The Graphic, May 26, 1894
Last Saturday's "Seaford Bay Experiment," as an expert present at the trial of the 1st Sussex Volunteer Artilleryman's "armoured train" termed the proceedings, is a curious instance of how history repeats itself. Just ninety years ago, to within a few weeks, a distinguished party of gunnery experts visited the south coast to inspect the working of one of the first martello towers, then being set up, with which it was proposed to fortify the coast of Sussex against the threatened descent of an enemy - Napoleon's Boulogne army. So any one who likes can read in any old newspaper published in the summer of the year 1804. With a similar object on Saturday a large gathering of military officers and others interested in the question of coast defence went down to Newhaven, in Sussex, to be present at an inspection and trial of an ingenious construction, which in essentials corresponds in a remarkable degree with the idea of a movable or "flying" martello tower. That is what the armoured train - which the ingenuity of the Colonel of the 1st Sussex (Brighton) Artillery Volunteers has recently called into existence - really amounts to. It comprises a heavy gun on a truck and two third-class carriages rendered bullet-proof with armoured plating. There is the heavy gun pivoted on a turntable in a truck so as to sweep the horizon, just as the old long 32-pounder pivoted on the roof of the martello tower did for its horizon: there are the two armoured carriages of the train which accompany the truck to carry the gunners and their ammunition, to correspond as closely to the two compartments or floors of the old martello tower; the upper, where the gunners had their quarters, and the lower, where the powder and shot were stowed away. The engine, with its power of transporting the gun-truck and carriages anywhere up and down the line, is the modern part of the affair that makes all the real difference, and gives the new departure its peculiar value.
The 1st Sussex Volunteer armoured train has been planned with a view of affording a mobile defence for the long stretches of flat and exposed country by the sea, where a railway runs close to the beach, to be found along our south-eastern shores. From Pevensey to Hastings, from Seaford to Newhaven, from Brighton to near Arundel, the landing of an invading army is practicable at a dozen and more points. Forts, of course, cannot be set up everywhere. To be able to hurry off to any threatened spot on the first alarm, and on arrival to move from position to position, as may be convenient; to follow and tackle the hostile gunboats covering the landing, and sink the launches with the soldiers; this is the proposed role of the new armoured train. On coming within gunshot of the enemy, the engine and carriages would, according to the proposed tactics, drop the gun-truck with its men, and then themselves take shelter in some railway cutting, near or behind some farmhouse, until again wanted to pick the gun-truck up, bring it out of action, and go on elsewhere.
The experiments at the official trial on Saturday afternoon were made specially to show how the gun-truck would be handled in action. The gun used was a 40-pounder Armstrong breech-loader. It was set up in a sort of turret, or shield breastwork, fixed on a turntable, which itself was pivoted in the centre of an ordinary truck, so as to be readily swung around by handspikes or levers to point the gun in any direction. The turret has a circular porthole in front for firing through, and is open at the back where the gunners work. The main problem involved was the mastering of the gun recoil, so as to prevent the truck capsizing bodily when the gun had to be fired crosswise to the railway line, and also to prevent the rails and sleepers being torn up or damaged by the shock of the firing. This difficulty was, however, so well met that the truck stood the firing of round after round with full charges at a cask moored a mile and a quarter off in Seaford Bay without budging or lifting an inch, while the gunners might have fired all day, apparently, without it making a pennyworth of difference to the "permanent way". The military critics of the performance expressed themselves quite satisfied with what they saw, the only objection coming from one or two naval officers of rank, who held - as from the enemy's point of view - that the shield breastwork on the truck offered too easy a mark for practical purposes. "If the gun were mounted on its ordinary wheel carriage, on the turntable, without any screen or shield at all," said one, "we might then keep on firing at it for three weeks and never get a hit near it. With the turret, armour it as heavily as you like, the affair becomes an excellent target from the sea, and any gunboat within range would be able to spot it quickly and blow the whole concern - gun, truck, and shield turret, with the unfortunate gunners inside - to pieces in a very few minutes." That way, no doubt, improvement lies.