The view from the roof of the castle across the river directly to the east reveals a large grass area. A roadway bisects it, running from the river jetty for almost a mile up to a string of buildings. Sheep may be seen grazing as part of a carefully managed nature reserve. Hard to imagine that back in 1913 the War Office had decided to purchase the whole site from Mackenzie Clark (father of Lord Clark of Civilisation fame) of nearby Sudbourne Hall. At this time war with Germany was clearly anticipated and the possibility of the aeroplane as a weapon of war seriously considered. Orford was, at this time, only the third airfield the nation possessed.
The first flight by a heavier than air machine had occurred only ten years before. The practicalities of aerial warfare were hardly understood and its possibilities, scarcely comprehended. In 1912 the Army established a flying corps, initially a branch of the Royal Engineers, manned by volunteers drawn from all regiments. The equipment and weaponry available were alarmingly primitive and any concept of tactics non-existent.
Orford Ness was acquired by the War Office to remedy these grave shortcomings. From the outset it was to be a secret experimental station. Orford Ness was favoured for what was charmingly described as its ‘privacy’. For eighty years this privacy made it an ideal location for generations of trials and experiments. Security was never seriously breached in all these years. No small credit for this is due to the local population who were content to ask no questions and accept that, in return for their discretion, a valuable source of both employment and trade would ensue.
Flying began on the two, by then drained, grass fields in late 1915. Trials of weapons and aircraft continued at a furious rate until 1919, when the station was temporarily closed. It was reopened in 1924, still for experimental work. Much of this had a major impact on the whole technique of flying. The introduction of accurate instruments was vital for reliable navigation and for safety too. Kit like parachutes were trialled and there were endless tests on fuel tanks to prevent them from catching fire. Medical issues, like the danger of black-out from hitherto unfamiliar G-forces or the effects of flying in an open and unheated cockpit at over fifteen thousand feet, were tackled. The dangers of flying in cloud were met by setting a special unit to develop ‘blind’ flying by the then crude instruments of the day.
To develop air-to-ground signalling and to improve engine silencers a fresh field was opened at Butley for acoustic testing. Its location has long since vanished in what is now Rendlesham Forest. Rather more significantly, the need to accelerate tests on new types of aircraft led to the acquisition of a completely fresh station at Martlesham Heath which opened in 1917. These three research stations became collectively the Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment.
By 1918, about 600 airmen served on the Ness, billeted in a string of wooden huts beside the southernmost field. All but two of these have gone, victims of site clearance and of the great flood of 1953.
Orford Ness is notable for the remarkable men who conducted these trials. The officers were astonishingly brave to take the risks they did. They were brilliant pilots. The weapons they tested were alarmingly unreliable. They were arguably the most academically talented ever assembled for experimental work. Most came from the great universities and their trials were conducted with the exact precision that would be adopted in a university lab. The over-all commander was Bertram Hopkinson, Cambridge professor of mechanical engineering. Henry Tizard was a flight commander: he was later Rector of Imperial College and played a vital scientific and political part in Anglo-American negotiations in 1940, for which he was knighted. Another was the mercurial, brilliant and ambitious Frederick Lindemann, who was elected professor of natural philosophy at Oxford and who, as Lord Cherwell, was Churchill’s scientific adviser. Perhaps the most surprising inhabitants were the men of the Chinese Labour Corps, and the German prisoners of war, used together for construction work around the site.
If you’re looking to stay in Orford, take a look at these beautiful cottage rents.
For more from Paddy Heazell, see his fascinating book on the history of Orford: Most Secret: The Hidden History of Orford Ness.
by Paddy Heazell