March 2021

RAF Bawdsey – thirty years ago

The end of an era:  the RAF leave Bawdsey for the last time


Thirty years ago, on Monday 25 March 1991, the RAF left RAF Bawdsey for the final time and marked the occasion with a moving closing down ceremony.

It’s hard to imagine the impact on the world that the technology developed at Bawdsey would have when a handful of scientists moved, quietly, to Bawdsey Manor in 1936.

Robert Watson Watt, Arnold Wilkins and the team had moved in to the grand surroundings of the Manor from their first base at Orfordness. The team continued their top-secret work to develop the world’s first operational radar to be ready for the coming second world war. At the outbreak of war, the scientists were moved to a safer location in Dundee.

The Manor became RAF Bawdsey in 1937 and from then until 1974 RAF Bawdsey, the first radar station in the world, was home to thousands and thousands of women and men who did their training there before being posted on active service. Radar developments continued apace: Identification Friend or Foe was critical in identifying friendly aircraft for example. The No. 5 Training school was established in 1945 and No. 144 Signal Unit moved in 1956.

In 1959, a station badge was approved by HM The Queen. The design is based on the guard dog mosaic in the entrance of Bawdsey Manor, in turn based upon a mosaic at Pompeii.

In 1966 Bawdsey regained its full position as a Master Radar Station after a disastrous fire at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk. In 1974 the station was placed in to ‘care and maintenance’ and its School of Fighter Control was moved to RAF West Drayton.

In 1979 RAF Bawdsey was back in the thick of it becoming an operational Bloodhound Mk2 Surface-to-Air Missile site and by 1984 was home to the Interim Alternate Strike Command HQ before ceasing to be operational in 1990 and being slowly wound down.

The last station commander was Derek Rothery. Here are his memories of the official closure ceremony:

The date of Monday 25 March 1991 was selected. A Guard of Honour was formed on Bawdsey Quay, which was part of the RAF station. RAF Bawdsey was part of 11 Group, the old RAF Fighter Command in WW2, and we had Air Commodore Mike Donaldson from 11 Group HQ as our Reviewing Officer.  We had one police dog at the time, Air Dog Skip, who was on parade having been promoted that day to Corporal Air Dog Skip and he retired that day after the closure ceremony.

It was a very moving ceremony, with the General Salute, the National Anthem, prayers and an address by the Reviewing Officer which included a brief history about what had happened at Bawdsey.  The Ensign was lowered, folded and presented to me, and I led the parade off in a slow march to the strains of Auld Lang Syne. 

I’d spent six happy years on a station unlike any other with the role it played in air defence of the UK, I believe it was unique in the Air Force.

I was determined to be the last RAF serviceman to leave Bawdsey and I was.  As I walked past the guard-room I turned for a last look at the Manor and gave a final salute to all the personnel who had served at RAF Bawdsey.’


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RAF Bawdsey – thirty years ago