Last night on BBC2, the drama of the week ‘Castles in the Sky’ starring the unlikely but brilliant Eddie Izzard as Robert Watson-Watt, inventor of Radar, was shown and lived up to the Radio Times hype written by its critic Alison Graham.
The reason for this blog on the subject, is not just to highlight an excellent drama illuminating the struggle in 1935 for visionaries in the War Office and science to develop a brilliant new concept of ‘radio detection’ which was to save the British Isles from a German invasion in 1940 and later to provide the basis for modern long-range detection, air control systems and even the humble micro-wave oven, but also an indirect personal connection.
From 1959 to 1975, on his retirement from the army, my father owned and ran a historic inn in East Suffolk in Dunwich, the remnant of an ancient port and city on the coast between Southwold and Aldeburgh, and most pertinently, Orford Ness. The inn was during the war years called the Barne Arms Hotel after the local landowning family the Barnes (one of whom I was at Sandhurst with in 1969), and later called The Ship’ a reversion to an older name. Orford Ness, now mostly a bird sanctuary off the coast and close to Aldeburgh, was during those years and into the modern era, a top secret research establishment, in which Radar was developed and trialled.
The whole of the Suffolk coast, reasonably remote and probably unlikely due to its shingle beaches and tides, an unlikely invasion coast but it was of course a possibility and so was off limits to the majority of the public, and naturally the site of many anti-aircraft gun batteries and coastal defences, particularly as it was on the ‘line of sight’ from occupied Holland and Germany to London. In the First World War the Zeppelins had crossed the North Sea coast here and followed the rivers and roads to bomb London, in the Second, the allied bombers based in Lincolnshire and East Anglia and in 1944 the air fleets heading for Arnhem passed over in the opposite direction. However in the late 1930s and early 1940s it was at Orford Ness that Watson-Watt and his small team laboured to develop the secret ‘weapon’ that would detect the German bomber fleets in sufficient time for Fighter Command RAF to intercept them before reaching their targets in the summer of 1940 during the fabled ‘Battle of Britain’. (I was privileged in 1968 to be at school in Leiston, near Aldeburgh while the film ‘The Battle of Britain’ was being made, and witnessed a full squadron of Spitfires fly overhead replicating the interception process, which had resulted in 1940 and later as the direct result of Robert Watson-Watt’s vital invention.)
While researching some of the ‘house history’ of The Ship, I contacted the daughter-in-law of a previous owner who had retained the visitor’s books for the period they ran the inn/pub. She recounted the following:
‘The busiest time at the pub was during the war years 1939 to 45 when there were 5000 troops stationed in the woods around here, since they were afraid of invasion on this more remote coastline. The troops prefered the entertainment at the pub rather than in their own mess/canteen, and I’m told that Stan (father-in-law) could fill five pint mugs in his hand at once, pass them over the bar and pull five more – and if you hadn’t got a mug by 7.00pm you might as well forget it! They also accommodated many bigwigs from the foreign office [sic] including Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar – a very absent minded professor type. Mother-in-law had to keep reminding him to come and eat his meals! Unlike many pubs during the war, Stan never ran out of beer. He managed to arrange a double supply of Guiness to Darsham Station every week, and had some sort of ‘scam’ going with the suppliers of bottled beer in Leiston (Huntley and Oliver, I think). I still have the Visitor’s book that came from the pub, but Watson-Watt used a pseudonym and I can’t remember what it was.‘