Everything you need to know about Suffolk's answer to 'Bletchley Park'

Bawdsey Manor as seen overhead

Bawdsey Manor as seen overhead - Credit: Knight Frank

If you’ve ever taken the Felixstowe to Bawdsey Ferry, or made your way up to that part of the Suffolk coast, you’ll no doubt have seen a large stately home sitting on the mouth of the River Deben. 

That home happens to be Bawdsey Manor – and unbeknownst to some, it played a hugely pivotal role in both the Second World War and Cold War. But how? 

Here to answer all of your questions and fill you in is Iain Dunnett. A trustee at the Bawdsey Radar Museum, Iain knows all there is to know when it comes to the history of radar here in Suffolk, and how this incredible invention helped Britain during two important wars.  

The Bawdsey transmitter towers before they were taken down following the Cold War

The Bawdsey transmitter towers before they were taken down following the Cold War - Credit: John Langford

But firstly, what exactly is radar?  

Radar, to put it simply, is a detection system that uses radio waves to determine the distance, velocity or angle of objects.  

“Radar - I think quite controversially at the time – was being developed in a number of countries in the early 20th century,” explains Iain.  

“You had around eight different countries at the start of the Second World War that were all working on radar to varying degrees and at different stages of development. And it occurred to the British in the early 20th century that attack by aircraft after the First World War was going to become quite an apparent threat, so there was work being done on this.” 

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Most famously, the two men who spearheaded the development of radar here in Britain were Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins.  

Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who headed the radar development team at Bawdsey Manor.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who headed the radar development team at Bawdsey Manor - Credit: Archant

The two discovered that by using transmitted radio waves, it was possible to detect approaching enemy aircraft.  

They worked this out this after Watson-Watt suggested that radio beams could be ‘bounced off’ objects in order to detect them. Watson Watt then asked Wilkins to undertake a series of calculations to determine the feasibility of this in a wartime setting. 

And on February 26, 1935, the pair put their hypothesis to the test by using a BBC transmitter to successfully pick up a bomber which was used as their test target.  

“With all the research they’d done, it led them to needing an east coast location for a radar research station facing the continent so they were able to develop the rest of their defence system.” 

And in May that year, Watson-Watt, Wilkins, and a team of scientists set up in Orfordness to continue a series of experiments over the sea that eventually led to the world’s first working radar system.  

Arnold 'Skip' Wilkins, who invented radar alongside Watson-Watt

Arnold 'Skip' Wilkins, who invented radar alongside Watson-Watt - Credit: Archant

But with the threat of war looming in the distance, the cohort realised their primitive site in Orfordness wasn’t going to cut it. 

“They felt they needed something more sophisticated, and that’s why they chose Bawdsey Manor.” 

At the time, Bawdsey Manor Estate was owned by the Quilter family, who had the residence built in 1886. The Air Ministry purchased it from the family for £24,000 – and turned it into RAF Bawdsey.  

Members of the Quilter family

Members of the Quilter family. The Air Ministry purchased Bawdsey Manor from them for £24,000 in order to use it as a radar base - Credit: Archant

War officially broke out shortly after in September that year, and Suffolk’s coast was ready to detect and defend itself against an incoming attack.  

“Without radar being able to detect approaching German aircraft, bombers and fighters, the airmen on the ground would’ve had no eyes when the attack was coming,” explains Iain 

“They would’ve needed to be up there all day long, patrolling and waiting for the enemy to turn up. But radar gave them around a 30- or 40-minute advance warning about any approaching aircraft.” 

And as the war progressed, so did the inventiveness of the scientists at Bawdsey.  

In 1937, they converted the manor’s outbuilding and stables into workshops, and built 240ft wooden receiver towers and 360ft steel transmitter towers in order to establish the first chain home radar station.  

“This was essentially a chain of radar stations running along the coast to help protect Britain from aircraft attacks from the continent. Bawdsey was the first of those, and then every 50 miles or so, you’d have another overlapping. This enabled them to plot approaching aircraft from different stations and then triangulate the two. That information was fed to commanders who would then scramble the fighters at the right moment to intercept the aircraft. It really made all of the difference. 

“This was the first radar aircraft interactive defensive system developed in the world, and in many ways shaped the future of similar defensive mechanisms.” 

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force at Bawdsey during the Second World War

The Women's Auxiliary Air Force at Bawdsey during the Second World War - Credit: Bawdsey Radar Trust

During the Battle of Britain, around 2,600 German Luftwaffe plans were set against the RAF’s 640 planes.  

“Bawdsey and all stations were of course subject to a degree of attack by the Luftwaffe, but there was a mistake made by the Germans. They didn’t comprehensibly attack the radar stations, or realise how important they were. So during the Battle of Britain, they remained unscathed for the most part and were operational throughout. But if those stations had been attacked, we’d have been in dire straits. 

“Thanks to radar, the bombers were intercepted – and their attacks were broken up and dissipated. This led to difficulties in flying for the pilots, and if they flew in too low that in itself was a risk for them.” 

However, attack was still inevitable at times, and a number of coastal towns here in the region were still bombed during the war. 

“There were some heavy nuisance raids in this part of Suffolk, as well as in Harwich, Lowestoft and Ipswich. Bawdsey became vulnerable during Operation Sea Lion, when Germany planned to invade Britain – and there was a real nervousness around radar operations, so the experimental research element was eventually moved to Scotland for safety.” 

Throughout the war, Bawdsey was bombed on at least 12 occasions – but a number of anti-aircrafts defences were installed to help prevent further damage, including three 40mm Bofors guns, two .303 Lewis anti-aircraft guns, slit trenches, sandbag gun emplacements, a concrete gun post, and around 10 type 24 pillboxes.  

The Bawdsey Transmitter Block at the former radar base at Bawdsey Manor Estate

The Bawdsey Transmitter Block at the former radar base at Bawdsey Manor Estate - Credit: Archant

“It’s probably quite difficult for us to imagine in the modern-day era, but the whole area was fortified, with defensive lines going back inland to act as a progressive line of defence. No one knew what was happening next – it was a real ‘cat and mouse’ existence. While we had our own radar, the enemy might’ve too,” explains Iain.  

Thanks to the continued use of radar though, paired with Bawdsey’s fortification, the British were able to detect and shoot down a German bomber in October 1940 before it could release its load.  

And in August 1943, tracking became easier at the height of the war thanks to a type 55 chain home extra low radar set that was installed on one of Bawdsey’s transmitter towers. This featured a rotating parabolod dish array, a new high-powered system which enabled the detection of e-boats up to 30 miles away.  

“Ultimately, radar was absolutely instrumental in helping Britain win the war,” Iain says.  

Without Britain’s quickness to develop the technique, the outcome of the Second World War may have been a lot of different. 

But with the war won in 1945 – Bawdsey’s role wasn’t done just yet.  

The Cold War began shortly after in 1947 – with tensions to follows for decades after - and RAF Bawdsey continued to be used as a defence base up until the 1990s.  

“I actually grew up in Woodbridge during the Cold War, and Bawdsey was in my back yard. I remember I was a young boy and seeing the missiles down there,” says Iain.  

These were anti-aircraft missiles, and were part of Britain’s defence during the Cold War. 

“These would be launched in case of an attack, and radar was an important part of that as the early warning system down there would’ve linked into the use of missiles. It was quite a menacing atmosphere down there, you’d drive past the other RAF bases, and this part of the country was quite militarised up until the early 1990s.” 

During the Cold War, Bloodhound Missiles were kept at RAF Bawdsey, and remained there until the base officially closed in March 1991. 

“As the threat of attack from the Soviets diminished over the decades, Bawdsey simply wasn’t needed anymore,” explains Iain.  

As part of the base’s decommissioning, the masts were deconstructed and taken down – with the final one coming down two decades ago. 

“It’s a great shame they took the masts down – they were amazing and became part of the landscape. However, the problem is they were 240ft and 360ft - and I think a lot of people wanted to see them saved, but maintaining them would’ve been difficult.” 

However, the legacy of this Suffolk’s village’s wartime role still remains – and the transmitter block that was once used to help defend Britain from attack has since been converted into what is now an interactive and expansive museum, documenting the use of radar throughout history. 

Bawdsey Transmitter Block

Bawdsey Transmitter Block - Credit: Ian Lambert

“In our eyes, Bawdsey is up there with Bletchley Park and other defensive locations. It was certainly one of the most important places in Suffolk in terms of wartime and defence history. And the development of radar affects all of us to this day – whether you’re reversing your car and it starts to beep, or if you’re flying in a plane. It features in a number of aspects of everyday life that you might not even realise. 

“I still believe if we didn’t have radar, World War Two might’ve been different. We may not have won the Battle of Britain, and we may have been invaded,” says Iain.  

To find out more about radar, visit bawdseyradar.org.uk 

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