been removed but the exhaust still feeds though three large silencers located outside the building.
In July 2003 the fort was sold to Fort Southwick Company Ltd. It is proposed to convert the barrack block into luxury apartments maintaining the external and internal features of the listed building. There are also plans to refurbish the main caponier as a museum relating the history of the fort up to WW2. The main operations room in the UGHQ may also be renovated and opened to the public. The commcen and an adjacent prefabricated building constructed at the same time will be demolished.
- Bob Jenner
- Keith Ward
- Portsdown Tunnels web site