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Suffolk's most secret

PUBLISHED: 15:55 23 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:12 20 February 2013

Suffolk's most secret

Suffolk's most secret

A new book uncovers the world-changing past of the former top secret military and weapons testing site on Orford Ness. Grant Berry finds out more

A new book uncovers the world-changing past of the former top secret military and weapons testing site on Orford Ness. Grant Berry finds out more

Between 1913 and 1993, Orford Ness was a totally secret site carrying out 80 years of intensive trials which made a vital contribution to the winning of the three great conflicts of the 20th century: World War I, World War II and the Cold War. No place in Britain or across the world can match this claim.
It is the only World War I air station to survive with boundaries and several period buildings intact, and likewise it is the only complete nuclear weapons test site open to visitors, thanks to the National Trust.
Orford Ness is a unique place, combining unparalleled military history with its status as an internationally rated nature reserve and a globally significant shingle spit.
Many places where vital military research work took place during the World Wars have had their stories told. A great deal is known now about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park and the achievements of the radar boffins at Bawdsey Manor.
The veil of secrecy around Orford Ness is mostly intact and its eminent heroes unsung. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the opening of the site by the National Trust, yet many outside its immediate neighbourhood have never heard of the place. The legacy of need to know and the elaborate cover stories, which proved so effective over the years, have masked its true significance. Even those working there often failed to appreciate the extent of what took place on site.
Until now.
Does Orford Ness still harbour secrets? Remnants of certain installations remain, their purpose unclear. The transmission station in the former COBRA MIST building, used for BBC World Service medium wave broadcasting, is still in Government ownership and behind barbed wire. Unexploded ordnance remains a hazard. Many documents in the National Archives and other government archives relating to Orford Ness remain classified.
Author Paddy Heazell has spent the last ten years painstakingly tracking down those who worked there, interviewing them, delving deep into the available de-classified material. He has scrutinised unpublished eyewitness accounts, private documents and never-before-seen personal photographs to tell the story of what took place on Orford Ness.
Most Secret: The Hidden History of Orford Ness (published by The History Press in association with the National Trust) gives a long-awaited insight.

Here are some of the key happenings on Orford Ness:

1913 Orford Ness purchased as the War Offices very first Royal Flying Corps air research station.
1915-1918 Becomes operational as trials centre for technical development of fighting aircraft, including gunnery, bombing, navigational instrumentation, fighting tactics, aerial photography, camouflage, medical impacts on pilots, silencing aero engines, parachutes etc.
Staffed by 600 men and women, many of whom were eminent and brilliant as well as extraordinarily brave academics, in what was a lethally dangerous activity. Scientists who began their careers here include: Bertram Hopkinson, Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), Henry Tizard, Bennett Melvill Jones and many others
June 1917 Orford Ness pilots shot down Zeppelin L48 over Theberton, Suffolk.
1924 Low-key trials and experiments resume after World War I.
1929-1934 Developed a secret navigational beacon for military aircraft, using a maritime navigation cover story.
1933-1957 Created the principal RAF research bombing range to test flight and accuracy of bombing and develop bomb sights. On closure, the technology and skills transferred to Woomera, Australia.
1935-1937 Secretly undertook first experiments and trials into what became radar under Robert Watson Watts brilliant team of young research physicists.
1937 Last of the Radar team to work on the Ness left for Bawdsey Manor. This was Professor Robert Hanbury Brown, the first man to be given by the RAF the nickname, Boffin.
1937-1939 Research accelerates into: gunnery for Spitfires and Hurricanes; suitability of dozens of aircraft types for operational use; and vulnerability of aircraft and ground installations to enemy attack.
1940-1945 War-time station run by civilian staff, with 120 RAF support personnel.
1940 Raided by Italian airforce: CR42 fighter crashed by lighthouse
1940-1957 Research continues into developing ever bigger bombs, and lethality and vulnerability of aircraft, including research into self-sealing fuel tanks.
1943-1945 Site used by the army as part of area for pre-D-Day battle training and equipment testing, including General Hobarts so-called funnies and Mulberry harbour components.
1946-1950 Testing improved air to ground rockets.
1953 Great east coast floods damage but do not terminate secret test work.
1954-1960 Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston, takes over the site for monitoring by advanced telemetry the trigger mechanisms of (nuclear-free) Blue Danube and similar bombs dropped into the sea and then, in vast research laboratories, for testing them to ensure no premature or accidental detonation could occur.
1956-1958 Spark photography miniature trial building for testing re-entry characteristics for Blue Streak and similar nuclear weapons.
1960-1971 A second phase of trials using US mechanisms in the WE177 bomb case, including for Polaris missiles, and extensive tests of delayed action fuses for low altitude bombing.
1967-1973 US-funded COBRA MIST Over Horizon radar, costing 55million and requiring 135 acres of aerial array. System failed to meet requirements and was summarily closed down.
1975 BBC takes over buildings for World Service transmitters.
1976 Central Electricity Generating Board investigates site for nuclear power station complex.
1973-1993 Site reverts to Ministry of Defence ownership for unexploded ordnance clearance and removal of scrap materials.
1982 Last military trial, post-Falklands, of naval Phalanx Goalkeeper to deal with Exocet skimming missile attacks.
1993-1995 National Trust purchases whole property and prepares it for public access.
June 1995 Orford Ness opens to the public.

Paddy Heazell served in the Royal Navy as a translator of Russian. After reading history at Queens College, Cambridge, he went into teaching. On retirement to Suffolk, he acted as a volunteer tour guide and researcher for the National Trust. He has written extensively on a wide variety of subjects in educational journals and newspapers, and appeared as an expert historian in various BBC broadcasts. He regularly lectures on the history of Orford Ness and its secrets.

Most Secret: The Hidden History of Orford Ness is available in National Trust shops in Suffolk, and many local bookshops, priced 14.99.


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