On 24th September 1937 RAF Bawdsey became the first fully operational Radar station in the world. This was only just over eighteen months after the first experiment, conducted by Robert Watson Watt and Arnold Wilkins, established that by using transmitted radio waves it was possible to detect an approaching aircraft. Bawdsey continued in the development of Radar until the outbreak of the Second World War, on 3rd September 1939, when the scientific team was moved from this vulnerable east coast site to Dundee. RAF Bawdsey remained an important Radar station and later a Bloodhound Surface to Air Missile (SAM) site until 31st March 1991, when it was officially closed.
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 asked his assistant, Arnold “Skip” Wilkins, to undertake some calculations (re-created here by Brian Austin of Liverpool University) Wilkins Calculations. He then drew up a memo and covering letter outlining his ideas Watson-Watt letter 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 that saved the day.
As a high-priority target for the Luftwaffe, Bawdsey didn’t get off lightly and was bombed on at least 12 occasions. However, huge earth revetments supported by reinforced concrete walls and a roof specially designed to dissipate the force of an overhead blast prevented the destruction of the station.
During WW2, RAF Bawdsey was identified as a potential target and in September 1939 was protected by three 40mm Bofors guns and two .303 Lewis anti-aircraft guns. With an increased fear of a German invasion, these defences were supplement in 1940 by slit trenches, sandbag gun emplacements, a concrete gun post and at least ten type 24 pillboxes; nine of these still survive.
There were several attacks on the station during 1940 which did little damage with no casualties and on 18th October 1940 anti-aircraft gunners shot down a German bomber. Sporadic attacks continued over the following three years with some loss of life; the last bombing raid near Bawdsey was on 30th June 1944. A V1 rocket crashed on the beach on 21st September 1944 and a V2 detonated over the sea on 9th October.
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 the transmitter and receiver blocks and underground bunkers…
Radar Station and radar development station. (Chain, Chain Low and Type 55)
No 2711 Sqn RAF Regiment
No 5 Radio School (10 Oct 1946 – 20 Jun 1950)
School of Control and Reporting (6 Jan 1964 – 1 Oct 1968)
School of Fighter Control (1 Oct 1968 – 31 Oct 1974)
‘C’ Flt, 85 Sqn (19 Dec 1975 – 1 Dec 1990)