England

World War One: Orford Ness and boffins, bombs and biplanes

  • 27 February 2014
  • From the section England
Camouflaged plane, pilots and bomb rack at Orford Ness
Camouflage and bombs were just a fraction of the work done by Orford's community of pilots and scientists

They were then scarcely more than powered kites, but could aeroplanes be drafted in to fight a war?

Believers sensed aeroplanes, barely a decade old, had some military use but there were more questions than answers.

A patch of scrubby, windswept shingle on the Suffolk coast known as Orford Ness would become the unlikely place where just about every question anyone could think of would be tried and tested.

Boffins, daredevils and visionaries would defy flames, guns and gravity to push the new, unpredictable technology to its potentially war-winning limit.

Orford Ness, 30 miles east of Ipswich, is now managed by the National Trust.

Senior Ranger Duncan Kent said: "It's a good place to keep a secret.

"Even today, it is still remote and exposed. For the first people stationed here it must have been a daunting prospect - for a while they used Orford town's hotel as an officers' mess and the town hall as headquarters.

"But, it's an out of the way location, and the fact it is cut off from the mainland by a river, is very handy to keep away from prying eyes."

In 1915, the Armament and Experimental Flight of the Royal Flying Corps was transferred to Orford Ness.

From its early days of tents, wooden hunts and canvas aircraft hangars, the site became a hive of activity.

A mix of civilian experts and army personnel totalled a staff of about 600.

'Crazy boffins'

Aircraft were still fragile, with unreliable engines. But the need was urgent.

Initial research focussed on improving design, tactics and bomb design and technique.

However, staff were flexible and ready to take on new work at a moment's notice. An official inspection in October 1916 found trials being done on aerial use of machine guns, phosphorous bombs for attacking zeppelins, high explosive bombs, gun sights, hydraulic timing gear for guns and production of artificial clouds.

Mr Kent said: "Because it was the first time things had been done, they had to be quite "Heath Robinson" and they made the best of what they could out of whatever spare supplies they could get their hands on.

"There was a combination of slightly crazy British boffins who were very adept at turning their minds to whatever issue came up and the guys around them who were able to lay their hands on whatever was available and put it together to do the experiment."

Pigeon parachute
Pilots were forbidden from using parachutes - but they were used for delivering homing pigeons

Speaking in 1972, Donald Bremner, who served with the Royal Navy Air Service at Orford Ness, recalled building homemade depth charges.

He said: "We used to make our own bombs by filling cocoa tins with TNT.

"To see an Oxford professor filling these tins, melting the high explosive on a primus stove, very often knocking his pipe out on the side of the tin, smoking all the time, it was always a little frightening".

Famous names

The range of ideas tested was dizzying.

Oxygen masks, electrically heated suits, aerial photography, navigation, night flying (leading to the revolutionary step of illuminating the instruments), quick release straps, bomb release mechanisms, dive bombing, armoured planes and self sealing fuel tanks.

One particular area of research was parachutes, infamously forbidden for the original pilots to use but introduced elsewhere.

Mr Bremner explained: "We had to devise a way of using parachutes to deliver [homing] pigeons in a wicker crate to an outpost.

"The difficulty was that if you used too small a parachute you killed the pigeons, if it was too large it came down so slowly it was impossible to be accurate with the drop."

Scientists who would gain world renown - and in some cases shape the next war - gained valuable experience at Orford.

These included Henry Tizard, who would champion radar, jet engines and the bouncing bomb and Frederick Lindemann, Winston Churchill's scientific advisor during World War Two and the architect of area bombing.

Testing interrupter gear
Germany's warplanes gained a major advantage when they were fitted with a gun which fired through the propeller - and the Allies struggled to match it

Churchill himself inspected work at the site, during which flying ace Albert Ball embarrassingly flipped his plane when calling in to check on the latest ideas.

Mr Kent said: "It was the remoteness and perhaps the harsh weather which prompted a particular camaraderie in those stationed there.

"Many people remembered it fondly and some even requested to go back when posted away."

This devil-may-care attitude may have also been helped by the daily dangers staff faced.

In his book, Most Secret, Paddy Heazell quotes a story where, during a flight in a two man plane to test air to air fighting tactics, the gunner signalled the pilot to land as quickly, but as gently, as possible.

"It transpired that the tail fin and rudder had all but shot through and the whole thing was held together only by two bracing wires".

Derelict buildings
The National Trust is allowing some parts of the site - including buildings - to decay naturally

When ground crew arrived, it was to find "two young officers sitting on the grass doubled up with laughter".

But such risks have consequences. Mr Heazell estimates "at least half a dozen airmen were fatally injured, probably more".

While many projects did not progress, some, particularly camouflage and navigation, set the foundations for decades of future work.

Mr Kent said: "I'm sure the work done here had a wider impact. What exactly that was isn't clear because Orford stayed a secret experimental site for so long and is missing a lot of its history.

"There is a great absence of written records about what was done here.

"Some may have been lost but it seems like there wasn't a great deal of official record keeping as a lot of the work was that pioneering stuff which would only be later recorded when it became part of more structured testing work."

After 1918, the site was mothballed for six years but then resumed its secret role. In the 1930s, the first practical tests on radar were carried out.

In the 1950s, it became part of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and the area is still dominated by several large concrete structures from this era.

Now a nature reserve, the National Trust attempts to maintain a balance between preservation and decay.

Mr Kent said: "It is a remarkable place. It's history is like no other, but so is its present."

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