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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Orford Ness

At the height of the Cold War the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and Royal Aircraft Establishment used Orford Ness for developmental work on the Atomic Bomb and for the advancement of the science of environmental testing. Perhaps the most impressive buildings from this period are the so-called 'Pagodas' which have become such a well-known landmark on this part of the coast. Orford Ness was but one of many large Cold War experimental sites involved with the research and development of the British atomic bomb, taken together they illustrate the priority this project had to the government in the post war years. Amongst these sites Orford Ness is perhaps the most architecturally dramatic and remains the only one allowing public access.

Another relic of the Cold War period is the huge, grey, steel structure which once housed a top secret Anglo-American radar project, code-named 'Cobra Mist'. The imposing building is now used as a BBC World Service transmitting station.

The cold war uses of Orford Ness produced the biggest and most impressive structures which remain in place. Firstly the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment site. The technology required to make and test nuclear weapons was brand new after WW2 and some of the learning process was undertaken here. The huge first generation bombs were proved to work in the first British test, but the making of a deliverable weapon was another matter. In all six huge laboratories were built, along with many smaller buildings, to test every conceivable combination of physical situation and stress which these bombs might be subjected to.

At the beginning of the 1950s, there was a growth in the construction of very specialised facilities to exploit new post-war technologies such as nuclear power. Typical of this growth, AWRE Orfordness was one of only a few sites in the UK, and indeed the world, where purpose built facilities were created for testing the components of nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War AWRE and the Royal Aircraft Establishment used Orford Ness for developmental work on the Atomic Bomb. Initial work on the Atomic Bomb concentrated on recording the flight of the weapon and monitoring the electronics within it during flight but a bulk of the work involved environmental testing, which in itself was being developed and advanced. Although built and developed specifically for the testing of nuclear weapons, by the 1960s efforts were being made to find commercial markets for the site's capabilities.

Completed in 1956, Laboratory 1 was the first of six atomic weapons test cells constructed on Orford Ness by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) from Aldermaston. It was used for both mechanical and vibration testing and for drop tests. The main section of the building is divided into two cells. The one in the foreground contains 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. The cell was then sealed to allow the manipulation of the internal environment by an array of air conditioning units. The far cell 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 such as Labs 4 and 5 - known locally as the 'Pagodas' - had heavy reinforced concrete roofs designed to absorb a blast and any objects thrown out by an accidental explosion. The first major test on an atomic weapon on Orford Ness took place in this lab on August Bank Holiday 1956.

Between 1953 and 1966, the six large test cells and most of the other buildings on the shingle around them were built to carry out the environmental tests on the Atomic Bomb. These 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. 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. For this reason the tests were controlled remotely and the huge labs were designed to absorb and dissipate an explosion in the event of an accident.

The AWRE Magazine, built in 1962, was where bombs were stored prior to being taken to the Labs for testing. It was also used by the Bomb Disposal Unit, based on site from 1967, to store their explosives.

Perhaps the most impressive buildings from this period are two of the test labs - the so-called 'Pagodas' - which have become such well-known landmarks on this part of the coast. The two most pictured buildings on the AWRE site are laboratories four and five, known locally as the Pagodas. These were built in 1966 to test the WE177 bombs, and possibly the Polaris warheads. There were high vacuum facilities on the Ness and the only reason for those would be to test something which would be subjected to the vacuum of space, like a re-entry vehicle for a warhead. The two labs are identical and in line, both have lorry access which faces out to sea.

The 16km long shingle spit of Orford Ness is a dynamic structure, constantly reacting to the forces of nature. It is a landscape of unusual character with its sheer scale perhaps its most surprising and memorable feature. It can be exposed, lonely, hostile and wild. The site is characterised by contrasts: the man-made versus the natural, hard forms versus soft forms, past activity compared to the present stillness, and most significantly, the timeless natural processes contrasting with transitory man-made dereliction. Although Orford Ness can be divided into a number of areas with their own particular characteristics the dominant impression over the whole area is one of great solitude. Much of the spit could be described as wilderness where the only moving things are normally birds and the occasional hare.

The most significant turning point in the history of the Ness was the arrival of part of the Central Flying School's Experimental Flying Section in 1915. This event ushered in a 70 year period of intense military experimentation which as well as leaving a variety of physical traces has given the place what has been described as 'the mystique of secrecy'. The arrival of the military curtailed the traditional uses of the Ness by the local population. However, the station soon became an important source of employment for them. Most of the experimental work related to aerial warfare. Significant advances were made in both military hardware and experimental techniques and equipment. Amongst the pioneering work of the First World War were early experiments on the parachute, on aerial photography and on bomb and machine gun sights. Important experiments during the Second World War and immediately post war included work on the aerodynamics of bombs, machine gun ammunition, rockets and other projectiles, work on the vulnerability of aircraft to attack and the development of techniques to record projectiles in flight and duplicate various effects experimentally.

Perhaps the most significant experiments took place between 1935 and 1937 when Robert Watson-Watt and his team undertook the primary experimental work on the development of the aerial defence system later to be called Radar. The team later moved a short distance down the coast to Bawdsey Manor where a full range of applications was developed. It is not an exaggeration to say that but for the work done by this team at Orford Ness and Bawdsey Manor, the outcome of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent history of Europe would have been very different.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:50:35 ZULU