What role did Bawdsey Manor play during WWII?

If you’ve ever taken the ferry from Felixstowe to Bawdsey, or if you’ve been to this part of the Suffolk coast, you will no doubt have seen a large stately home situated at the mouth of the River Deben.

This house happens to be Bawdsey Manor – and unbeknownst to some, it played an extremely important role in both World War II and the Cold War. But how?

Iain Dunnett is here to answer all of your questions and provide information. Administrator of the Bawdsey Radar Museum, Iain knows all there is to know about the history of radar here in Suffolk, and how this incredible invention aided Britain during two important wars.

Bawdsey transmission towers before their demolition after the Cold War
– Credit: John Langford

But first, what exactly is radar?

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

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

“You had about eight different countries at the start of WWII that were all working on the radar to varying degrees and at different stages of development. And it dawned on the British in the early part of the 20th century that a post World War I aircraft attack was going to become a pretty apparent threat, so work was being done on that. ”

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

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

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

The two discovered that by using transmitted radio waves, it was possible to detect the approach of enemy planes.

They resolved this after Watson-Watt suggested that the 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 war context.

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

“With all the research they had done, it caused them to need a location on the east coast for a radar research station facing the mainland so that they could develop the rest of their defense system.”

And in May of that year, Watson-Watt, Wilkins, and a team of scientists moved to Orfordness to continue a series of over-sea experiments that ultimately led to the world’s first functioning 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 realized their primitive site in Orfordness wasn’t going to cut it off.

“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 Department bought it from the family for £ 24,000 – and turned it into RAF Bawdsey.

Quilter family members

Members of the Quilter family. The Air Ministry bought Bawdsey Manor from them for £ 24,000 to use as a radar base
– Credit: Archant

War officially broke out soon after in September of that year, and the Suffolk coast was ready to detect and defend against an impending attack.

“Without radar capable of detecting the approach of German planes, bombers and fighters, airmen on the ground would not have had eyes at the time of the attack,” explains Iain.

“They should have been up there all day, patrolling and waiting for the enemy to arrive. But the radar gave them about a 30 or 40 minute warning in advance of any approaching aircraft. ”

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

In 1937, they converted the mansion’s outbuilding and stables into workshops and built 240-foot wooden reception towers and 360-foot steel transmission towers to establish the first domestic radar station in chain.

“It was basically a chain of radar stations running along the coast to help protect Britain from attack by planes from the mainland. Bawdsey was the first of those and then every 50 miles or so you would have another overlap. This allowed them to trace the approach of planes from different stations and then triangulate the two. This information was passed on to the commanders who then rushed the fighters at the right time to intercept the plane. It really made all the difference.

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

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

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at Bawdsey during World War II
– Credit: Bawdsey Radar Trust

During the Battle of Britain, approximately 2,600 German Luftwaffe shots were drawn against the 640 RAF planes.

“Bawdsey and all the stations were of course subject to some Luftwaffe attack, but there was a mistake made by the Germans. They did not understandably attack the radar stations, or realize how important they were. So, during the Battle of Britain, they remained mostly unharmed and were operational throughout. But if these stations had been attacked we would have been in dire straits.

“Thanks to the radar, the bombers were intercepted – and their attacks were interrupted and dispelled. This created flight difficulties for the pilots, and if they were flying too low it was in itself a risk for them.

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

“There have been heavy and harmful 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 real nervousness around radar operations, so the experimental research element was eventually moved to Scotland for security reasons. ”

Throughout the war, Bawdsey was bombed at least 12 times – but a number of air defenses were installed to help prevent further damage, including three 40mm Bofors guns, two anti- Lewis .303 aerials, split trenches, sandbag cannon sites, a concrete firing station and a dozen Type 24 casemates.

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

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

“It’s probably pretty hard for us to imagine in modern times, but the whole area was fortified, with defensive lines going up inland to act as a progressive line of defense. No one knew what happened next – it was a real “cat and mouse” existence. While we had our own radar, the enemy could have too, ”explains Iain.

Through the continued use of radar, coupled with the fortification of Bawdsey, the British were able to detect and shoot down a German bomber in October 1940 before it could release its charge.

And in August 1943, tracking became easier at the height of the war with an extra-low type 55 chain home radar assembly that was installed on one of Bawdsey’s transmitting towers. This featured a rotating satellite dish, a new high-power system that allowed detection of electric boats up to 30 miles away.

“In the end, radar was absolutely essential in helping Britain win the war,” Iain said.

Without Britain’s speed in developing the technique, the outcome of WWII might have been very different.

But with the war won in 1945, Bawdsey’s role was not yet over.

The Cold War began soon after in 1947 – with tensions that would follow for decades – and RAF Bawdsey continued to be used as a defense base until the 1990s.

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

These were anti-aircraft missiles that were part of British defense during the Cold War.

“These would be launched in the event of an attack, and the radar was an important part of that, because the early warning system there would have been linked to the use of missiles. It was a pretty threatening atmosphere there, you walked past the other RAF bases, and that part of the country was pretty militarized until the early 1990s.

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

“As the threat of Soviet attacks diminished over the decades, Bawdsey was simply no longer needed,” Iain explains.

As part of the decommissioning of the base, the masts were deconstructed and dismantled, the last one having fallen two decades ago.

“It’s a shame that they took the masts apart, they were amazing and were 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 have been difficult. ”

However, the legacy of this Suffolk village’s wartime role 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 war and defense history. And the development of radar affects us all to this day, whether you back up your car and it beeps, or you’re flying on an airplane. It shows up in a number of aspects of everyday life that you might not even realize.

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

To learn more about radar, visit bawdseyradar.org.uk

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