Celebrating radar’s Suffolk heritage
PUBLISHED: 12:39 11 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:39 11 November 2014
In 1940 Britain stood alone against the mighty German war machine. But it had a huge advantage – radar – and Suffolk played a major role in its development. Now the team at Bawdsey Radar Trust are hoping to secure the future of the world’s first operational radar station. James Marston reports
For Mary Wain, Bawdsey transmitter block isn’t just a crucial part of British history – it also played a big part in her own life.
“Bawdsey is part of my own history,” she says. “Both my parents were radar operators just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
“They met here and married here. I was born here after the war when my father was posted back to Bawdsey and I lived here until I was six-and-a-half.”
A retired teacher, Mary now lives in Felixstowe and is chairman of the Bawdsey Radar Trust, an organisation which aims to conserve the station’s transmitter block and create a new exhibition for visitors to learn about the groundbreaking work that took place at what was then RAF Bawdsey.
“Neither of my parents had any formal educational qualifications,” she says, “but they found themselves working in the early days of radar. It was an profound and exciting experience for them and gave them an insight into a world they would never have known about. But they could never talk about it, it was such a secret.”
It was thanks to radar that Britain managed to stem the tide of the German advance across Europe and ensure that the Luftwaffe – the German air force – never secured the air superiority it needed to mount a successful invasion of the British Isles.
Former RAF chief technician and trust volunteer Roger Townsend said Bawdsey was the home of the development of radar.
“The role of radar was crucial to the air defence of Britain. It is a technology that is still used today for that same purpose. Radar meant Britain could send up aircraft to intercept German planes. At that time Germany had many more planes so it meant we could direct our few resources without having to launch patrols in the hope we might find them. The RAF was able to surprise German aircraft and it gave us a huge advantage and helped us win the war. We held them off long enough so Hitler turned his attention towards Russia.”
The trust is aiming to secure Heritage Lottery Funding of more than £1million to ensure the conservation of the transmitter block, which still stands surrounded by blast walls protected by a thick bomb-proof roof.
“The transmitter block is where the signal was sent to four huge masts which stood here at the time,” explains Mary. “The building is a crucial part of Britain’s history and we are hoping to ensure its survival for future generations.”
The trust is also aiming to develop a new exhibition to tell the story of radar. Treasurer John Brooking is in the process of putting the bid together.
“We have secured a first stage grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which means we can employ a project manager to pull together the various strands of funding.”
The transmitter block is currently open to the public around 30 days a year, as well as for planned private visits. John says the project would hopefully enable the block to more than double its opening days and double visitor numbers.
Inside the Grade II* listed building, artefacts and display boards tell the story of radar and how Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins – both recently portrayed in the BBC Two drama Castles in the Sky – discovered and developed radar.
Volunteer Liz Brooking runs the trust’s small shop. “The story of radar is such a crucial part of British history and it is important people know about what happened here,” she says. Another volunteer, Di Clouting, also has a family link to the former RAF station.
“My father worked for the RAF at Bawdsey and my grandfather was a driver to the Quilter family that lived at Bawdsey manor. The project will keep the story alive and tell the next generation about what happened here.”
Ray Hooper, a retired optical fibre engineer, is currently working on updating the trust’s website.
“I have always been fascinated by the development of radar and I had visited the transmitter block. I wanted to put something back into the community when I retired and so I volunteered.
“It was here that a group of people from varying backgrounds with both practical and academic engineering skills came together to create something amazing. It was here that something in theory became reality.”