‘Secret Suffolk’: How heroes and heroines kept our skies safe in the war
PUBLISHED: 19:02 27 January 2020 | UPDATED: 00:48 30 January 2020
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Author Liz Trenow’s latest book is inspired by fairy-tale Bawdsey Manor, where boffins developed life-saving radar
It was really down to dad. Liz Trenow has been fascinated by Bawdsey Manor, and its secret role in the defence of the nation, since she was a child. This is how it started:
"My father was a keen dinghy sailor and as children - I was about six or seven - we spent many anxious hours watching him from the shingle at Felixstowe Ferry," she explains.
"He sailed a very tippy dinghy called a Firefly class and used to capsize regularly, much to my mother's distress!
"Across the river, we could see fairy-tale towers peeping enticingly above the pines, and when the tides were right we would pack buckets and spades and take the ferry over to the small sandy beach at Bawdsey Quay.
"But the manor itself, at that time still in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, remained firmly and frustratingly out of bounds, with soldiers at the gatehouse and Keep Out signs posted all around the fences."
In a year that brings the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, visitors will flock to Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, to learn how codebreakers helped beat the Nazis.
"Sadly, what is less well known is the equally vital work of the scientists who developed radar - then known as Radio Direction Finding - and the hundreds of operators, mainly women, who worked day and night up and down the coast of Britain to track the approach of enemy planes.
"During the Battle of Britain, radar delivered crucial intelligence, enabling the RAF to overcome the Luftwaffe's 2,400 planes with just 640 of our own."
It's an inspiring story - and at its heart lay that fairy-tale mansion by the North Sea.
Writer Liz knows the history of Bawdsey Manor off-pat. How local landowner and MP William Cuthbert Quilter bought the site in 1873 to build a gothic seaside home.
In 1936, Winston Churchill handed physicist Sir Robert Watson-Watt the job of creating a "magic eye" to combat the anticipated threat from German planes.
"Under the cloak of utmost secrecy, he and a small team of brilliant scientists were moved from their original base on Orford Ness into Bawdsey Manor. Stables and outbuildings were converted into workshops and the first receiver and transmitter towers were built.
"In the space of a few short years the technology had been developed and tested, and RAF Bawdsey became the first of dozens of stations with their distinctive towers hastily - and in great secrecy - constructed along the south and east coasts of Britain."
During the war, Chain Home stations provided vital information about the airborne threat and helped Britain defend the skies.
Bawdsey's role in radar defence continued for a while after the war. Its iconic receiver towers were taken down in 1963 and Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles installed, as the cold war bit.
Quite a while after youngster Liz first gazed at the "enchanted mansion", "our good friend Niels Toettcher was sailing on the River Deben when he spied a For Sale sign. The Ministry of Defence was selling Bawdsey Manor and all its grounds and cottages.
"He landed, visited the place and fell in love with it, and for the next 25 years he and his wife Ann lived and ran a successful English language school there.
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"Of course, we visited often and fell in love with it, too. How could you not? The mansion is remarkable in itself, but with the addition of its extraordinary military role, its masts (since taken down) and curious outbuildings, it is irresistible.
"We were completely bowled over by it - the sheer scale of the buildings, the beauty and extent of the then rather neglected gardens, the Cliff Walk, the atmosphere of the RAF buildings.
"There were still sooty footprints on the ceiling of the officers' mess. They used to put their feet in the cold fireplace ash and then be held upside down!
"My daughter Polly, who was about nine, asked if she could 'go and explore', and before I realised how enormous the place was, I'd agreed. It took us half an hour to find her."
A cheerful girl
It's little surprise the manor, its story and secrets, have inspired the author's seventh novel: Under a Wartime Sky.
Her tale starts in 1936, as the nation's brightest minds are brought together on the Suffolk coast.
An unlikely friendship grows between physicist Vic (brilliant but shy) and Kathleen (a cheerful local girl who helps her mum, a school chef, in the kitchens). With her brother determined to join the RAF, Kath wants to do her bit, too. When Vic says they are recruiting women to operate his top-secret system, she makes a choice that will see her facing a life-or-death decision.
"I loved the idea of a cheerful, uncomplicated Suffolk girl meeting this very shy, socially inept but brilliant Cambridge boffin, Vic - short for Vikram, as he is part Indian - and what they might find in common."
The Colchester writer believes "this is the first time the story of the boffins gathered there just before the Second World War, and the invention that was just as important in helping to win the war as the more famous Bletchley Park codebreakers, has been told in fiction".
The good news, as Liz says, is that Bawdsey Radar Trust and its museum in an old transmitter block are doing a grand job explaining how radar began there, what it achieved, and how it still aids our world today.
"Radar developed into microwave technology which has thousands of applications in our everyday lives, such as speed cameras and air traffic control, as well as in space."
And, of course, the museum and Liz's book are honouring the women and men who worked at Bawdsey to combat tyranny.
Under a Wartime Sky (£7.99) is published on February 20 by Pan Macmillan.
Liz has several appearances organised:
February 26: Woodbridge Library (Browsers Bookshop event)
February 27: Waterstones, Colchester, High Street, 7pm to 8.30pm
March 14: Essex Book Festival at Firstsite, Colchester, 3.30pm to 4.30pm
April 26: Bawdsey Radar Museum
June 28: Felixstowe Book Festival