By the 1930s the science behind what we now call radar was not new. Bouncing radio signals off solid objects and monitoring the reflection was first patented by a German in 1907 and the French were using it to detect icebergs. The Radio Research Laboratory at Slough was using similar techniques to detect thunderstorms. The Germans had perfected short-range gun-laying radar for installation in their commerce-raiding pocket-battleship Graf Spee as early as 1934. The British ‘invention’ which was inaugurated on the Ness was merely a development of existing techniques for a specific purpose and with crucial attention to practicality. The result was nothing less than a crushing military triumph.

The background to events on the Ness from 1935 is this. After a decade of national pacifism, a determination that there would never be another World War, people began to ask questions about the nation’s defences. In particular, memories of German terror raids by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers remained vivid. The signs of the new and formidable strength of the German air force were giving rise to mounting alarm. What was the Government doing about it?

Initially some strange solutions were proposed, like arrays of barrage balloons or ‘death rays’ to knock out enemy pilots. The only established early warning system consisted of amplified ‘sound mirrors’ along the Kent coast: brick structures that gave an audible warning, perhaps five minutes if no extraneous noise intervened, of approaching aircraft. The Air Ministry however were far from complacent and sought the best possible advice of scientific experts. Two of the principal men involved were ex-Orford Ness WWI flight commanders, Frederick Lindemann and Henry Tizard. Now highly eminent academics at Oxford and London Universities, they turned to the director of radio research at Slough, Robert Watson Watt, for help. He, in turn, involved some of his brightest team members, notably Arnold Wilkins and Eddie Bowen. These two led the original research into a practical early warning system to provide not five but up to thirty minutes warning of approaching enemy aircraft. This gave time for RAF fighters to be scrambled with exact knowledge of the numbers, altitude and bearing of their targets.

Having conducted a primitive but convincing trial at Weedon, near Daventry, Watson Watt was invited to lead a small team of creative young physicists to a corner of a remote Suffolk research station that was to be shrouded in total secrecy. He agreed to use some World War I huts at Orford Ness. He himself pulled all the strings with the officials, politicians and ‘brass hats’. He also had a long-term creative imagination and a burning ambition to emulate the inventive genius of his forebear, James Watt. His men solved immense technical problems, despite a serious lack of suitable equipment or research facilities. RDF, RADAR was its American name widely adopted in 1943, was to prove a triumph and its very existence was kept an absolute secret, even from the RAF pilots who took part in the trials. During the summer and autumn of 1935 vital progress was being made and indeed almost all of the essential ideas that would lead to crucial superiority in air defence radar, notably the whole concept of a centrally controlled network of stations (Chain Home), had been aired if not solved. Watson Watt would come up each weekend from Slough to conduct ‘brain-storming’ sessions with his faithful team in the private lounge of the Crown and Castle Hotel.

But the Ness site was really inadequate for what was evolving, and the availability of Bawdsey Manor, sold by the Quilter family in 1936, enabled a proper research station to be set up; again with the secrecy that seclusion offers. Orford Ness, meanwhile, was used as an outstation for radar trials until 1937. One of the last young researchers to work there was Robert Hanbury Brown. In 1941, while working with the RAF on fitting airborne radars into night fighters, he was nicknamed ‘Boffin’. This is the first recorded use of a word which is now part of our vocabulary. Its true meaning is clear: an inventor with a clear-headed brain that ensures his ideas are entirely practical. It has been the characteristic of so many brilliant men who have worked on Orford Ness.

See also, Bawdsey Radar Station.


By Paddy Heazell