Welcome to Orford Ness Explored, where we delve into the mysterious history of this extraordinary 10 mile long shingle spit on the Suffolk coast. For much of the 20th century, Orford Ness served as a secret experimental military site, shrouded in secrecy and guarded by armed personnel.
Today, we will uncover the fascinating stories and discoveries that have taken place at this iconic location, including the specialist buildings and unique structures that were built to experiment, test, and conceal the truth. Join us as we explore the hidden past of Orford Ness.
Possibly some of the most significant experiments conducted at Orford Ness took place under the auspices of the ionospheric research station, set up by the brilliant Robert Watson-Watt. At a committee meeting of the scientific study of air defense, it was suggested to Watson-Watt that a Nikola Tesla idea called the death ray might be developed to stop enemy aircraft.
It is commonly believed that this was a radio energy beam that could eliminate aircraft by frying them, but my research has found it’s more likely to be an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) device that disrupted electrical circuits, possibly over a great distance.
Watson-Watt was tasked with testing the plans given to the UK government by Tesla. He chose the clandestine site of Orford Ness after bothering a hapless flock of Suffolk sheep. He rejected the death ray as impractical due to the enormous energy transmission demands and the shortcomings of the technology available at the time. However, he suggested there was potential to use a modified system of the Tesla death ray as a radio detection system.
The ionospheric research station was built as a cover for the development of radio detection systems, which briefly became RDF (Radio Direction Finding), and which we now know today as radar (Radio Detection and Ranging). The world’s first ever purpose-built radar masts were installed at Orford Ness in 1935.
In 1945, Orford Ness was handed over to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), a government research organization that had various names and roles during its lifetime. In 1953, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) moved in and appears to have had exclusive control of this site, as we uncovered through Orford Ness Explored research.
This is the shadowy Cold War period at Orford Ness. Despite Britain’s crucial contribution to the US-funded Manhattan Project during World War II, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons, wartime collaboration in this area ended after the death of President Roosevelt in 1945, when the Americans refused to share the plans of the atomic bomb.
Despite Britain’s precarious economic state at the time, and despite the ambitious commitments made by the new Labor government, including the creation of the National Health Service in 1946, a secret cabinet committee decided that Britain should pursue its own independent atomic program.
The earliest research took place in North Wales under the code name “Tube Alloys”. Their job was to figure out the chemistry of uranium enrichment. The nuclear weapons were built at a place known by its workers as the “bomb factory” in the small village of Aldermaston. Much practical information was missing from the British atomic bomb program. They needed to develop, build, and test their own focused implosion explosives, and fashion an atom bomb casing that could be safely dropped from a British V-bomber.
Flying out of Farnborough, our V-bombers would carry mock-ups of British atom bombs to Orford Ness for drop testing. There were inevitably a few accidents. One inert atom bomb fell off its bombay hook and rested precariously on the bombay doors, forcing the pilots to drop it into the Thames Estuary, where it lies today, undiscovered in the London clay and mud. Another was accidentally dropped a bit early and fell short into a Suffolk farmer’s field. But this was all hush hush, taking place at a time when nobody really spilled the beans.
Orford Ness is one of the few places where purpose-built facilities were created for testing atomic weapons and their components. Blue Danube, Britain’s first operational atomic bomb, was developed at Orford Ness in the 1950s. At its peak, around 1,500 people worked at the site, many of them living in the nearby village of Orford.
Despite its secretive nature, Orford Ness has had a significant impact on the world we live in today. The development of radar at the site played a crucial role in the defense of Britain during World War II and the Cold War. And the work that took place at Orford Ness contributed to the development of the Internet, GPS, and satellite technology.
But the site has also had its share of controversy. The testing of nuclear weapons on British soil was a divisive issue, with some arguing that it put the health of local residents at risk. And the environmental impact of the site’s operations has been a concern, with the clean-up of Orford Ness expected to take decades.
Today, Orford Ness is open to the public, with the National Trust offering guided tours of the site. But much of the area is still off-limits, with unexploded ordnance and contaminated land posing a risk. It is a reminder of the secrets that were kept at Orford Ness, and the significant role it played in shaping the world we live in today
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