The story of Radar and the Dorset Coast
The Purbeck coast played a remarkably central role in the development of radar at the beginning of the Second World War. Here is the story of how this part of our coast became written into the annals of radar history.
In June 1934, a small group of senior civil servants in the Air Ministry began to question whether Britain's air defences could cope with the threats posed by an aerial bombardment. The harsh conclusion was that the defences were virtually non-existent.
Suggestions were put forward for air-defence systems, one of which was to produce a "death ray" that could shoot down an enemy aircraft at a distance! Robert Watson Watt, Superintendent of a Radio Research Unit based in Slough, was asked to comment. The idea was thought to be totally unrealistic but, with the help of his assistant, Arnold Wilkins, he suggested that detection of aircraft using the 'Radio Echo Method' was feasible.
Following a successful demonstration at Weedon in Northamptonshire using radio waves from the BBC's Daventry transmitter, a small team of young, brilliant scientists under the leadership of Watson Watt was commissioned by the British Government in 1935 to set up a new research unit at Orfordness in Suffolk. In the following year the team moved to nearby Bawdsey Manor and progress continued at a remarkable pace over the next few years. Detection equipment was getting more accurate and powerful all the time. A brief move to Dundee was later undertaken before the decision was taken to re-locate (in May 1940) to the Dorset countryside. This involved the scientists, with the operational flying and testing being carried out during this period at Christchurch and later Hurn. The Worth Matravers site was 3 miles west of Swanage and was located between the village of Worth Matravers and St Aldhelm's Head. The highly secret research was masked by naming the site as the "Telecommunications Research Establishment", TRE Worth for short. There were in fact 5 sites ('a','b','c','d' and 'e'). Most of the research centred on the continued development of ground-based defensive systems but gradually more effort was deployed into researching airborne /offensive systems.
The scientists were happy and productive at Worth and the results were apparent because the period from May 1940 to May 1942 was arguably the most fertile ever in the quest to produce an effective ground-to-air and air-to-air radar. They particularly enjoyed their lunches at the 'Square and Compass' pub in the village which was affectionately known as the 'Sine and Cosine'. This hostelry remains virtually unchanged to this day.
In August 1940, the team achieved a world 'first'. An accurate 10cm radar echo (capable of detecting an individual building) was transmitted and returned to a detector and then displayed on a cathode ray screen. The building in question was the tiny chapel on St Aldhelm's Head.
Meanwhile, the Germans were also developing their own radar systems and one particular installation had been installed at Bruneval on the Normandy coast. A combined paratroop and Royal Navy raid was planned with the intention of recovering components for analysis. The training for "Operation Biting" was conducted off the Dorset coast and Osmington beach was used to practice beach landings. The raid was successful and a number of the German radar components were brought back to Worth Matravers for analysis which confirmed the operating wavelength to be 50 cms and the range, 12 miles. The scientists at TRE Worth were soon able to devise a 'jamming' set so that allied bombers had greater protection when engaged on missions into enemy territory.
One of the consequences of the Bruneval raid was that it was feared that retaliatory raids would soon take place. Certainly attacks in the area became more frequent and in one raid on TRE Worth a number of RAF airmen were killed. Some bombing raids even coincided with specific train departures from Swanage station! Churchill gave the order that the unit was too vulnerable and had to be moved and this was to be completed "before the next full moon". So in May 1942 the whole operation transferred to Malvern College, a public school. Nearby RAF Defford became the base for the Radar Research Flying Unit. TRE Worth was only in existence for some 2 years but the work its scientists did there gave the allies an irreplaceable weapon and effective radar.
Today, there is little left to see of the old TRE site except some ruinous buildings clinging to the cliff edge at what was site 'd'. The RAF maintained the site as a radar station until the early 1960s and then the site was cleared and the land returned to agricultural use. The largest site was 'c' site where the pivotal 10cm radar research took place. Today, there is nothing left but green fields. There is, however, a memorial in the shape of a radar dish overlooking the sea at St Aldhelm's Head and close to the old 'D' site.
The inscription reads:
"This memorial commemorates the radar research carried out at Worth Matravers from 1940 - 1942 which was crucial to the winning of the war and the birth of modern telecommunications"