I was quite surprised to discover Britain’s Area 51. Orford Ness may now be abandoned, some of its research still secret and much of its land too dangerous to walk over, but its past continues to ripple through the country’s present and future.
The former top-secret “Area 51” is situated on a spit of land about 100 miles (160km) north-east of London, on the Suffolk coast. However, the twisting country roads that take you there make it seem much further. When you arrive after a long car journey, it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the triangular rooftops of the disused nuclear weapon laboratories lining the horizon: The need to funnel any explosion upwards gave two of the laboratories their unique pagoda-like shape. All but their roofs are hidden behind a huge earthen wall, which blocks the view of curious onlookers as well as protecting the site from the sea.
In one direction, marshland stretches to a huge shingle bank (a natural wall of pebbles separating the sea from the land), where nuclear weapons casings were whirled round in a huge laboratory centrifuge to test their safety. In another direction, it stretches to a vast bunker-like building with 12 tall transmission masts towering over it. That’s all that’s left of the huge £500m-£600m ($604m-$725m) – in 2022 money – Cobra Mist over-the-horizon radar system, and that in turn is lost under the wide blue sky.
The whole of this coastline is awash with history and mystery; there are stories of a failed German invasion, and even, in 1985, of an infamous UFO “encounter” in the nearby Rendlesham Forest. Out here, it is easy to forget that for much of the 20th Century, the area was a hive of activity. The pristine salt marsh contained two hangars whose concrete aprons were once covered in the remnants of Luftwaffe planes that had been captured or shot down before being brought to the Ness for testing. The prize exhibit was a complete Japanese “Zero” fighter. Out on the shingle bank stood a huge radio aerial that looked like a ray gun.
Men died here. There is no memorial to the Orford Ness test pilots and scientists who gave up their lives in desperate attempts to create war-winning new technologies.
Orford Ness is a prehistoric landscape. It’s the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe. It stretches for about 10 miles (16km) along the Suffolk coast, and is home to many rare plants and invertebrates. The fragile environment is shaped and reshaped by the power of the sea. The marshes, however, are younger. They date back to the 12th Century and were rarely visited, used only for grazing sheep and hunting.
Ten years after the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, the British government decided that the Ness would be the ideal site for a new top-secret facility, whose job was to work out how best to use aircraft in warfare. Chinese labourers drained the marshes, and built the sea wall. Seventy years of top-secret research followed, including the arrival of the Royal Flying Corps’ Armament and Experimental Flying Section in 1915. Britain’s “Area 51’s” secret history ended with departure of the Atomic Weapons Laboratory in 1971 and the sudden closure of the Cobra Mist project in 1973.
Orford Ness’s legacy is still shaping our world today. Its importance is comparable to that of Area 51, the highly classified USAF (United States Air Force) facility in the Nevada desert used to develop and test experimental aircraft. It has also been compared to Bletchley Park, the centre of Allied codebreaking during WW2. Orford Ness was part of a network of institutions that stretched as fair as Australia.
It was a science park with a difference. It operated on a need-to-know basis. “I would get a basic drawing of a piece of a missile,” says a veteran who asked not to be identified. “I obviously knew it was for testing, and I could guess that it was going to hold high explosive, but I didn’t know anything else, like its mission. I was never even told if it worked.”
Some of the work undertaken at Orford Ness was truly ground-breaking. In the early hours of the 17th of June, 1917, three planes from Orford Ness took off, at least one of which was equipped with some of the first night flying instruments. Their mission was to shoot down the first of a new type of German Zeppelin designed to fly too high for Britain’s anti-aircraft guns to hit – and they succeeded. The huge craft crashed in flames on the edge of the Ness.
The scientists at Orford Ness had to answer questions that had rarely been asked before, such as how to avoid stalling and spinning (which claimed the lives of many inexperienced pilots), fly at night, jump out of a plane and live to tell the tale, take-off and land from a ship and shoot down a Zeppelin.
Led by talented leaders like Henry Tizard, one of those who helped develop radar and would later become the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, their answers still define aerial warfare. These pilots who pushed primitive planes to their limits, and in some cases, died doing so, helped to forge our modern idea of the test pilot.
This line of work continued in the next war. In 1939 the German Luftwaffe (air force) seemed to be technologically superior to the Britain’s RAF. So, British weapons were tested on captured enemy aircraft, and captured weapons on British aircraft to close this gap. Some tests involved the Incendiary Tower, built to evaluate the impact of bullets into petrol tanks. The data was used to improve the designs of planes and weapons, and to tell RAF fighter pilots which parts of enemy aircraft to target. One engineer joked that he knew so much about German aircraft that he could have applied for a job in the Luftwaffe.
The isolation of Orford Ness was vital to keeping secret the use of another revolutionary new technology. Radar wasn’t new – by 1934 the Germans were using it to improve the accuracy of their artillery – but the British had an entirely new way to use it. Robert Alexander Watson Watt was a British radar pioneer. On 26 February 1935, near Daventry in England’s Midlands, his team had shown that aircraft could be detected by bouncing radio waves off them. It was his work at Orford Ness that would turn principle into practice. Full-scale trials began in June 1935 and their success led to Chain Home, the chain of early warning radar stations built by the RAF that proved vital in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.
Orford Ness played host to the development of at least three different over-the-horizon radar systems (OTHR), which can detect targets far beyond the range of ordinary radar. The first two were used to detect nuclear tests. The third such system, the joint US-UK Cobra Mist, was the first such truly operational system in the world, and work began on constructing the huge shell shape site with all its aerials in the late 1960s. This time, its job was to pick up Soviet aircraft and missile activity as far away as Russia’s Far North. Western interest in this radar technology has been renewed recently because of increased tensions with both Russia and China.
Orford Ness, Britain’s Area 51, still keeps many of its secrets, large and small. They include when the site was last used: Indications are that was when tests were carried out in the early 80s on the Trident submarine missiles.
As at other top-secret sites, the veterans of Orford Ness are often reluctant to talk about their work even years afterwards. “There is a sense of foreboding and fear that comes with any thought of breaking the culture of secrecy, or just a strong sense of loyalty and duty,” says Walters, one of the veterans of the site. “There’s also a lot of purposeful ambiguity as well. It’s not as though someone’s been given a piece of paper that says, after this date you are free to talk about what you did.”
“You can just imagine that if you kept something secret since you were 18, it’s going to be pretty hard to talk about it now,” says Sue Black. The mystique and mystery of what happened at Britain’s Area 51 seems destined to enter the same lore of fantasy as the U.S. Area 51. Certainly no-one who worked there seems likely to spill the beans, although the government might………in a hundred years-time, maybe.