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Declassified: RAF Bawdsey's Lasting Legacy To Radar

RAF Bawdsey is one of the most significant bases in the world, despite having no runways or a control tower...

In the latest in our series of special reports to mark RAF 100, we have been investigating a network of former bases which have now closed, uncovering their pasts and discovering what they’re being used for today.

RAF Bawdsey is one of the most significant bases in the world, despite having no runways or a control tower.

It was there where much of the work was done on the development of radar and was home to the first ever working radar station used in defence.

The Suffolk base was also where Sir Robert Watson Watt, the pioneer of radar, conducted the bulk of his research. 

Bawdsey Manor was built in the late 1800s by Sir Cuthbert Quilter - a wealthy businessman who went on to become an MP but sold the entire site to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 1936.

It was then that the first research teams working on the development of radar arrived.

RAF Bawdsey Original
It was then that the first research teams working on the development of radar arrived, officially renaming it as RAF Bawdsey.

Today parts of the base have been transformed into a museum dedicated to explaining the history of radar.

In the 1930s, pressure was building on the government on how to deal with the Luftwaffe, with all kinds of ideas for new weapons being looked at.

Graham Randall, Chairman of the Bawdsey Trust, said:

"The government put forward a suggestion to try and find an idea on how they could generate a death ray to take down pilots of incoming enemy aircraft.  

"Sheep were put forward as a test case - if someone could kill a sheep at 100 yards, you would win £1,000.

"Nobody managed to do it - so no sheep were harmed in that experiment."

Mr Randall says after that failed attempt they realised they couldn't generate enough energy to generate a death ray.

This meant they had to change their initial concept.

"They came up with the idea of detecting an aircraft by reflection of radio signals - which launched the story of radar."

Radar Information film
A formally classified information film showed how the system worked.

Much of the key work done there was in the transmitter block.

Roger Townsend, Trustee of Bawdsey Trust, explains how the radar system worked:

"The pulse was sent from this site, it was then plotted and that information was sent to the headquarters and they then alerted aircraft from other airfields and launched them.

"We were outnumbered - about four-to-one in the number of aircraft we had.

"Had we not had radar, the planes would have had to travel backwards and forwards searching for the enemy aircraft - we would have been searching for a needle in the haystack." 

Mr Townsend believes that if radar wasn't developed, the Germans would have won the war. 

RAF Bawdsey
Nearby there is also a slightly less grand house with a secret to tell.

Nearby, there is a slightly less grand house with a secret to tell.

A structure, built to look like a farmhouse but beneath containing a secret bunker used during the Cold War.

Mr Townsend worked inside the bunker and explains what it was like being called in for exercises:

"At times it was frustrating - you were called in during the middle of the night on exercises, pretending that somebody was going to attack so you had to get everything running - everything had to be perfect." 

"You stayed on alert throughout the night."

While working there, he was never able to tell anyone what he did for a living.

RAF Bawdsey
Their messes were back at the Bawdsey Manor.

Today, part of the old base is used for residential holidays for children.

They are also encouraged to learn about the history of radar.

Ashley Jones, General Manager of Bawdsey Manor, said: "We tell them what radar is - because only a few know what it is and luckily we've got the museum there that explains it very well. 

"We want children to go and see that and understand why this building is so important - it means a lot to people so we want to be the latest chapter of that."

From the Second World War to the Cold War, RAF Bawdsey played a significant role in Britain's military history.

Speaking in 1949 Winston Churchill described the importance of radar:

"All the ascendency of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system which had been devised and built before the war…the like of which existed nowhere in the world."

Some parts of it are now derelict but what remains is a lasting legacy to the story of radar.