RAF 100: Where Norfolk was in the front line of the Cold War
PUBLISHED: 18:50 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:49 02 April 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
Daniel Bardsley visits an evocative site in Norfolk which played a key role in the hush-hush world of radar in the Second World War and the Cold War.
In this control room there are rows of desks with radar screens, headsets and a dizzying array of switches and buttons, many of them lit up.
On the wall opposite sits a large map showing an outline of England, Wales and southern Scotland, split up by gridlines, with areas of shading and a confusing array of notes.
Either side of this map are see-through charts on which various timings, acronyms and identifying numbers and letters have been written.
It could easily be a vintage NASA control centre for a mission to space. Instead, it is an extraordinary piece of Cold War history, one that is hidden inside a nondescript building off a quiet country lane at Neatishead, north-east of Norwich.
This is the Cold War Operations Room at the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum and, most remarkably of all, this is not a recreated room – it is the real thing.
“One of the nice things about the museum is that it’s pretty much intact from when the military walked out of it … The whole building has got that look, colour, smell from the military,” said Gregory Hayman, the museum manager.
The facilities now on show at this museum – facilities that were once top secret, but can now easily be enjoyed on a day out – represent a key part in the history of radar in Britain.
Few know this better than Tony McKie, 60, who had multiple stints working at Neatishead during an RAF career that saw him retire as a flight sergeant. He is now one of the museum’s dedicated band of about 65 volunteers, some of whom are ex-RAF, while others are enthusiasts from different fields.
“It was the main Sector Operations Centre and Control and Reporting Centre for the whole of the southern UK, responsible for the tracking and identification of all aircraft and policing of the airspace from the Scottish Borders to the middle of the English Channel,” he said.
“If they couldn’t identify an aircraft, they would scramble fighters of the Quick Reaction Alert force and go and investigate and identify it to the controllers here.”
Tony himself carried out various jobs in this operations room, and perfected the art of writing backwards at speed as he added information to the see-through Perspex charts or Totes (from the word totalizator) that face the desks, which were known as radar consoles, where the operators and controllers worked.
“When you came on duty you would be sent to do a particular role in here. You might do that for an hour or two hours… You would be rotated through the roles,” he said.
As the museum details in a fascinating leaflet, the site at Neatishead has been a key player in radar since the early development of the technology.
It was known since the late 19th century that metal objects could distort radio waves, and the British authorities had initially hoped to develop a system in which the waves could be used to damage enemy aircraft, a concept known as a Death Ray.
That proved to be impossible but, instead, with a Scottish engineer called Robert Watson-Watt (who was later knighted), it was shown in a test in Northamptonshire in early 1935 that radio waves could be used to detect an aircraft that was flying between a transmitter and a detector (which was at a van parked on a field).
By the Second World War, radar was up and running, with the name coming from the United States military, who called it Radio Detection and Ranging.
In 1941, the RAF opened the Neatishead site as a radar station. Controllers based at this Ground Control Intercept Station directed RAF aircraft in their efforts to destroy enemy fighters.
After the war, as the Cold War developed between the West and the Soviet Union, the site became an east of England operations centre. In 1974, the operations centre that now forms one of the museum’s most striking exhibits was launched, covering the southern part of the UK.
Tony retains vivid memories of his time working at Neatishead, where he served from 1974 to 79, 1985 to 86, 1990 to 94 and, finally, 1999 to 2004.
“[There were] times of extreme boredom to times of extreme panic and all those in between … It could be very exciting in the ops room,” he said.
The ops room, which is overlooked by its General Situation Map, monitored both military and civilian aircraft, and in one anteroom are slips of paper detailing flights that were being tracked.
This area, known as the Movement Liaison Section, is a fascinating reminder of the golden age of transatlantic air travel, because the pieces of paper or flight strips record individual flights, such as one by the now-defunct TWA from Chicago to Paris by Boeing 767, and one by DC10 from Dallas to Gatwick.
This ops room remained in use until 1993, when a new operations room with upgraded technology was inaugurated. Neatishead remained a Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) until 2004, by which time the museum had been open for a decade, having launched on a small scale in 1994.
Illustrating how quickly things had changed, the museum’s recreated Second World War plotting room shows very different technology.
In this room, mannequins – many of them female, reflecting the high proportion of women among those doing this kind of work during the war – appear to move representations of aircraft across tables covered with maps.
The General Situation Map, for example, shows all of East Anglia and south-east England covered with gridlines and with key RAF sites, such as Neatishead, marked.
“They would be bringing in the information, collating it, putting it onto the plotting tables. There were people up above getting a picture of what was happening,” said Gregory, who described the technology as “quite rudimentary”.
“They would get a sense of the height, duration, numbers. We’ve got volunteers [who were] working at the end of the 40s, early 50s with the system as it was during the end of the Second World War.
“In the Second World War, radar were not spinning things, but towers that were capturing information and sending it back.”
The museum has countless other exhibits, including a cockpit of a Jaguar aircraft that visitors can sit in, and a Tornado cockpit acquired recently thanks to the support of donors.
Volunteers, including Tony, have recently been hard at work bringing back into public display the Nuclear Reporting Cell, which was staffed by the Royal Observer Corp (ROC).
“This room was the interface between the civilian UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation and the military,” said Tony.
“Information would come into the cell here about any nuclear fall-out. The Royal Observer Corp personnel working in the cell would then pass this information to the military.
“The local Ground Defence Commander would then decide whether personnel should don their nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits, which would provide protection from any nuclear fall-out.”
There are myriad other display rooms in the museum covering subjects such as radar engineering, the history of Neatishead, aerial photography and the objects that households would have had for safety during the Second World War.
It all represents an extraordinary period in the RAF’s 100-year history and a remarkably vivid echo of the suspense and drama of the Cold War.
The RAF Air Defence Radar Museum at Neatishead, near Horning, is open between 10am and 5pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Easter to the Autumn half term. The museum
is a charity and does not receive any grants, so entrance fees and donations play a vital role
in keeping it open. More information is available at www.radarmuseum.co.uk.