How RAF Bawdsey put Suffolk on the radar

A satellite dish

Last Updated on March 9, 2023

Top notch quality pun title from Woodfarm Barns. Read on so you can make sense of it yourself.

The big RAF bases in Suffolk are undoubtedly Lakenheath and Mildenhall, but once upon a time, there was RAF Bawdsey on the east coast of Suffolk, facing out towards the North Sea. So, how did RAF Bawdsey place Suffolk on the radar?

The year is 1936, and some scientists have made the move to Bawdsey Manor (which still stands today, at the site of a residential site), upping sticks from Orford Ness located just a little further up the Suffolk coastline. After one of the physicists, Robert Watson-Watt, who was supervisor of the national radio research laboratory, was asked about his views on the use of radio waves to detect or destroy enemy aircraft, by Winston Churchill, who was hoping to use them as a weapon. The correct calculations were done by Watson-Watt’s advisor, Arnold Wilkins, in February 1935 and these calculations were done to show the feasibility of radar detection. Not long after, radar was born at Bawdsey, in 1937. 

But why was this necessary?

Rumours began circulating in January 1935 about the Germans developing a ‘death ray’ and Churchill knew about how his adversaries were creating a huge air force, so they saw it as necessary to try and find a way that could remove aircrafts out of the skies. Now the problem, as Watson-Watt saw it, was that a ‘death ray’ wouldn’t work because the transmitter needed would have to be the size of a house. However, by 1937, at Bawdsey Manor, the team did put radio waves to other good uses, which was to track the movement of planes in the skies.

In April 1937, two towers were erected at Bawdsey, which were receiver towers that each possessed an aerial – one for finding the direction and the other for finding the height. This was after the success of the experiment that was undertaken at Daventry, on the 26th February 1935, where two receiving antennas were located near the BBC’s broadcast stations at Daventry, where the station was used as a transmitter, and a clear signal came back from the Handley Page Heyford bomber that was flying around the site.

RAF Bawdsey had the first operational RAF radar station in 1937 and went on to become a model for other radar stations.

In August 1937, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were at RAF Bawdsey, and a “filter room” was set up to cross plot information from two other stations to help map fighter aircraft and this was shortly followed by the first test flight of the radar system at Bawdsey, from RAF Martlesham (another former RAF base in Suffolk). Soon, more stations began popping up across the country, which were now called “Chain Home” stations, and there was a great emphasis on placing the radar stations across the south and east coasts of England. 

So, it is at this point where you might understand the pun in the title – RAF Bawdsey put Suffolk on the radar because of the radar work that was undertaken at Bawdsey Manor before WW2.

1 September 1939 – Nazi Germany invades Poland sparking World War 2. For the safety of the team, they are moved from Bawdsey Manor to Dundee. 

During the war, radar proved invaluable, and was used during major air battles. For example, the Battle of Britain, which saw Britain having to defend against the German Air Force, which was four times the size of the British Air Force, has radar credited for the win that Britain achieved because of the technology that Britain had with radar. Furthermore, many credit radar, and other British technology, for helping the allies win the war, as radar extended to trying to pick up E-boats.

Radar helped Britain win the war, and Bawdsey was put on the radar in Suffolk for his efforts with trying to track the planes and boats of the German army. Today, RAF Bawdsey is no longer there, after the RAF left in March 1991.

There are many war stories of the development of technology to help protect Britain from the Axis Powers, more famously Alan Turing and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. However, Suffolk does have its own equivalent, which is lesser known, but was still vital in winning the war.

Today, you can arrange a tour of Bawdsey Manor, which runs between May and October. For more information, head over to their website.

With Bawdsey Manor being not too far of a drive away from our Barns for rent, and an even shorter drive from our Barges for rent, why not take a trip over there to get a glimpse of the history behind how radar helped Britain win the war.