combination of missiles and marshes and bombs and birds means it
still holds a fascination for people around the world.
military history of the site dates back to 1913, when a large part
of the Ness was taken over by the War Department. It was drained
to form airfields for the Central Flying Schools Experimental
Flying Section; and so began an intense seventy year period of military
Experiments during the first World War included those on parachutes,
aerial photography, bomb and machine gun sights, the evaluation
of aircraft and the development of camouflage.
of the last remaining blocks of the old sea defences.
of War held in this area were used to help build the airfield and
flood protection walls. In 1918 a number of German prisoners died
in an epidemic, probably influenza, and were buried in Orford churchyard.
Their bodies were later transferred to a war cemetery.
the part of the site which still holds the most interest and intrigue
are the pagodas used for atomic bomb testing which can still be
The first of six test cells was completed in 1956. The main section
of the building is divided into two cells. Some contained a pit
into which very large weapons such as Britain's first atomic bomb,
Blue Danube, could be lowered by a 10-ton crane, prior to vibration
units being attached.
one of the pagodas.
cell was then sealed to allow the manipulation of the internal environment
by an array of air conditioning units. Others contained a hydraulic
ram, which was used to subject the test piece to extreme 'g' forces.
A light aluminium roof was designed to blow off in the event of
an accident. Later test cells had heavy reinforced concrete roofs
designed to absorb a blast and any objects thrown out by an accidental
The tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might
be subjected before detonation, and included vibration, extremes
of temperature, shocks and G forces.
old centrifuge testing lab.
no nuclear material was said to be involved the high explosive initiator
was present and a test failure might have resulted in a catastrophic
work was secret although details of Orford Ness' involvement with
the research and development of the British atomic bomb may become
more available over the next decades and may illustrate the priority
and significance this project had to the government in the post
Among the atomic experimental sites Orford Ness is perhaps the most
architecturally dramatic and remains the only one allowing general
public access at the present time. The work finally ended there
site - The radar antennae can be seen in the distance.
Americans also made use of Orford Ness. In 1968 work started on
the top secret Anglo-American System441A over-the-horizon
radar project, finally codenamed Cobra Mist.
The project was set up to carry out several missions, including
detection and tracking of aircraft, detection of missile and satellite
vehicle launchings, fulfilling intelligence requirements and providing
a research and development test bed.
An integral part of this project were 18 strings of antennae in
the shape of a large open fan. The fan was accompanied by a large
aluminium ground net covering some 80 acres. Stories
grew up around Cobra Mist, claiming the research was
centred on UFOs.
I have an interest in atomic experimentation during the Cold War,
and would be grateful to hear of any other atomic experimental sites
that you know of in England or more precisely Scotland. I look forward
to hearing from you.