Cold War Child: hearing what wasn't said by Julia Jones

Peter Duck approaching Bawdsey
early 1960s
I was trying to reach the Bawdsey Radar Museum. A long planned visit – part of my background research for Pebble (volume six in the ‘Strong Winds’ series). I was impatient to arrive. Too impatient?

I took a wrong turning. A gate was open that should have been closed. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was inside some chain-link fencing and driving up a poorly maintained road. The brick-built bungalow to my left showed broken windows and missing slates. There were brambles. Unexplained structures in different stages of decay and dereliction. The grass was ragged. There were no signs.

I knew this wasn’t where I was meant to be. However modest the newly re-opened museum they would surely have put up a notice for visitors. I should stop and turn back.

perimeter fence
I went on.  Driving uphill towards the empty sky. As I neared the farthest edge of this wide space, I stopped my car beside a patch of concrete. If I were to walk a few metres further I’d reach the fence at the top of the cliff. I could look outward to the sea. Or I could look down and check whether the sandy slope was as orange and as friable as I remembered from the days I used to try and climb it as a child. It was an ascent to be made on all fours; feet sinking in to the crumbling surface; hands grasping at it, hoping to get hold of the shallow-rooted vegetation; staying low, trying not to think what would happen if I started to slip...

I got out of the car. Looked at the patch of concrete. Stepped onto it. Wondered about its function when this had been a working RAF base.

A young man in country clothes came hurrying across the grass. He told me the field was private. I shouldn’t be here. I must leave.

open gate
I didn’t want to. I began explaining how the gate had been open so I had just driven in. I was looking for the radar museum. My map had shown a left hand turning. That’s what I’d taken. It was an Open Day, I added. There’d be more people like me coming along soon.

This seemed to bother him. He explained that the gate shouldn’t have been open, except that there had been recent incidents of vandalism and he was waiting for a security firm. I felt a bit sorry for him but not entirely. Pleasant though he was he was determined to get rid of me and I wasn’t ready yet. I repeated the unwelcome information that there’d be lots of other people like me coming to the Open Day.

He said he needed to ring the owner but there wasn’t any mobile reception here. He’d have to go back down the hill.
"Good," I thought, meanly, "That gives me more time."
He told me again that I had to leave.
"Was this a missile base?" I asked him.
"Yes. There were some of them sited right here."
"Exactly where you’re standing. On that concrete base. I need to go and call the owner. You have to leave. Now."

I vacated the concrete as instantly as if I’d been standing on a grave. I went towards my car and he set off to wherever it was that he could use his mobile. I didn’t drive away at once. I fetched my camera and returned to the edge of that concrete base. But I didn’t step on it again and there was nothing to photograph. I knew that this was the place I had come to find. It wasn’t the radar station at all.

I was born about ten miles away, in Woodbridge, in 1954. A ‘baby boomer’. We were peacetime babies, taking our lives for granted, assuming that our world – whatever it was – was ‘normal’.  That was very far from true. Khrushchev was the General Secretary of the communist party in the USSR: Eisenhower, then Kennedy, were USA Presidents. The superpowers were in a state of dangerously escalating hostility. My generation were Cold War children and Britain, in George Orwell’s phrase, was Airstrip One.

Woodbridge, the small town in East Suffolk where I lived until I was 12 years old was a good place to explore on my bike, go to Scottish Dancing classes, sail on the River Deben with my parents and younger brothers on board Peter Duck, pester relentlessly for riding lessons. It was also ringed around by air bases, military research stations, listening posts and weapons.

I don’t think these were talked about much, in the civilian world. Not in front of the children anyway. My parents’ generation was post-war, post-traumatic. They might be talking about their experiences now, in their old age, (I’m writing this on June 6th, D-Day anniversary) but they weren’t saying anything then. They had put the past behind them, cleared the beaches, and were getting on with their lives; looking after us with love and to the best of their abilities. (Please allow me to generalise for a few lines longer.) We baby boomers are said to be a generation who grew up believing in progress and accepting our increasing affluence as if we had known nothing else. Fourteen years of food rationing ended in the year that I was born. The people who gave us this feeling of security and the space to focus on our own lives were those non-talkers, our parents. And also, perhaps, some of the people whose daily work they weren’t discussing.

It was quiet as I stood in the empty field beside the redundant missile site. Then, into that silence came a few unexpected memories that took me back into my 1950s self. They were sounds and with them came emotions; puzzlement and fear.

I am upstairs in my bedroom, looking out of the window as it wails above the town. Then I hear it again when I am somewhere near the railway station. I think it was a routine sound but why should this be? The war had ended nine years before I was born.

I know now that in some small towns the sirens were continued as a means of summoning volunteer firefighters –and I think that may have been their use in Woodbridge. In addition, thousands of World War 2 air raid sirens were retained across the country, in planned locations, to give warning in the event of nuclear war. They are still tested regularly in Plymouth dockyard in case of a accident with the submarines. The sound makes some dogs howl and, as a child, I would like to have howled as well. I remember vividly how it frightened me – even if it was routine.

Another sound that I hated as a child was the scream of fighter aircraft. Although RAF Bawdsey was primarily a research and radar station in the 1950s there were active fighter squadrons based much closer to home– at RAF Bentwaters, Woodbridge, and Martlesham Heath. My re-accessed memory is quite specific – I am alone in the garden when it comes – so I’ve used YouTube to search different jets of the period.  The sound that still gives me a cold shiver (though aircraft enthusiasts love it) is the distinctive ‘Blue Note’ of the Hawker Hunter.  It’s made by air passing over open gun ports. If you’re playing happily with your brother it’s possibly the sound you make by going ‘gnnnnnneouw’ as you roar past lifting your wingtips. If you’re on your own and get taken by surprise, it’s very scary.

Green Garlic
The RAF / USAF bases nearest Woodbridge didn’t have Hawker Hunters (as far as I can discover) in the 1950s. Bentwaters, for instance, was a USAF base with F101 supersonic voodoo jets which passed with such a whoosh that they were gone almost before you could look up. It’s possible that the Hawker Hunters came from the RAF base at Wattisham, twenty miles away, clocking up the surprisingly high number of flying hours that were needed to fulfil the pilots’ weekly quotas. All I can record is the heart-thudding effect they had on one small child if they caught her when she was alone.

Remembering heavy roar of bombers raises cold goosebumps though I’m not so able to place the memory. I think we were on or near the river and the sound was out to sea. RAF Sutton Heath (later RAF Woodbridge) had a specially extended runway so that Lancaster bombers limping back from war time raids across the North Sea could touch down on their last drops of fuel. A facility that had saved my oldest uncle (and his crew’s lives) as he navigated them home with an empty tank. But I’m sure I wasn’t told that story then.  I learn now that, when I was a 1950s child, there were regular low altitude practice bombings on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Orfordness, some of them carried out from nearby RAF Martlesham, others from further away.

Orfordness, I thought as a child (and still think) was an eerie place. All we were told, as we came up the river on Peter Duck and landed at the Quay to visit the castle (treat for us) or the Jolly Sailor (treat for Dad) was that it was secret. Forbidden. No-one  allowed. So, as I watched the military landing craft regularly crossing from the Quay to the landing stage, I wondered who these people were who did go there – and what they went to do?  I’m sure I never asked. There was as much Don’t Ask as Don’t Tell in our way of living then.

RAF Bawdsey was a listening site in the 1950s (its missiles came later) – listening for whatever might be coming across, or down, the grey North Sea. It too was a forbidden place, emanating secretiveness and with sentries on the gate. From out at sea however, (or after a successful scramble up the cliff), there was no hiding the 4 x 350’ masts, retained in action after World War 2, nor the huge, much newer, AMES Type 80 (Green Garlic) unit that tipped and swivelled as it listened for the signals humans couldn’t hear. Who – or what – were they listening for? What did they fear? Whatever it was, it frightened me as well.

After I left the missile site that day, I did reach the
Radar Museum. There I met people (not from the 1950s but later) for whom RAF Bawdsey – and some other RAF stations – had been ‘normal’ places of work, who had stories to tell and explanations to give. I was glad of that.


Sandra Horn said…
There is such poetry, such tension, in the opening paragraphs that I thought it could be the start of a thriller, but it became a short story and then an evocative memoir. What a post! Thank you, Julia, for a great read!
julia jones said…
Thank you Sandra for such a very generous comment. Writing this (and thinking about it) has been quite a profound experience in an unexpected way. I am so very glad that it made some sense. Thank you again.
Jan Needle said…
Bloody ell, Ms Jones, you ought to be a writer!
I'm older than you, from another war haunted place, Portsmouth. My two biggest shake-ups came similarly mysteriously (as you can see, I'm NOT a writer!). One, when I was about twelve, some ammunition barges moored high up in the harbour exploded and almost shattered my eardrums as they removed most of the shop windows in Landport. And two, when I was a reporter in 1963, driving to Gosport, in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. There was an enormous, terrifying bang, which damn near frightened me and the photographer who was driving the Mini into early graves. Turns out the navy, in its wisdom, had decided to test fire a 14-inch naval gun at HMS Excellent. Clever chaps, eh? My father reckoned it was a government plot to reduce the old-age pensioner population at a stroke. Having said all that, ween't bomb-sites just the most miraculous playgrounds...
julia jones said…
I remember singing about Peter Rabbit as I explored the bomb crater on the farm in Essex. I learn now that all the windows of the house had been blown out there too. It's in the middle of nowhere - not like Portsmouth!) So clearly not traumatised by that souvenir. Lots of smelly spooky pill boxes along the coast to be approached in fascinated horror. You'd have been much more robust I expect
Bill Kirton said…
Wow! I second everything Sandra’s said, and yet for me (as for Jan) it brought specifically personal (and, from the way I reacted when reading, deeply buried) responses. I’ve always insisted that our generation (forgive me, I’m older than you but we did share the sirens, rationing, NHS, student fees, and all the rest) was the luckiest of all those which preceded (and now, I recognise) will be succeeding it.
I didn’t click the links to the sirens because if/when I hear one in some TV documentary or news item, they still shock and scare me. As a kid, hearing them, nearly always at night, meant running to the shelter, sitting in near-darkness listening to the rumblings, and waiting for the balm of the ‘all-clear’. This was in Plymouth, whose dockyards, like Jan’s in Portsmouth, took some heavy hits. The walk to primary school frequently had new bomb-sites along the route, (miraculous playgrounds, indeed, Jan, but dotted with hazardous detritus). But they were soon covered with what I now know to be Buddleia bushes crawling with caterpillars and butterflies, the only beneficiaries.
Loss and destruction were everyday events and it’s astonishing that warfare is still considered a ‘diplomatic’ option.
Thanks for such a beautiful, poignant piece, Julia.
julia jones said…
That ios fascinating Bill. Thank you so much. (I feel I might want to collect these comments)
Susan Price said…
Julia, you write so beautifully, you just can't help yourself! Thank you.
Enid Richemont said…
Love your opening, Julia, and wanted it to turn into a creepy short story (maybe it will one day?)

I was a wartime child living in a South Wales dockland town which was a magnet for bombing raid. Mercilessly teased at school, one night I asked God to arrange a bomb to be dropped on my house, and when the raid came, spent half the night saying "I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it!" How do people cope in Syria? The world should have grown wise, but didn't.
Umberto Tosi said…
Fabulous read - every bit as gripping as a fictional thriller, plus it bring up my own WW2 and early Cold War childhood. The juxtaposition of apocaplyptic war icons with childhood innocence is particularly moving.
julia jones said…
Thank you all -- both for the fabulous compliment (coming from you, Sue, wow!) and very much for the other personal memories. I'm glad I wrote this -- I wasn't sure how it was going to be received
Claudia Myatt said…
A fellow baby boomer, we came to Suffolk when my father was posted to RAF Wattisham. We never questioned what role all those abundant RAF stations played in those peaceful times, just accepted them as 'keeping an eye on things' and grateful for the fact they gave us an interesting itinerant lifestyle all over the world. My father later became an active peace campaigner - I think we all felt the vague shadow of 'the bomb' that we waved placards to ban.
julia jones said…
That's fascinating -- my friend Diana (also younger then me) was also a Wattisham child and remembers the base as a safe and rather fun place to be. I wonder whether you were there are the same time. Her father flew the Lightning aircraft - what years were yo there? They have produced a good DVD about the history of the base. Would you like to watch?
Claudia Myatt said…
I never went to the base at Wattisham, remember feeling no curiosity about it (having seen plenty of other air bases around the world they were viewed by my young eyes as benign, boring and rather noisy). And as a meteorologist, my father was rather peripheral to the business of flying aeroplanes. He was stationed there from around 1968 to '73ish when he was then moved out of the RAF and accepted a post at Heathrow airport ... arriving in Suffolk was a shock for us having travelled back from Singapore by ship in the middle of winter and finding ourselves in Stowmarket with no warm clothes! (I'll be flying into Brize Norton next January on an RAF plane so wonder how that will change my perception).
fiona flynn said…
I spent a strange month exploring old Tsarist, Nazi and Soviet bunkers in the Baltics some years ago. They felt as eerie as this does, but I never imagined we had more than a few pillboxes back home. I must investigate Suffolk more. Incidentally, the Soviets favoured institutional pale green as their internal bunker wall colour whereas the Nazis went for pale peach - Fascist peach. What did the Brits have, I wonder?
julia jones said…
Far more bunkers that you'd ever guess. For instance I discovered recently that the bungalow past which I drove as I trepassed unwittingly onto that site has one underneath. There was a standard building format for the post WW2 ROTOR (radar) stations. Subterraenica Britannica is a good site. Can't make generalisation re decor as I don't know enough and the photos show such dilapidation. Cream? Your research in the Baltics sounds utterly fascinating. Have you written about it?

I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to undertand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not tht good. I also found your posts very interesting. In fact after reading, I had to go show it to my friend and he ejoyed it as well!

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