Disappearing Armstrong Guns

During the late 19th Century, the colonial powers of France and to a lesser extent Great Britain were attempting to carve up parts of Siam for themselves. In order to protect his kingdom, King Rama V ordered the construction of Phra Chulachomklao Fort at the entrance to the Chao Phraya estuary. He also ordered the modernization of other forts on both sides of the river in Samut Prakan so that the approach to Bangkok could be protected. The work on the fort started in 1884 and took ten years to complete. This was to be not only the most modern fort in Thailand, but also comparable to forts in the West.

King Rama V ordered at great expense the latest guns from W G Armstrong & Co in England. These were ten 6 inch Armstrong Guns which weighed five tons each. They were the first rear-loaded guns in the Thai Navy and they had an interesting characteristic. They were called the “disappearing” guns because they only came out of the pit to fire and then the recoil forced the gun back where it came from. This protected the guns from enemy fire. That was the theory. All of the aiming had to be done while the gun was in the pit. Each shell weighed 45 kilos. The gun was then hauled up be a hydraulic mechanism and the shot fired. The range was about 8 kilometres.

Seven of these guns were installed at the Phra Chulachomklao Fort. The remaining three were set up at Phi Sua Samut Fort which is an island in the middle of the river near the present day City Hall. About three months after their completion they saw action for the first and only time. On 13th July 1893, two French gunboats entered the estuary with the intention to blockade Bangkok. Shots were fired and a small boat that was acting as a pilot for the French ships was badly damaged and ran aground. Despite heroic action by the soldiers at the fort and the sailors aboard ships on the river, the two French gunboats managed to slip by. By the time it reached the inner fort it was too dark for anyone to continue the battle. The gunboats were then able to go all the way up the river to Bangkok.

Today only Phra Chulachomklao Fort is open to the general public. I have written about this fort before and I really do urge you to visit if you get a chance. The guns are still in good working order and they were last fired during the 100th anniversary. Phi Sua Samut Fort is not open to the public though they are presently renovating the fort and guns. The plan is to open the island to the public next year. I was lucky to be able to join a press tour of the island earlier this week. They showed us the three gun pits. In places we could see evidence of the original fort that dates back to King Rama II. One of the gun pits was empty because the gun is being renovated at the navy base. They also showed us the bunkers where the shells were stored. And then around the back they took us on a boardwalk through the nipa palms. At one point we spotted hundreds of fruit bats. When finished, I think this is going to be a great addition to the tourist attractions of Samut Prakan. I will let you know when it opens next year.

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