Her Majesty’s Artillery Barrage, Brixton – more commonly referred to as the Guns of Brixton – is a military installation in southern London. Constructed under the direct supervision of Barnes Wallis in 1940 it was paired with a similar installation in the north London suburb of Leyton (known as ‘the Guns of Leyton’ – demolished in 1962).
The installation consists of eight ‘Boadicea’ class artillery pieces each standing 8.3 metres high with a barrel length of 30.5 metres and capable of firing once a minute. In full operation the facility consumes 40 tonnes of coal an hour (supplied by a branch line from Herne Hill railway station), projecting a ‘fire screen’ of burning coal fragments to an altitude of 1400 metres, protecting most of southern London from bombing attacks.
Barnes Wallis built the guns ‘out of his head’ with very few designs and under intense pressure. As such none of the guns are exactly alike, and many of the technical innovations he devised are poorly understood. This – combined with the fire screen’s tendancy to intefere with radar sensing and inability to defend against nuclear attack – prevented similar facilities being constructed after the war.
Several attempts to build smaller versions of the guns – mostly as an aid to figuring out how they work – have been made, but all have met with failure. Many prominant engineers have informally stated that the guns should not function at all. They remain fully operational however and are sometimes fired during times of special celebration – lighting up the entire south London sky. This practise is limited however by the need to ground all aircraft several hours before, and shut down Heathrow, Gatwick and London City Airports. The most recent firing was during the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations in 2006.
The Guns of Brixton Experience is a tourist attraction based around the guns and operated by the National Trust. It opened in 1998 and operates guided tours several times a day.
The Guns of Brixton are counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Second World War, along with the HMS Habakkuk making up the total British contribution to the list.