TIW: Visit to Orford Ness Secret Experimental Site
It was with some intrigue that the party left RAF Marham for Orford Ness, a site which was until the late 1980s a Top Secret experimental establishment but which was now owned and operated by the National Trust.
Although individuals in the group had been tasked to research differing aspects of the site and its use, there was not a great deal of information available, other than that it had been a site where a wide range of very secret experiments had been carried out and which was adjacent to Rendlesham Forest, where the supposed landing of a UFO was sighted in 1980 but which many now believe to have been an event associated with the work being carried out at Orford Ness!
The site is only accessible by ferry from the village of Orford and apart from the few National Trust individuals and some contractors employed to maintain the area operated by the BBC World Service who broadcast from the site, it is otherwise deserted, the once bustling airfields and experimental establishments how being the domain of the wild life and the elements.
We were met by our very informative Guide, Duncan Kent who ferried us across the sound and then gave a brief introduction to his work there for the National Trust, before he led us off on our long walking tour.
The site is huge and was first commissioned by the RFC as an airfield, where experiments could be carried out on weapon ballistics and bomb aiming. There were also subsidiary experiments into parachutes for which balloons were used. Apart from a few buildings, there is not much left now to see of the old airfields of which there were two but it was sobering to think of the early aircrew landing, on what was simply drained marshland in the ever prevailing strong coastal winds, which we were being buffeted by at the time!
All manner of experimentation took place on munitions and their effects on aircraft, which were shot up on the ground before being thoroughly examined to determine what damage had been caused to airframes, engines and fuel tanks, on occasion with disastrous results for the boffins conducting the tests. We also got to stand in the control room on the bombing range itself, which although hardened didn’t seem that impenetrable, particularly when we were told that during WWII not only were tests carried out on conventional bombs but also on both the Tall Boy and Grand Slam!
The most interesting elements of the tour covered the experiments that took place during the development our early nuclear weapons, of which the main structures were still standing. Although the nuclear tests themselves were conducted at the Woormera test range in Australia, all the components were tested at Orford Ness prior to being shipped out and assembled. This was all part of the ‘Blue’ series of weapons developed during the 50s, the majority of work at the site being conducted on the ‘Blue Danube’ nuclear bomb. However, even in their current derelict state it was easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of precision activity that would have taken place in and around the buildings at the time and although there is no record of any fissile material ever being worked upon it is believed that it was hence the curious design of the ‘Pagoda’ buildings.
By far the largest part of the site was given over in the early 70s to the ‘Cobra Mist’ project, a scattered array radar that was designed to see ‘over the horizon’. This was a massive structure covering over 200 acres, now partially occupied by the BBC, which, at the time, cost over $150 million, a considerable sum in those days. The project was abruptly terminated not long after the building work was finally completed, there being many theories as to why this happened. The official version is that the radar picked up too much ‘noise’ to be effective but other theories talk about it being a bargaining chip in the SALT agreement and to it being jammed by Russian trawlers moored off our East coast.
What was also intriguing was the fact that all the personnel who worked at the site and on its construction together with, the building materials and equipment had to be ferried across to the site, a mammoth task in itself.
Having avoided any rain for most of the day our visit finished with a torrential downpour which with the driving wind ensured everybody was soaked through. However, the storm quickly passed and we were able to at least make the return crossing in the dry.
A very interesting day around what is now a bleak and marshy site where the ghosts of airmen and scientists float with the ever present wind around the eerily empty buildings that witnessed so many very important and very secret developments, the benefits of which have been felt, in particular, by the RAF throughout the years since those first crews took off in the battling winds.