Bawdsey Radar Station
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 in Suffolk 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 the nearby Bawdsey Manor Estate was purchased for £24,000 to become the HQ of the operations.
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. On September 24 1937 RAF Bawdsey became the first fully operational radar station in the world, and by the outbreak of WW11 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
After WW11 Bawdsey was used as an RAF base through the Cold War until the 1990's when the Bloodhound surface-to-air 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.
These are based at the museum run by volunteers so see Bawdsey Radar Station
for more details and opening times.
History and World War 11 enthusiasts may also be interested in our article on Martello Towers
Please click here for more information on Bawdsey Quay
Below are some fascinating reminiscences of time spent at Bawdsey over the years - I served at RAF Bawdsey twice between 1969 and 1973 as a Radar Technician and was in charge of the Radar Antenna (the Heads). It was one of my favourite postings. We had a married quarter in Adastral Close in Felixstowe and my daughters went to Langer Road School, I drove to the Ferry most days and was taken across by Charlie Brinkley on his ferry boat. I am sure that many hundreds of service men and women will remember Charlie. Interestingly, he was famous for his invention of the Brinkley Stick, a method of grounding electrical equipment and discharging capacitors thus making it safer to work on.
Many years later I returned as a civilian to Bawdsey and worked as Assistant Bursar at Alexander’s International College. It was here that I had the idea of starting a museum to remember the great importance of the ‘Home of Radar’. Mr Toetcher the owner of Bawdsey Manor was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed that we could have the old transmitter building to house the museum. I was interviewed by the local press and appeared on TV. This triggered many memories of local people and donations of memorabilia. I left before the museum got very far however. I am very pleased that the museum continues to grow and thrive and very proud that I had a small part in it.Brian McQuirk
Ex Chief Technician RAF
Vancouver BC CanadaI shared Alun Jackson's experience of RAF Bawdsey (see below) as we both arrived there from Police Training School shortly before Christmas of 1954 and spent most of our time manning the gate at what was know as "A" site, that being its security classification. Unlike Alun I did have occasion to go down the "hole" as it was called. After a longish walk along a corridor you came across the sort of scene you might see in a wartime film or TV program, a plotting table with a map of the sector and a gallery of radar monitors. Back on the main site we lived in one of a series of 10 man chalets. Those less fortunate had to make do with the usual large accommodation block. Our 'police' chalet was situated opposite the original CH Radar Operations Centre which was at that time still operational. I believe it is now a museum.
My memory is of a fairly relaxed place and posting which can best be illustrated by the fact that while I was there they turned the parade ground into tennis courts!Ron Jones
I was stationed at BAWDSEY from July 1984 and Dec of same year. I was on my down time as leaving the service after six years and a member of the Transport Squadron. It was a fascinating station and the big imposing Manor House was a fine sight as you drove on up past the gate house. I remember there being some sort of duck or geese present in the grounds and they were held in regard as some sort of mascot within the station. The dining area in the big house was majestic and walking round the outside of the building to gain entrance was quirky to say the least. I played for the station football team and a local Sunday team also. We had some good functions in the NAFFI so to speak, it was only a small place as I can remember and some of the local gentry used to attend whenever they could. There was a laid back attitude to the station even though the bloodhound section further up the road was still active and we had many stand to's during the few months I was stationed there. There was a pub some miles up the road I cannot recall its name but the locals weren't to keen on us attending as it often ended in a little bit more than a quiet pint or two.
A trip into Ipswich at the weekend was always looked forward to and never failed to impress, so much so that I returned from my home in Liverpool on New Year's Eve 1998 for a party, didn't fail to impress once again. The station was quite small in terms of staff and I enjoyed the life I had there if only for a short time and I often think of walking from the gates along the shore road before picking up the bus to wherever we ended up going at the time. Fond memories and I hope the building remains for many years to come.
Ray Hicks.I served in the RAF Police from about Sept '54 for some 18 months. Bus to felixstowe run by (Albert) local man and ardent Ipswich supporter. Ahrr Ipswich was about all I could make out. We crossed the ferry with Stan for a small fee.
We did shifts with the dog handlers and were given 6 eggs each night by the canteen; so we learned different ways to cook them.
By day we were little more than gatekeepers letting the radar ops. and plotters in or out. Our small guard room was situated over the stairs leading down to the operations block but I never saw inside it. We also used a Vauxhall Standard (I think) estate with the gear change lever left of steering wheel to visit a remote site outside the base. I got a rabbit in my headlights and managed to veer off the road and crash into the building.There were plenty of romantic liaisons going on especially when a lot more ladies from the territorials spent there annual training visit at the camp. It's all vanished now
. Best Wishes, Alun Jackson
. Hi, I just happen to be writing a book, part of which will be my time at RAF Bawdsey as a radar operator. It was fun to read the item written by Alun Jackson, since I was at Bawdsey from its opening in 1954 to leaving in September 1955. I was on 'A' Crew and remember our daily operations, controlling fighter jets from local RAF or USAF airfields.
Prior to moving to Bawdsey, I was at RAF Felixstowe, with the Radar 'hut' at Trimley Heath. From a very cold operations hut we moved to this warm state of the art underground 'bunker', entering through the 'cottage' building, that Alan must have occupied, we descended into a corridor into the operations area dimly lit with control cabins overlooking the 'plotting table'. The cabins regularly picked up fighter jets and took them out over the North Sea to practice interceptions.
I also remember crossing the river Deben in the small ferry boat and taking the bus, driven by Albert, to Felixstowe for a good night out or to play tennis and badminton. Of course I also remember the female territorials and the liaisons, but we were young.
On returning from National Service I went back to the family business and shortly after founded the Reebok sports brand with my brother, and that is what the book is about.
It was a very enjoyable 2 years of my life.
Best wishes to all. Joe Foster
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