Between the wars: ballistics, beacons and boffins

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Bomb Ballistics Building

When the site was reopened in 1924 a 'new' experimental bombing range replaced the First World War range. The range operated right up until the development of nuclear weapons, with some of the last work being the development of advanced high-speed, low-altitude bombing techniques for Britain's last independent air-dropped nuclear weapons, the WE177 series.

The current Bomb Ballistics Building was built in 1933 to house 'state of the art' equipment used to record the flight of bombs. This information was used to improve their aerodynamics and provide data for the production of the tables used to refine bomb aiming. The equipment was steadily improved over the years, most notably from the 1950s for the development of the atomic bomb. The technical capabilities of the range were proved by the fact it was still used during the Second World War, despite its proximity to the continent.

The Bomb Ballistics Building was restored in 1996, and the roof now provides a platform from which to view the site, in particular the vegetated shingle features that make the Ness such an important site. Inside there is a display on the uses of this building and the surrounding area.

Black Beacon

This enigmatic building, looking much like a sail-less black windmill, was constructed by local builders WC Reade of Aldeburgh in 1928 for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, to house an experimental 'rotating loop' navigation beacon. Part funded by Trinity House and reported to be a marine navigation beacon, the Air Ministry also funded work on the development of an aircraft location system based on this early innovation, and the Orford Ness equipment was probably an early homing beacon for aircraft that formed part of this work.

Renovated in 1995, the beacon now provides an elevated viewing area and displays for the visiting public.

Radio Direction Finding (RDF) - RADAR

Perhaps the most significant experiments on Orford Ness took place between 1935 and 1937, after Robert Watson-Watt and his team arrived on 13 May 1935 to found the 'Ionospheric Research Station'.

This was in fact a cover for the research and development of the aerial defence system, which was later to become known as radar. Still standing and recently restored, one of the few surviving First World War accommodation blocks on the site (later employed as the NAAFI) was used by those radar pioneers. The First World War 'Institute' building - close by and still standing - might also have been used in these experiments.

The first demonstrations of the feasibility of radar as a practical air defence system were made here before the team moved a little further down the coast to a larger site at Bawdsey Manor in 1936. There, a full range of applications was developed leading to the creation of the first of the 'Chain Home' stations.

It is not an exaggeration to say that but for the work done by this team at Orford Ness and Bawdsey Manor, the outcome of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent history of Europe would have been very different.