Monument record ORF 021 - 20th century Military Research Establishment at Orfordness

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20th century Military Research Establishment at Orfordness. There were several phases of military experimental research in this century, all of which have left structures and other remains. The most prominent remains are those associated with the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Many of the buildings assoicated with the earlier military work ave been demolished.


Grid reference Centred TM 44 50 (3361m by 5297m) Centred on
Map sheet TM45SW


Type and Period (10)

Full Description

20th century Military Research Establishment on Orfordness. There were several phases of military experimental research in this century, all of which have left structures and other remains. At present these are being studied and assessed for preservation by the National Trust, who now owns the Ness.

1915-1921: Royal Flying Corps had airfield for experimental squadron which carried out research on machine guns, bombs and navigation. Various buildings along `The Street' constructed at this time.

1921-1939: Aeroplane and Armaments Experimental Establishment had a firing and bombing range on the Ness. Earlier buildings re-used and small number of new ones either side of Stony Ditch.

1936-7: Experimental work on first radar. Further radar experiments continued throughout the Second World War and several buildings added to `The Street' including unique model bombing range. Also used for number of radio experiments.

1952-1971: In its final phase the site was used by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment for `environment tests' on atomic weapons. The site was developed at first working on the ballistics for the bomb casing for the Blue Danube warhead and later on the physical stresses the bomb experienced before detonation. To support these tests new buildings on `The Street' plus several large concrete laboratories on the shingle beach were erected. These buildings were designed to absorb the accidental detonation of the conventional explosive elements of the bomb. The site includes specialised structures such as camera booths for recording in flight weapons, a rocket sled track and control rooms where experiments were controlled remotely. By the end of the 1960s most of the work was transferred to Aldermaston, Berkshire and the atomic weapons research at Orfordness ended in 1971 (S1)(R1)(S10). See English Heritage Research Dept Report 10/2009, 'The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness, Suffolk: Cold War Research & Development Site', by WD Cocroft and M Alexander (copy in T/Arc/Archive Field Projects/Orford file).

For RCHME survey of `The Street' see (S2)(R2). For series of aerial photographs (good for bomb craters and `over the hill' radar system, see (S3). Further details held by Angus Wainwright of the National Trust (see S1).

A number of anti-invasion defences and related fortifications of World War II date are visible on aerial photographs as structures and earthworks located on Orfordness, centred on circa TM43114893 in Orford parish. The most obvious anti-invasion defence is the network of concrete anti-glider cubes that are laid out in rows on roughly north-east and north-west orientations forming a pattern of grids circa 130-180m square. The cubes were in place by 1942, along with four or five rectangular features, possibly structures, circa 10 x 8m in size (S4). These resemble haystacks but as the surrounding Ness was not under cultivation it is likely that they are disguised military features, possibly Light Anti-Aircraft gun emplacements. By 1943 these have been removed, but by 1945 two Heavy gun batteries have been constructed at the western end of the Ness. The northernmost of the two is centred on circa TM42864915, and from the curved arrangement of its four gun emplacements appears to be a Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) artillery battery. The second battery, centred on circa TM42864890, has four gun emplacements arranged in an almost straight line, and has therefore been identified as a DIVER battery constructed to combat the V1 flying bomb. Although it is generally accepted that DIVER batteries were constructed later in World War II than HAA batteries, (in East Anglia specifically after circa September 1944; S5), it is not possible to date the appearance of these two gun batteries with great accuracy from the aerial photograph evidence alone. The best that can be said is that they were constructed at some time between December 1943 and October 1945 (S6, S7). It was the Orfordness DIVER battery that shot down the final V1 rocket of the war (S8). For more information about further military activities and structures on Orfordness, from the First World War onwards, please see the following records: ORF 063, ORF 066 - ORF 084, SUE 098.

2007: Field survey by Historic England (English Heritage) on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (S11)

2020: Survey 1 took place in July 2016 and recorded features along the shingle shelf of Orford Beach, including the Coastguard watch house beside the lighthouse, a concrete structure of unknown function and a ground marker used in ballistics trails. Survey 2 took place in September 2016 and focused on recording the visible remains of the First World War Prisoner of War (POW) camp. Survey 3 took place in June 2017 and created Historic England Level 1/Level 2 record of the First World War Barrack/Stores and the First World War/1950s canteen. Survey 4 in March and June 2018 used the CITiZAN app to start creating a Historic England Level 1 record for all buildings and building remains on Orford Ness. A total of 123 new features were added to CITiZAN's publicly accessible, interactive web based map and 44 National Trust HBSMR records were updated with images and/or text. Survey 5, a CITiZAN/MOLA survey, took place in December 2019 and January 2020. This created photographic and drawn records of the Coastguard watch house and a photographic the nearby concrete structure. The concrete structure collapsed due to coastal erosion not long after.

Sources/Archives (17)

  • <R1> (No record type): Musson J G D, Orford Ness, Suffolk: a historical summary, unpub National Trust interim report, 1993.
  • <S1> (No record type): National Trust, TM 44 NW 16: The Military Research Establishment on Orfordness, Suffolk (parent rec.
  • <M1> Unpublished document: Suffolk Archaeological Service. Parish Files. (S1).
  • <R2> (No record type): Kenney, J. & Struth, P.. Kenney J & Struth P, RCHME, Field investigation (detail of buildings - see S2), June 1994.
  • <S2> (No record type): RCHME, plan of `The Street', Orfordness, June 1994.
  • <M2> (No record type): Large hanging cabinet: (S2).
  • <S3> (No record type): RAF, APs, operation floodlight, 58/1007/0006-0045, 1:5000, February 1953.
  • <M3> (No record type): SCC Ipswich: copy (R2).
  • <M4> (No record type): APs: (S3).
  • <S4> Photograph: RAF. Air Photograph. RAF BR289 4-7 07-JAN-1942.
  • <S5> Monograph: Lowry B (Ed.). 1996. 20th Century Defences in Britain: An Introductory Guide.
  • <S6> Photograph: USAAF. USAAF Air Photograph. US 7PH/GP/LOC132 5012 30-DEC-1943.
  • <S7> Photograph: RAF. Air Photograph. RAF 106G/UK/929 3365-6 16-OCT-1945.
  • <S8> Article in serial: Kerr, A.. Dec 2000. Lowestoft to Harwich: 20th Century Coastal Defence. In 'Suffolk and Norfolk Life. pp.40-43..
  • <S9> Serial: Suffolk Industrial Archaeological Society Newsletter. August 2010.
  • <S10> Unpublished document: Cocroft, W. D. 2006. Strategy on the Historic Industrial Environment Report: England's Atomic Age, Desktop Investigation and Assessment. Part 1.
  • <S11> Unpublished document: Band, L.. 2020. Survey Report - Orford Ness: Report on CITiZAN surveys 2016 - 2018 and the CITiZAN/MOLA survey 2019/2020.

Finds (0)

Protected Status/Designation

  • None recorded

Related Monuments/Buildings (35)

Related Events/Activities (5)

Record last edited

Sep 26 2023 1:54PM

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