For the visitor peering over the river wall across the Ore to Orford Ness, the view presents a motley assortment of lumps and humps, many appearing like burial mounds, one not unlike a sail-less windmill, and another an air traffic control tower. Remotely perched on the horizon, they seem to reside in a different world from the bustling activity on Orford Quay. Yet in their day, they were involved in some of the most striking of all the secret activities on this most secret of places.
Take that apparent windmill, for example. Built in 1929 by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, to conduct a major trial of a new navigation system, it housed a rotating loop beacon. It transmitted a radio signal as a substitute for a light beam, more than trebling the range of operation. It operated perfectly for the purpose for which it was advertised, to aid shipping, until it was scrapped in 1934. The truth was that it was actually intended to aid the navigation of military aircraft. In this, it was seen as a failure. But as an example of a brilliant ‘cover story’ hiding the reality of a military function, during a period of sharp public anti-war sentiment, it was amazingly successful. For decades it was advertised as a maritime beacon, sponsored by Trinity House, to replace lighthouses. It never was anything of the sort.
To the north lies another cube-shaped structure. The Bomb Ballistics Building was the focal point of the RAF’s principal research bombing range, which operated from 1933 until its whole operation was transferred to Woomera in 1957. A small team of civilian scientific officers operated advanced research on the flight, and hence, the accuracy, of bombs of every shape and size. Aircraft would drop their load, often of dummy weapons, so that their flight could be analysed and, from this, bombing tables devised and bombsights refined. This work continued through into the Cold War era with the dropping zone extended as speeds and altitudes of aircraft increased. Its last major function was to research the flight of the nuclear bombs, dozens of which were dropped into the sea – without fissile material – from 1954 to 1957. Those ‘in the know’ would claim that this range was as important as any of the various facilities on the Ness. The building has survived intact, to give a fair idea of how it operated. The viewing platform on the roof provides as comprehensive a view as any on the whole site.
The Bomb Ballistics Building was operated by RAE Farnborough. To the south, the whole property was purchased in 1953 by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston. They needed a bombing range to test two aspects of the trigger mechanisms of Britain’s nuclear deterrent: that bombs would work reliably if so required and that they would safely not work prematurely either through accident or operational usage. For the first aspect of these trials, bombs dropped again into the sea were monitored by telemetry (radio signals), the results being recorded in the Black Beacon, which was given a new lease of life. Just beside it can still be seen the remains of the base for the 100 ft. aerial mast. A few yards away are the foundations of the Technical HQ building, which operated all this very advanced work.
Work on ensuring safety required the construction of a series of vast concrete laboratories, reinforced against an accidental explosion by shingle piled up its side walls. Here, what was described as ‘environmental tests’ took place. Bombs were subjected to intense vibration under varying temperatures and atmospheres, both hot and cold, damp and dry, to replicate the sorts of situation in which an accident might occur. Two series of such labs were built between 1956 and 1962, the second lot including the two iconic so-called ‘pagodas’. These were far more sophisticated in design and operation and continued the process of safety testing, but for U.S. weapons, the WE177. The Americans had initially denied the British access to their nuclear weapons in a fit of post-war isolationism. But the AWRE track-record on safety so impressed the Americans that they relented from 1960 and thereafter our bombs were of U.S. design. Research by AWRE staff on the Ness thus played a vital role in the conduct of the Cold War, confirming the reality of the British nuclear deterrent. It all came at an immense price, but it worked. The concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) meant that these hideous weapons were never used.
AWRE moved out from their Ness site in 1971. Their departure was greatly regretted because they had been very considerate employers of local labour and bequeathed much to the village, including the enormous car park used by so many visitors to the quay. The legacy of their days on Orford Ness are those massive and imposing constructions. They were so robustly built that any idea of trying to demolish them was quickly abandoned. They will remain to decay in nature’s good time, perhaps 100s of years hence.
By Paddy Heazell