A short distance beyond the current harbour of Gothenburg we arrived at our first site – the Oscar II fortress. Built between 1903 and 1907, the fort was named after the then king of Sweden (and until 1905 also king of Norway). When built, Oscar II was well ahead of its time. It had hot-air heating, electricity and inside toilets when many of the local population had none. At the time of construction there were no reliable roads from nearby Gothenburg and so a dock and narrow-gauge railway were built in order for the building materials and armaments to be shipped in.
The location was chosen to provide a commanding position over the sea approaches to Gothenburg. The design used the massive granite bedrock to provide superb protection for the garrison, services and armaments, surrounded by a huge dry moat with daunting counterscapes and caponiers. The main firepower was located in armour-plated turrets or within the moat on ‘disappearing’ mounts. The vast quantities of granite excavated during the course of construction were used to create false reefs in the estuary and hence to funnel shipping (friendly and potentially hostile) through a narrow navigable channel.
The first site in Europe to use the same design was at Vaberget close to Karlsborg at Lake Vättern, completed in 1902. Oscar II and a sister fort at Boden in the north, facing Finland, were the second two examples. What makes Oscar II especially notable is that, unlike most other contemporary forts, it has kept its original design and didn’t undergo remodelling during World War II or the Cold War. The armaments are a forerunner of the Maginot line design and the site as a whole has some similarity to Western Heights at Dover.
The site is now looked after by a local group and Martin and Camilla were kept busy showing us round for the next four hours or so. The volunteer group that supports the fortress is run along military lines and anyone wandering off was threatened with a court martial! Regular Open Days are held and private trips can also be arranged for upwards of a dozen or so visitors.
We started with the moat – within it were two immense 24cm (c.10 inch) breech-loading guns, built by Bofors in 1904. These were moved to another fort further down the estuary in the 1940s but returned to Oscar II after decommissioning. Sadly they had lost their ‘disappearing’ carriage in the course of the 1930s move but are nevertheless very impressive. The barrels alone weigh around 24 tonnes and the effort involved in their original installation must have been immense.
Next we went on top of the fort to get a feel for the geography and to see the ‘business end’ of the other ordnance. These comprised two 15.2cm guns (model M/03) and four 57mm pieces. Like the 24cm guns, these were moved to another fort around seventy years ago but both 15.2cm and one of the 57mm turrets have now been reinstated.
The former were mounted under a 24-tonne revolving cupola and again protected the shipping channel. The 57mm guns were oriented inland to protect the fort from landward attack. Up to 100,000 land forces would also have protected the fort from a rear attack. Also on the top of the fort were two low-profile command posts – one dating from WWI and the second (in rather inelegant concrete) from WWII.
Going Underground Now it was time to enter the mountain itself. We were able to view one of the 15.2cm guns and the extensive support infrastructure was fascinating. The whole was constructed in Art Nouveau style and all corridors were white painted, with living space wood-panelled and decorated. Surprisingly, the NCOs’ Mess was more extravagant than the Officers’ one. The explanation was that Officers moved about frequently whereas NCOs spent all their professional career in one location and wanted a ‘home from home’. As well as the living accommodation we were able to visit magazines, the kitchen, generator and the WWI fire-control centre.
Having exhausted the inside, we took a last turn around the moat and then descended to sea level to view the Gotiska satellite site. This was equipped with a further four 57mm (M/99) pieces, this time ranged out to sea. Like the main fort, the battery was completed in 1902 and finally closed in 1986 (the main fort succumbed much earlier, in 1955) The battery is (almost) in firing condition but the last ceremonial salute caused a deal of smoke and nausea as all four guns were fired simultaneously! At the beginning, the gun crew all lived within the complex but in its latter years the battery was garrisoned by troops in surface accommodation.
Walking round the front of the guns led us to the banks of the River Göta, over whose channels the guns are ranged. We broke for lunch watching car ferries from Denmark and Germany negotiating the river. After lunch, a few outside features were explored including the fire-command post which connected via a speaking tube and telephone to the guns below. There were also several slit trenches for surface troops and a metre-gauge railway that intriguingly led into the fort through a now-blocked door.
Within the complex, we were able to identify the Officers’ quarters, kitchen and toilets. Heating was provided by the Swedish equivalent of the ‘Gurney’ stove that heats many British cathedrals and churches. At the rear of the fort, through a hundred-metre rock-cut passage, the rails seen from outside continued. They were built for a searchlight to roll out into the open air on – ‘tethered’ to the fort by an armoured electricity cable still in place. Here too was a speaking tube that led back to the centre of the fort.
This superb site was a benchmark that the rest of the weekend lived up to and eventually it was time to move on.