(Image: Kej605; abandoned fire control towers on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware)
We’ve explored the world’s forgotten lighthouses and curiously defunct daymarkers in earlier features. But while these structures were designed with safety in mind, those documented here were built with far more militaristic (albeit defensive) motives in mind. Fire control towers were built near coastlines in a bid to detect approaching enemy ships and direct firepower onto them from nearby coastal artillery batteries. Positioned strategically up and down the shoreline, large batteries were supported by a network of fire control structures, which ranged from purpose-built towers to local cottages.
Many of the now-abandoned fire control towers across the globe became inactive after World War Two, their silent forms – like other defensive wartime structures – left behind as reminders of those dark times. Some of the most impressive can be found along the coast of the United States, where the many towers of the US Coast Artillery fire control system operated from the first days of the 20th century until about 1945. In America and elsewhere, many of these decommissioned military structures still haunt the beaches they were tasked with protecting, like the abandoned fire control towers below.
Abandoned Fire Control Towers on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, USA
During World War Two, a series of 11 fire control towers were built along the Delaware coast to protect the Eastern Seaboard of the United States from German U-boats. These silent sentinels still stand today. They including the two above, which have kept a quiet vigil over the sands of Rehoboth Beach for the last 75 years. Had enemy ships been spotted, the towers would have triangulated their location and radioed their coordinates back to the heavy guns at Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen.
Today they offer beach-goers at the popular Delaware resort a glimpse into the area’s turbulent past. And though the abandoned fire control towers were never shelled by German warships, they’ve endured an ongoing battle against nature over the last seven decades. Lashed by waves and storms, their stonework has been eroded, sand has piled up against them and their metal stairways have rusted through.
Thankfully, however, the state has set its sights on saving the ailing structures. Three wartime towers (at Fenwick Island, Bethany and Dewey Beach) are now poised for restoration. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that the Dewey tower was the current focus of preservation efforts. It’s hoped the structure will soon be open to the public.
Battery 234 Fire Control Tower at Fort Pickens, Florida, USA
Built as part of the Battery 234 network at Florida’s historic Fort Pickens, this now defunct fire control tower still stands at the entrance to Pensacola Bay, whose waters it once faithfully monitored. The reinforced concrete battery fortification was built in 1943. In addition to the observation tower, it incorporated a control room, a central magazine and two armoured gun shields. Battery 234 was never armed, however, despite being transferred to the Coast Artillery in 1944. The site, 800 yards southeast of Fort Pickens, was decommissioned in 1947. It’s understood that the defensive guns displayed there today were added decades later.
The Odeon: Former German Fire Control Tower, Alderney
(Image: James Vizard)
Overlooking the stunning coastline of Alderney – the northernmost inhabited Channel Island and part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a British Crown Dependency – is the hulking form of an abandoned Nazi fire control tower. Known as “The Odeon” due to its striking curved facade, which bore a resemblance to the Art Deco movie theatres of the day, the concrete tower was part of a network of fortifications built on Alderney after the Channel Islands, which lie off the coast of Normandy, had been occupied by German forces during World War Two.
In his book Alderney From Old Photographs, Brian Bonnard writes that the now abandoned fire control tower was “built by slave-labour and much loss of life during the Second World War.” He adds: “Unlike the larger Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, where no more than about half the population was evacuated during the last war, Alderney was inhabited by all but a handful of its inhabitants on 23 June 1940, about two weeks before the advancing German forces occupied the island, and subsequently turned it into a vast slave-labour camp and fortress.”
Along with an assortment of vast abandoned bunkers, gun emplacements and shelters, the ruined fire control tower stands as testament to a dark chapter in the tiny Channel Island’s recent past.
Fire Control Tower 23 at Cape May, New Jersey, USA
A similar design as its counterparts on Rehoboth Beach, Fire Control Tower 23 commands a strategic position in Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey, not far from Sunset Beach. The structure was built in 1943 as part of the Delaware Bay’s Fort Miles defences. As with other historic fire control towers located along the coasts of Delaware and New Jersey, Tower 23 was abandoned after the end of World War Two and became increasingly rundown as decades of neglect and harsh weather took their toll.
(Image: Owl’s Flight)
But after being added to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 2003, architect Robert Russell set about restoring the military relic, adding a new spiral staircase within, lighting and safety features. The state’s once abandoned Fire Control Tower 23 is now open to the public and can be accessed from Sunset Avenue.
East Lane Battery Fire Control Tower, Bawdsey, UK
(Images: Gordon Haws)
The picturesque shoreline around the Suffolk village of Bawdsey, near the port town of Felixstowe, is a network of coastal defences spanning the Napoleonic era to the Cold War. All may be blissfully quiet today, at least from a military perspective, though in recent years the concrete fortifications have found themselves on the frontline of an altogether different battle: the fight against nature.
Four of East Anglia’s 18 surviving Martello forts (once a major part of Britain’s defences during the Napoleonic Wars) can be found here, and the area is also littered with ruined pillboxes and other Second World War fortifications. Wind-lashed and battered by ferocious North Sea tides, time has taken its toll on the derelict defensive structures, like the abandoned fire control tower above, situated near Bawdsey’s East Lane Battery.
(Image: Gordon Haws)
Understood to have been built in 1940, the two-storey reinforced concrete observation post is now Grade II listed. The chilly waters off the east of England coast are also home to a number of former World War Two defences, from decommissioned sea forts to anti-submarine platforms.
Derelict Fire Control Tower at Fort Mott, New Jersey, USA
(Image: Scott O’Donnell)
Built of steel and timber to a very different design as some of those above, this rusting fire control tower stands amid the neat grounds of Fort Mott, in Pennsville, New Jersey. Fort Mott was one of a system of three defensive forts in Salem County, built as part of a late 19th century modernisation programme that followed the American Civil War. Unlike others featured in this article, the location was actually designed to defend against a land attack, with an artificial hill and moat constructed behind the gun batteries.
But Fort Mott was slowly wound down from 1922 onward, and by 1943 its 10-inch and 12-inch guns had been removed. Thereafter, local defence was coordinated from Fort Miles, and the historic Pennsville site was opened to the public in 1951. The abandoned fire control tower is one of the site’s most distinctive landmarks.
Abandoned Fire Control Towers at Nahant, Massachusetts, USA
East Point Military Reservation in Nahant, Massachusetts has seen its fair share of military activity, if not outright action. Built during the Great War, it later served as a World War Two coastal defence fortification before becoming a Nike Missile base during the Cold War. More recently the East Point site has been used as Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, but the twin fire control towers betray its military past. Standing near various wartime foundations and ruined bunkers, the defunct defensive towers once stood amid one of the most major coastal artillery concentrations in New England.
Abandoned Fire Control Tower in Poland
(Image: Jarosław Baranowski)
Hidden in the trees, this ruined fire control tower is understood to be located around the town of Czechowice-Dziedzice, in the Silesia Province of southern Poland. With the bloody end of the Great War came the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the region became part of Poland from the 1920s. But it was later annexed by Nazi Germany until finally being restored to Poland at the end of World War Two. It’s location is uncertain (please drop us a comment below if you have more information) though it’s certain to be just one amid myriad other defensive structures across the landscape.
Defunct Fire Control Tower at Cape Elizabeth, Maine
This decommissioned fire control tower at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, stands near the ruins of an old artillery battery (designated BCN 201). Operating under the banner of Cape Elizabeth Military Reservation during World War Two, the tower and other military ruins are now part of Two Lights State Park. It’s understood that by the time Battery 201 was completed, the threat from enemy surface ships had all but evaporated, and the heavy guns intended for it were never installed.
Fort Saint Elmo Fire Control Tower, Valletta, Malta
(Image: Frank Vincentz)
Of all the abandoned fire control towers and other defunct military installations featured in this article, this example at Malta is one of the more pleasant to look at. Part of Fort Saint Elmo, a restored star fort in Valletta with a long and turbulent history (most famous for its involvement in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565), the tower enjoys a far more peaceful existence today.
A 15th century Aragonese watchtower was bolstered by the Order of Saint John, sustained an attack by the Ottoman Empire in 1551 and was demolished the following year to make way for the star fort that followed. Of course Malta also played a pivotal role during World War Two, when the now abandoned fire control tower (and others pictured below) were built. Fort Saint Elmo appeared on the World Monuments Fund 2008 Watch List after decades of neglect, and played host to an EU summit in 2015.
(Image: Juliana da Costa José)