In the post war boating boom of the 1950s, thousands of visitors would flock to Horning every year to pick up their boats from one of several boatyards which offered a variety of craft for hire. Most of those holidaymakers were completely oblivious to the fact that just a few miles away, military personnel were vigilantly monitoring British airspace in a high-tech underground bunker, ever alert to the possibility of a nuclear attack during the height of the Cold War. For over 60 years, RAF Neatishead played a vital role in the defence of the United Kingdom and the fascinating history of the station is now told at the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum which is housed in one of the former operations buildings on the site.
We paid a visit to the museum over the weekend and were surprised at just how much there is to see. Whilst visitors are free to explore the museum on their own, I would highly recommend going on one of the guided tours which start every half hour. After a brief introductory talk on the history of radar and and the role of RAF Neatishead, the tour is then split into three sections in which a different guide talks you through each of the reconstructions of the operations rooms at the station during various eras. A radar facility was first established at RAF Neatishead in 1941 in the building which currently houses the museum. The museum is like a tardis – behind the rather unimposing entrance there lies a labyrinth of rooms which contain the 20 display areas which visitors can explore once the 90 minute tour is complete. I’d allow at least a good three to four hours for a visit.
The first stop on the tour is the Battle of Britain Room which recreates the earliest operations room at the base. Although it was originally housed in a much larger room in the building (more of that later), it does give a good representation of how Neatishead acted as a co-ordination centre for the information which was being received from the series of Chain Home radar stations which were dotted along the east coast during the war years. Most of the operatives were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) who plotted out the positions of both British and enemy aircraft on the tables seen in the photographs above and below.
Another view of the Battle of Britain Room. The side panels of the large tote board seen on the wall were actually WW2 originals which were salvaged from another radar station on the south coast which had been bombed during the war. Having been stored away for many years, they were given to the museum a few years ago.
The next part of the tour takes you to the 1942 Final CGI Room (no photo I’m afraid) which shows how the rapid development in radar technology during the war was put to use at Neatishead. Ground Control Interception (GCI) stations were able to more accurately plot enemy aircraft locations using the new cathode ray tube displays which meant that defensive aircraft could be scrambled to intercept very quickly. Night time operations were now also monitored as Beaufighter and Mosquito aircraft had interception radars installed.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, surveillance and defensive work at Neatishead continued as the possibility of further hostilities from the USSR increased during the post war years. The very real threat of a nuclear attack led to the operations room being moved to a new underground bunker in 1954. Sadly, this part of the station does not form part of the museum but there are a number of photographs of it on the walls of the various display areas. In 1966 a disgruntled member of the RAF personnel started a fire in a waste paper bin and the interior of the bunker was destroyed. Although all personnel were safely evacuated, three civilian firemen lost their lives and the airman was later tried, convicted and sent to prison. Radar control was diverted to RAF Bawdsey in Suffolk until the 1970s when the original operations room was refurbished and equipped as seen in the final section of the tour which takes you to the large Cold War Operations Room.
Walking down into the Cold War Operations Room is like stepping on to a 1970s film set, the darkened room heightening the atmosphere and giving a real sense of what life was like for the operatives during this era. Banks of radar consoles fill the room and illuminated, transparent tote boards line the walls. Information was written onto these tote boards by operatives who worked in a gallery behind the boards, writing everything in reverse! In the 1990s, the burnt out bunker was refurbished and the Ops Room was re-located there once again. Active operations at RAF Neatishead finally ceased in 2004.
As previously mentioned, the rest of the building contains a number of rooms in which further displays can be seen. The history room contains a collection of artefacts, documents and equipment which tell the story of radar and its role in air defence. From Home Defence to Space Defence is another large room which houses yet more interesting items, from an early Chain Home transmitter to the sophisticated Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems of the Cold War era. Photographs of some of the displays can be seen above and below.
Other areas of the museum include a reconstruction of a Royal Observer Corps Nuclear Reporting Post, the Radar Engineering Room, a display devoted to the development of telecommunications, the Hobley Gallery which contains a collection of military memorabilia relating to RAF Neatishead and the new RAF Coltishall Memorial Room which houses a collection of historical artefacts from the now defunct station. Finally, outside the museum entrance are some further exhibits which include the impressive Type 14 Mobile Radar (seen below) and a Bloodhound MkII Surface to Air Missile ….. deactivated I hope!
The Air Defence Radar Museum is open between 10.00-17.00 hrs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Bank Holiday Mondays from April to October, and also on the second Saturday of the month all year round. The guided tours run every half hour with the last tour starting at 3.00pm. Admission is £6.00 for adults (reductions for concessions and children) and refreshments are available in the Crumbs Cafe. Further details of opening times and admission prices can be found on the museum’s website.