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Thursday 19th September, 2002 - 1539 BST
The mystery of Orford Ness
The famous Orford Ness pagodas

Today Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast is known as an internationally renowned nature reserve, but its history is shrouded in secrecy and tales of military testing.
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Suffolk's military airfields

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National Trust website for Orford Ness
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The combination of missiles and marshes and bombs and birds means it still holds a fascination for people around the world.

The 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 School’s Experimental Flying Section; and so began an intense seventy year period of military activity.

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.

old sea wall
One of the last remaining blocks of the old sea defences.

Prisoners 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.

Perhaps 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 seen today.

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.

inside a pagoda
Inside one of the pagodas.

The 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 explosion.

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.

centrifuge lab
The old centrifuge testing lab.

Although no nuclear material was said to be involved the high explosive initiator was present and a test failure might have resulted in a catastrophic explosion.

The 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 war years.

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 in 1971.

Cobramist site
'Cobramist' site - The radar antennae can be seen in the distance.

The 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.

Yvonne Wheatley

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