While the exploits of code breakers including Alan Turing at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire are well known and inspired Hollywood movie The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the equally impressive feats at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk are less widely celebrated. But that is set to change with a novel inspired by real events and people shining a spotlight on the world’s first radar station. With the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in July, Under A Wartime Sky by Liz Trenow reveals the seismic impact of using radio waves for an early warning system in preventing Hitler invading Britain.
The discoveries led by physicist Sir Robert Watson-Watt amid the secrecy at Bawdsey still guide our lives today, with everyday things from microwave ovens to speed cameras, air traffic control to space technology.
In 1936, Winston Churchill had tasked Watson-Watt with exploring military uses of radio waves, hoping to harness them for a weapon.
Liz, who grew up close to the Suffolk mansion and has spent years researching it, says: “Churchill asked Watson-Watt to create what he thought might be a death beam, or a magic eye because they knew the Germans were amassing a great air force.
“Watson-Watt replied that a death ray was not going to work as you’d need a transmitter the size of a house to stun a sheep, but what they did develop was the use of radio waves to detect movement in the sky.
“It’s become so commonplace but this was revolutionary, the idea of an invisible network of transmissions.
“So they built radar stations all the way along the south coast and all the way up the east coast of England.
“There were hundreds in the end but in 1936 they were hellbent on coming up with a working system, which they did in just 18 months.”
People in nearby port town Felixstowe were fascinated by the tops of masts visible above a dark wall of pine trees shielding Bawdsey.
And the German Luftwaffe was also intrigued, flying reconnaissance missions over the strange towers next to the Victorian mansion.
Liz, who has been fascinated by Bawdsey since her childhood when she watched her father sail his dinghy past it on the River Deben and saw the “fairytale towers peeping enticingly above the pines”, says: “The Germans sent planes over to have a look but they did not understand the implications.
“It is credited with winning the Battle of Britain and probably the entire war because their technology was ahead of ours in everything apart from radar stations.
“We only had a fraction of the number of planes in comparison with the hundreds that the Germans sent over, and their planes were better.
“Radar allowed us to get Spitfires and Hurricanes in the air when the German planes were still miles away.”
Victorian telecoms millionaire Sir William Cuthbert Quilter started building Bawdsey Manor in 1886 for lavish parties. It was enlarged in 1895 to 50 rooms including a ballroom lined with mirrors, an oak-lined hall with a gallery for musicians, a billiard room and numerous seaview dining rooms.
The manor and its numerous outbuildings were bought for £24,000 by the Air Ministry in 1936 to become a research station. Just a handful of scientists lived in the mansion at the start but the team grew as radar operators came in.
The scientists were moved out at the outbreak of war and it became an RAF base which linked the hundreds of radar stations lining the coast, all staffed by women.
Liz says: “What intrigued me most was that Watson-Watt decided women would make better radar operators than men. You can imagine how this was received at the time but he said let’s try them and it worked.
“He said they needed tenacity and a fine touch, because the equipment was very basic. The level of concentration and ability to multitask was also key.
“So they started employing women and when they created the Women’s Auxillary Airforce, the WAF, women who showed technical ability were selected to be trained in this technology.
“This was a really technical job that the women did and as they had these great masts sticking up radar stations were bombed.”
Liz, a former local newspaper and BBC radio and TV journalist, lives with husband David, a sculptor and painter, in Colchester but grew up in a silk mill in Sudbury, Suffolk.
She was one of the first visitors to Bawdsey after its 1980s sale to a friend who made it a boarding school for foreign students learning English.
Her novel tells of the unlikely friendship between Vic, a brilliant but shy physicist, and Kathleen, a curious young woman from Felixstowe who trained to be a radar operator.
Liz has two daughters and three grandchildren. She’s written seven books since retiring, the first two, The Last Telegram and The Forgotten Seamstress, inspired by her family’s 300-year-old silk weaving company.
The Poppy Factory in 2014 coincided with the centenary of the start of the First World War, with In Love And War telling the story of tourists visiting The Somme in 1919.
“I call this my late flowering career,” she says. “As long as your brain is working you can still write.”
● Under A Wartime Sky (Pan Macmillan, £7.99)
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