From early forms of listening to the skies, the Second World War Room overviews the development of Radar and how this helped to win the Battle of Britain.

1916-1930s – Acoustic mirrors

A forerunner of radar, acoustic mirrors were built on the south and northeast coasts of England between about 1916 and the 1930s. The ‘listening ears’ were intended to provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft by reflecting sound to an operator located at the focal point of the mirror.

Spectacular remnants of a dead-end technology, the three concrete “listening ears” at Denge near Dungeness in Kent are the best known of the various early warning acoustic mirrors built along Britain’s coast.

The Birth of Radar – 1930s

Robert Watson-Watt

Robert Watson-Watt

Arnold F ‘Skip’ Wilkins

Arnold F ‘Skip’ Wilkins


The history of radar (standing for Radio Detection And Ranging) started with experiments by Heinrich Hertz in the late 19th century that showed that radio waves were reflected by metallic objects.

The Scots physicist Robert Watson-Watt, supervisor of a national radio research laboratory, was contacted and asked for his views.

Watson-Watt believed that radio beams could be bounced off enemy aircraft to detect them. He asked his assistant, Arnold F “Skip” Wilkins, to undertake calculations to demonstrate the feasibility of ‘aircraft detection by radio waves’.

Handley Page Heyford bomber

On 26 February 1935, Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins successfully demonstrated their system using a BBC transmitter, and managed to pick up a Handley Page Heyford bomber being used as a test target.

In May 1935 Watson-Watt, Wilkins set up experiments with a team of scientists at Orfordness which lead to the world’s first working radar system.

Six wooden towers were erected, two for the transmitting antenna and four for the crossed receiving antennas.  Subsequently Bawdsey Manor Estate was purchased in February 1936 to continue testing and development. Bawdsey Manor House and the stables and outbuildings were converted into workshops.

240ft wooden receiver towers and 360ft steel transmitter towers were erected and wires  were hung between them to create curtain antennae.  Timber was used for the receiver towers to reduce radio reflections.

This became the first Chain Home Radar Station. By the outbreak of the second world war a chain of radar stations were in place around the coast of Britain.

It was feared that this east coast site was vulnerable to attack and so in September 1939 the scientific team was moved to Dundee and Bawsdey became an operational rather than a research station.

The Chain Home system was in use until 1953 when newer technology finally replaced it.

Chain Towers

You can learn much more about this very early radar system in our museum and see an original Chain Home receiver along with models of the wooden towers and aerial arrays.

June 1941 – Establishment of RAF Neatishead

In 1941, the Air Ministry surveyed a piece of land not far from the Broads at Horning in Norfolk with a view to establishing a site to host a brand new ‘Ground Control Intercept’ station, from where Fighter Controllers backed up by a wide range of support staff could direct RAF fighters, day or night, to attack enemy aircraft from Germany as they launched raids against military and industrial targets in Norfolk as well as against the City of Norwich itself.

In September 1941, two years into the Second World War, the first secret radar system was installed at this new radar station ‘RAF Neatishead’. Initially, the complement of forty airmen and airwomen was billeted at a local village and training began on this radical early warning system.

At first, the station was home to temporary mobile radars but it was soon to boast new, improved fixed radar systems such as the Type 7 Search Radar and Type 13 Height-finding radars.

Establishment of RAF Neatishead

The hardened Control Room, the “Happidrome” was built and it is this very building which, today, forms part of the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum.