Nestled along the rugged coastline south of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Funston, and to the north, within the Marin Headlands, Fort Cronkhite, stand as reminders of San Francisco’s military past.

These sites, integral to the coastal defense system, offer a deep dive into the evolution of military engineering, strategy, and the transition from active fortifications to historic landmarks and natural preserves.

The focal points of these forts are Battery Davis and Battery Townsley, respectively, each housing the formidable 16-inch/50-caliber guns designed to protect the United States from naval threats.

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Development of Fort Funston

The enhancement of America’s coastal defenses commenced in the late 1800s, a period marking the United States’ initial steps towards becoming the global superpower it is recognized as today. The Endicott Board, formed in 1885, was tasked with evaluating the country’s defense capabilities and their sufficiency.

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The board’s review revealed that the nation’s defenses were inadequate, lacking in size, strength, and modernity. This led to the initiation of an extensive project aimed at modernizing and improving these defenses. It’s crucial to note that this was a time when the concept of aircraft was still more than 15 years from becoming a reality, meaning any foreign threat to the U.S., excluding neighboring Mexico or Canada, would necessitate a maritime approach.

As such, the most critical and vulnerable coastal regions were identified for urgent reinforcement. Among these, San Francisco, with its expansive and strategic natural harbor, was recognized as a key area necessitating protection.

Luckily, any vessel aiming to enter San Francisco’s harbor is required to navigate through the Golden Gate, a strait that narrows to about one mile at its slimmest point. This geographical feature is advantageous for defenders, as it allows them to engage any intruder from both sides.

Forts protecting the American mainland were mainly equipped with 12 inch mortars like there.

In 1900, the US government secured a piece of land south of the Golden Gate, an ideal location to oversee and protect this crucial entrance. This area would later be established as Fort Funston. Nevertheless, the construction of defensive structures at this site did not commence until the onset of the First World War.

Construction of a second defensive position, Fort Cronkhite, started in the latter part of the 1930s. Situated on the northern side of the Golden Gate, it directly faced Fort Funston, providing a comprehensive defensive coverage of the strait.

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However, before the decade concluded, these locations evolved into havens for some of the most formidable weapons on the planet: 16-inch guns. The desire for guns of such magnitude and caliber had persisted, as it necessitated battleships to maintain considerable distance to evade their range.

Initially, the Army had engineered a massively potent 16-inch/50-caliber M1919 gun, yet its colossal size and exorbitant cost resulted in only a scant few being constructed.

Fortunes took a turn in the late 1920s, however, when the Army commenced receiving 16-inch guns from the US Navy.

Location of Fort Funston

Battery Davis is located within Fort Funston, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California. Fort Funston itself is situated along the Pacific coast in the southwestern corner of the city. This area is renowned for its scenic beauty, featuring sandy bluffs and trails that offer spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding landscape.

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Battery Townsley is located at Fort Cronkhite, which is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area but is situated on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Strait. Fort Cronkhite is near the town of Sausalito, nestled in the Marin Headlands. This area is characterized by its rugged terrain and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

A view from above Fort Cronkhite, with views of the Golden Gate Strait. Image by Panegyrics of Granovetter CC BY-SA 2.0.

Both of these locations are within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompasses many of the coastal defense sites around the San Francisco Bay Area. These historic sites are accessible to the public and serve as popular destinations for both educational and recreational activities, offering a unique combination of natural beauty and historical significance.

Battery Davis and Battery Townsley were integral components of a broader network of coastal defenses around San Francisco Bay. This network included searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and radar installations, representing a comprehensive approach to coastal defense that combined firepower, surveillance, and air defense. The strategic placement of these batteries, along with their formidable armaments, underscored the importance of San Francisco Bay as a military and economic asset that required protection from potential enemy action.

Design

The design of Battery Davis and Battery Townsley was driven by a strategic shift towards integrating more powerful and longer-ranged artillery into coastal defenses. This approach was underpinned by the realization that future naval engagements would likely involve engagements at greater distances, necessitating guns capable of firing larger projectiles over longer ranges.

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The 16-inch/50-caliber guns chosen for these batteries were the epitome of this philosophy, designed to strike enemy ships before they could come within range to launch an effective attack.

One of the 16 inch guns being fitted to its casemate at Battery Townsley.

Constructing batteries capable of housing the massive 16-inch guns presented numerous engineering challenges. The sites had to be carefully selected for strategic advantage, taking into account factors such as field of fire, ease of resupply, and natural concealment. The construction of Battery Davis at Fort Funston and Battery Townsley at Fort Cronkhite involved massive excavation work, as these installations were embedded into hillsides to minimize their visibility and vulnerability to enemy fire.

The batteries were constructed with reinforced concrete, capable of withstanding direct hits from enemy shells. The walls of the gun emplacements and magazines were several feet thick, a testament to the serious consideration given to protecting the guns and their crews. The design also included intricate systems for ammunition storage and handling, ensuring that the heavy projectiles and propellant charges could be safely and efficiently moved from the magazines to the guns.

The Guns Came From Battleships

During the First World War, the US Navy initiated the construction of two types of warships: the South Dakota-class battleships and the Lexington-class battlecruisers. These vessels were intended to be outfitted with the newly developed 16-inch guns.

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The 16-inch/50-caliber Mark 2 guns were marvels of military engineering that weighed 130 tons. Each gun barrel was approximately 67 feet long, allowing for a high muzzle velocity and, consequently, a greater range and hitting power. The guns were capable of firing a 2,700-pound projectile over a distance of up to 25.5 miles, making them among the most powerful coastal defense weapons of their time.

Seventy guns were manufactured to equip these vessels, but in 1922, the production of both ship classes was abruptly halted due to the stipulations of the Washington Naval Treaty.

The 16 inch gun fitted in place.

Consequently, with no vessels to mount them on, the 16-inch/50-caliber guns were put into storage, harboring the future possibility of being mounted on ships. During the 1920s, the Navy started to offer these guns to the US Army, which was in charge of coastal defense operations.

Eagerly seizing the opportunity, the Army, which had long desired 16-inch guns, quickly devised plans to incorporate them into their coastal fortifications, including those near San Francisco.

Operational History

With the completion of Battery Davis and Battery Townsley in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the United States was on the brink of World War II, a conflict that would dramatically alter the landscape of global power and military strategy. These batteries were staffed and operated by soldiers trained in the art of coastal artillery, who maintained a constant state of readiness.

Regular drills and exercises were conducted to ensure that crews could rapidly respond to any naval threat. The precision and efficiency with which these units operated were testament to the seriousness with which the potential for Japanese naval attacks on the Pacific Coast was taken.

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Despite the anticipation of traditional naval engagements, the actual operational history of these coastal defenses was characterized by their non-use in combat. The expected naval invasions never materialized, as the nature of warfare shifted dramatically during World War II. The ascendancy of air power, both in terms of aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, along with the development of submarine warfare, made fixed coastal fortifications increasingly obsolete.

The very attributes that made Battery Davis and Battery Townsley formidable—immense firepower and extensive fortification—also rendered them inflexible in the face of more mobile and unpredictable forms of warfare.

One of the guns fired around 200 rounds during life at the fort.

As the war progressed, the strategic importance of these batteries waned. Advances in technology, particularly in missile development and aircraft capabilities, shifted the focus of coastal defense from static emplacements to mobile and more versatile systems. The guns of Battery Davis and Battery Townsley, once the pinnacle of coastal defense technology, were quickly surpassed by the needs of modern warfare. By the end of World War II, these installations, like many others across the United States and the world, entered a period of decline, as the military reassessed its defensive needs in the context of new technological realities.

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The onset of the Cold War brought a further shift in the strategic landscape, with an emphasis on nuclear deterrence and the global projection of power. The coastal batteries, designed to repel invasions that never came, were officially deemed surplus to requirements.

Some were dismantled, while others were abandoned or repurposed for different uses. The operational history of Battery Davis and Battery Townsley thus concluded not with a bang, but with a quiet transition to obsolescence.

Present Day

Today, these coastal batteries are preserved as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service. This preservation effort ensures that these sites remain intact as tangible links to the past, offering insights into the United States’ coastal defense strategies and the technological advancements of the time.

Volunteers and park rangers conduct tours and educational programs, sharing the history and significance of these installations with the public. These efforts not only keep the story of the batteries alive but also serve as a reminder of the ever-evolving nature of military strategy and technology.

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The adaptation of Fort Funston and Fort Cronkhite, along with Battery Davis and Battery Townsley, into public recreational areas exemplifies a successful reimagining of military spaces for civilian use. Fort Funston is renowned for its hang gliding, dog walking, and hiking opportunities, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and access to natural dune environments.

Fort Cronkhite, with its rugged landscapes and proximity to other historical sites, attracts outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, and history buffs. The transformation of these areas has not only preserved the historical and cultural significance of the sites but has also enhanced public access to natural and scenic resources.

The presence of Battery Davis and Battery Townsley in these recreational areas serves as a constant reminder of the complexities of history and the importance of remembering the past. They stand as monuments to a time when the threat of coastal invasion was a genuine concern and reflect the efforts made to protect the nation. For visitors, these batteries provide a space for reflection on the costs of war, the advances in technology, and the peace that allows for their current use as sites of leisure and education.

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Beyond their historical and recreational value, the areas surrounding these coastal batteries have also become important sites for biodiversity and environmental conservation. Efforts to preserve and restore native habitats have enhanced the ecological value of these locations, providing refuge for a variety of plant and animal species. This aspect of the batteries’ present-day significance underscores the multifaceted value of these sites, encompassing history, recreation, and conservation.