Cold War Norfolk

Following the conclusion of World War Two (1939 to 1945) there was a general running down of the UK’s defences, including its early warning systems. Most radar stations were closed down or placed on a “care and maintenance” standing. The Royal Observer Corps was stood down in 1945, and remaining coastal and beach defences and their infrastructures were abandoned or dismantled.

However, it very quickly became clear that although the possibility of invasion may have diminished, the threat of conflict had not. Various events, including the Berlin blockade of 1948 to 1949, the Soviet Union’s testing its first nuclear fission device in 1949, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, all added to rising international tension between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the East. This in turn led to a reappraisal of Britain’s defences and in particular its early warning systems.

The buildings utilised for various defensive purposes during the period of the Cold War (1946 to 1981) are characterised not only by the massive construction programmes that they necessitated, but also by their very short periods of use, as new technology and perceived threats rapidly changed. Each change required replacement of existing provisions.

The potential for nuclear conflict, and eventually the possession of a nuclear deterrent, altered the concept of traditional defence systems. The credibility of a nuclear deterrent depended crucially on a complicated system of surveillance and early warning. This was achieved mainly by radar, initially with the help of a newly re-formed Royal Observer Corps.


Radar Stations initially used an improved World War Two System known as the 'Rotor System'. The threat to standing structures posed by nuclear weaponry meant that, in the East of England, these were constructed underground, with only the aerial arrays on the surface.

Quite soon however, rapidly advancing technology with more powerful radar like the Type 80, and the integration of separate reporting functions, made the Rotor System obsolete.

There followed the 'Linesman' scheme, whereby Britain’s Control and Reporting organisation was more closely integrated with the NATO air defence network in Europe. This eventually included international systems warning of Ballistic Missile launches (from space as well as land).

From the late 1970s, with changes in NATO nuclear response policies, a new radar project started, known as the Improved UK Air Defence Ground Environment (IUKADGE).  This is based around three principal Sector Operations Centres (SOCs) with data fed into them by additional stations, mobile radar and Airborne Warning Systems (AWACS).  Neatishead in Norfolk was one of these SOCs.  Now partly a museum, Neatishead is the last surviving large fixed Cold War radar stations in England (NHER 31218).  The station also has the distinction of being the largest continually occupied radar station in Britain.

Royal Observer Corps (ROC)

The ROC was re-formed in January 1947 in its role of aircraft observation.  From 1951 it carried out this role from (usually pre-fabricated) observation posts named “Orlits” (after the company who built them) which either stood at ground level, or occasionally on existing structures (Type 'A') or were raised on concrete legs (Type 'B').

However by the mid-1950’s it became clear that with increasing use of fast, high-flying jets, visual aircraft tracking of this type was of little use.  Also, there was the new fear of missile attack, to which there was no defence.

Because of this, the ROC’s role was changed to monitoring and reporting nuclear explosions and radioactive contamination in the event of war.  This new role was carried out from underground monitoring posts, often on the same sites as the now (largely) redundant Orlit Posts.  Some of these remained operational until 1991, although most were decommissioned in 1968.

Some fifty five Underground Monitoring Posts (UMPs) were built in Norfolk, seventeen of which are on the same site as Orlit posts. Fifteen of the sites have been demolished. They reported to a Group HQ in Norwich (now disused, NHER 26488). A good example of an underground monitoring position (with an associated Orlit type 'A' post) is at Ingoldisthorpe (NHER 25262), a privately owned site that has been restored and is open to the public on an occasional basis.

Active Defence

Fixed and mobile Anti-Aircraft guns stayed in operation until the late 1950s when they were replaced by surface to air missiles – initially the Bloodhound Mark I, launched from fixed sites; this was replaced by the Mark II, which was semi-mobile. From the 1970’s Britain also deployed the highly mobile Rapier missile system. In Norfolk, a Mark II was sited at West Raynham (NHER 3685).

Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM)

This was the only ballistic missile with a fixed launching system to be based on British soil. They were only a stop-gap solution (from 1959 to 1963) until the development of more powerful, inter-Continental Ballistic missiles. In Norfolk there were two (of a total twenty) sites, in Feltwell (NHER 41288) and North Pickenham (NHER 2697).

Civil Defence

The thermonuclear age rendered normal civil defence useless, and by the mid-1950s there was a change in policy away from providing public shelters to the provision of emergency administrative structures. In the event of nuclear conflict, should national government break down, the plan was that a network of Regional and Sub-Regional Seats of Government would take over. Their roles would include enforcement of order, distribution of food, and co-ordinating the rescue of the sick and injured. This infrastructure also included protected food and fuel stores, telephone exchanges and a microwave communications network. Examples of Regional Seats of Government in Norfolk are to be found at Neatishead (NHER 31218) and Bawburgh near Norwich (NHER 33781).

Due to the lack of communal air raid shelters, there are some instances of individuals building private nuclear shelters.  A Norfolk example has been discovered in a private garden at Taverham, near Norwich (NHER 36959).


The most significant development in aircraft after World War Two was the introduction of jet aircraft to front line fighter squadrons, and later to Britain’s  'V-force' nuclear deterrent bombers. This, of course, was in conjunction with the United States Air Force nuclear presence.

The effect of this on most airfields was, in terms of Cold War construction, modest. Long concrete runways were laid, with operational readiness platforms at their ends. Concrete dispersal areas, and hard-standing were necessary to counter the backwash of jet engines. Many airfields had new control towers built to cope with improved local air control, and the increased reliance on electronic navigation aids.

Generally, with the introduction of surface to air Bloodhound missiles, the role of fighter command was reduced to defending nuclear deterrent bases by interception of hostile aircraft.

In the early 1970s the Principal Interceptor Stations were provided with Quick Reaction Shelters, where two aircraft were kept at readiness for immediate scramble. However, from the mid-1970’s, airfields across the world were transformed by the introduction of Hardened Aircraft Shelters. These offered protection to aircraft in the event of a pre-emptive strike similar to the one the Israeli’s launched against Arab neighbours in 1967. Associated with these were blast protection walls.

Norfolk examples of Cold War airfields include RAF Coltishall (NHER 7697), and West Raynham (NHER 3685).

Piet Aldridge (NLA), April 2005.


Further Reading

Lowry, B. (ed), 1996. 20th Century Defences in Britain, revised edition. (York, Council for British Archaeology).

English Heritage, 1998. Monuments of War – The Evaluation, Recording and Management of 20th century Military Sites (London, English Heritage).

English Heritage, 2003. Historic Military Aviation Sites – Conservation Management Guidance (London, English Heritage).

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