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Military History

There were several phases of experimental military research in the 20th century on Orford Ness, all of which have left structures and other remains. The work conducted here by some of the greatest 'boffins' of past generations played a crucial role in winning the three great wars of the twentieth century: the two World Wars and the Cold War.


Following the purchase by the government of Orford Ness in 1913, the Army Air Corps Experimental Flight built Orford Ness airfield. It opened in 1915, with a large grass airfield with canvas hangars, labs, workshops and an accommodation camp. At its peak, 600 scientists, technicians, pilots and support staff were involved with military activities. A substantial technical capability was quickly created to evaluate and develop aerial gunnery, bombs, gunsights, tactics, camouflage, photography and navigation. The product of this work was transferred to the battle front in France on a continuous basis. Scientific staff, drawn from universities, working with technical teams to create numerous innovative developments through to the armistice in 1918.


Following WW1, facilities on Orford Ness were mothballed for several years. It then became a centre for the study of bomb ballistics (the study of unguided gravity bombs) due to its remote location by the sea. The Bomb Ballistics Building was constructed in 1933 along with high-speed cameras and recording equipment. Radio telemetry was developed to transfer data from the falling bomb to the control room in later years. Orford Ness became a centre for radio research with the building of the Black Beacon navigation transmitter in 1929. In 1935 Robert Watson Watt and his small team based at Orford Ness succeeded in transmitting a 6MHz radio signal that detected the presence of a distant aircraft with the resulting reflected signal. Following this demonstration, his team was greatly expanded and moved to nearby Bawdsey Manor to develop a full operational Radar system. This work resulted in the building of a large network, starting in 1939, with 21 stations known as Chain Home. The system continued to expand and proved to be very effective during the Battle of Britain.



Orford Ness developed and improved its bomb ballistics capability, enabling very large highly destructive weapons to be developed. Captured enemy aircraft were evaluated for their vulnerability for onward briefing to aircrew and feedback to allied aircraft designers. In 1944, highly effective radar guided gun batteries with active electronic fuses were built on Orford Ness to deal with V1 flying bombs heading for the London area.


Cold War

In 1947, following the McMahon Act, the US government excluded the UK from any further nuclear weapon development collaboration. This resulted in the UK government creating its own nuclear weapons programme directed by Dr William Penney, initially based at the existing Fort Halsted facility in Kent. In 1950 RAF Aldermaston was selected as the new location for the programme and in 1952 the redeveloped site was officially named as the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE), with William Penney as its Director. In January 1955, the AWRE became part of the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA), incorporating the nearby Royal Ordnance Factory Burghfield and the Orford Ness test range. Aldermaston steadily developed a succession of nuclear weapons and technologies over the following years. In 1971 AWRE withdrew from Orford Ness. Some years later, in 1987, the AWRE was renamed ‘AWE’ the Atomic Weapons Establishment, and in 1991 Lord Penney, its founder, died. The AWE has continually developed its capabilities over the years and currently employs around 6000 staff who provide the warheads for the UK submarine based nuclear deterrent.

The 1946 McMahon bill halted the transfer of information regarding nuclear weapons between the USA and the   UK and Canada. This decision was triggered by the defection to the Soviet Union of several key scientists, taking with them ‘atomic secrets'. This resulted in the UK having to design its own nuclear weapon to stay in the world ‘nuclear club’. Meanwhile, Orford Ness went into hibernation. Led by PM Clement Attlee, the UK decided to design and build its own nuclear weapon, together with the necessary environment to achieve this. This huge secret undertaking was led by William Penney. The project progressed and in 1953 Orford Ness was selected as the most suitable site for the ballistics and environmental testing of the new nuclear weapon, to be known as Blue Danube. Work commenced on the design and build of 3 major test labs. Factors were the remoteness of the site and the availability of space to have 500m safety zones around each lab as it was known the weapon contained conventional high explosive. A substantial second phase of construction took place during the early to mid 1960’s for the testing of the next generation of nuclear weapons. This phase of work resulted in the construction of the iconic ‘Pagodas’, together with a number of other buildings and facilities.​

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