Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bawdsey Radio Station

by Will Averill

Did you know that radar was developed and first tested in Suffolk between the two World Wars? Today you can visit the place where much of the ground breaking work in radar technology took place. RAF Bawdsey, operational in 1937, was the first of a chain of radar stations to be built around the coast of Britain. During the Battle of Britain with 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF's 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

History of Bawdsey Radar Station

Following the First World War, protecting the UK from attack was discussed at great length. But it was not until 1934, when an air-defence exercise to test defence was carried out that things really started to get going.

Although the targets and routes of the exercise were known, more than half the bombers managed to get through to their targets. This led to the Air Ministry looking at the idea of radio "death rays" which would eliminate or disable pilots and their aircraft. The Scots physicist Robert Watson-Watt, supervisor of a national radio research laboratory and descendant of James Watt, inventor of the first practical steam engine, was contacted and asked for his views.

Watson-Watt dismissed the idea of death rays but said that radio beams could be bounced off enemy aircraft to detect them. He then drew up a memo outlining his ideas and although it was met with enthusiasm, proof that the system could work was demanded.

On 26 February 1935, Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins successfully demonstrated their system using a BBC transmitter which managed to pick up a bomber being used as a test target.

In May 1935 Watson-Watt, Wilkins and a small team of scientists moved to Orfordness to conduct a series of historic experiments over the sea that would lead to the world's first working 'RADAR' system. It soon became apparent that Orfordness was inadequate for further research and Bawdsey Manor Estate was purchased for £24,000.

In February 1936 the research scientists occupied Bawdsey Manor House and the stables and outbuildings were converted into workshops. 240ft wooden receiver towers and 360ft steel transmitter towers were built and Bawdsey became the first Chain Home Radar Station. By the outbreak of World War 2 a chain of radar stations was in place around the coast of Britain.

These radar stations were to prove invaluable during the Second World War and particularly during the Battle of Britain. With 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF's 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

Bawdsey was used as an RAF base through the Cold War until the 1990s when the Bloodhound Missile was the last 'tenant' in this base. On 31st May 1990 the Bloodhound force ceased operations and in June all the missiles were withdrawn to RAF West Raynham. The RAF Ensign was lowered for the last time on the 25th March 1991 and the station closed on the 31st March.

Sadly, the last of the giant transmitter masts came down in 2000, but you can still see photos and exhibits from the stations working days, including -

The Magic Ear Exhibition: A Radar Exhibition on display in The Transmitter Block, Bawdsey, Suffolk - Sundays and Bank Holidays.

The exhibition tells the story of a technology and an institution which helped win a war - and shape our future. It reveals how scientists came together in total secrecy before World War 2 to prove that radio waves could locate aeroplanes, ships and other targets and how their invention dramatically affected the course of the conflict. It explains how their work laid the foundations for the age of electronics and the computer.

The exhibition was designed by David Robertson, a communications professional specialising mainly in science and technology, as a touring exhibition for the Millennium celebrations in Malvern. It has also been on display at Bletchley Park and more recently at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton.

Special visits can be arranged. Please phone (07821 162 879) or email for details.

The Bawdsey Radar Group is a registered charity which aims to restore the Transmitter Block at Bawdsey to create a unique exhibition, educational facility and visitor attraction. High-tech displays will explain how radar was invented, the central role that Bawdsey played in this and how both saved Britain during the Battle of Britain. The ultimate dream is to raise one of the radar transmitter towers that defended the country in the Second World War. See their website for more details of this fascinating piece of history, and read veterans stories including Hilda's, who was a Radar Operator at Bawdsey

About the Author

Will Averill is a freelance writer for Suffolk Tourist Guide. Suffolk Tourist Guide is the online guide for Suffolk Hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, pubs, Attractions, days out and things to do in Suffolk.

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