The origins of the Telecommunications Research Establishment go back to 1934 when the Air Ministry decided to investigate the possibilities of applying science to the problem of air defense. This was in response to the bomber threat, which was perceived as impossible to counter except by deterrence. The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defense and an approach was made to Robert Watson Watt, a scientist working for the National Physical Laboratory, as to whether a death ray would be theoretically possible. This was calculated to be far beyond the possibilities of the time, but that detection of aircraft by radio means was possible. A practical demonstration was carried out on 26 February 1935 to prove the calculations and thereafter Treasury funding was secured to develop an early warning radar system.
Initial development work was carried out at Orfordness, a remote area of Suffolk, from May 1935, the initial party consisting of four people: A.F. Wilkins, L.H. Bainbridge-Bell, E.G. Bowen and G. Willis. R.A. Watson Watt was in charge of the team but remained at his workplace in Slough, though making regular weekend visits to Orfordness. Progress was such that in December 1935 the Air Staff asked for the construction of five radar stations to provide air warning over the approaches to the Thames Estuary. This was far beyond the resources of the staff and site and it became necessary to greatly expand the team and also find new accommodation. This was secured with the purchase of Bawdsey Manor some miles to the south and the move there began in March 1936.
Up until this time the research staff had continued to be employed by the National Physical Laboratory. However, on 1 August 1936 the entire team was transferred to the Air Ministry. The Air Ministry scientists developed the Chain Home radar system, which was to become the backbone of the air defense system throughout the Second World War and after, during the time it spent at Bawdsey, the establishment being named the Bawdsey Research Station (B.R.S.)
As war drew nearer, it was assumed that Bawdsey would be attacked by the enemy upon the declaration of war, and plans were drawn up for its evacuation. A decision was made to move to Dundee, this taking place on 3 September 1939, although it was found on arrival that the expected accommodation was not available and another building was used. Now that the Bawdsey Research Station was in Dundee, a change of title became necessary and the organization was renamed the Air Ministry Research Establishment. One of the main reasons for the move was that this was expected to be an area free from hostile activity, but the early months of the war saw many German aircraft over eastern Scotland, and this interfered with the research which was to be carried out at a nearby C.H. station. This, and the distance from other government departments and military units, made another move necessary and, in May 1940, A.M.R.E. moved from Dundee to Worth Matravers, near Swanage. Soon after its arrival at Worth Matravers, A.M.R.E. was transferred from the Air Ministry to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. It therefore briefly was known as the Ministry of Aircraft Production Research Establishment (M.A.P.R.E.) but this was too unwieldy a title and this was replaced in November 1940 with Telecommunications Research Establishment, or T.R.E.
T.R.E. was to remain at Worth Matravers for two years. However, in 1942, following the successful raid on the German radar station at Bruneval, it was felt prudent to move T.R.E. from its coastal position. There was also the factor that T.R.E. was running out of accommodation and needed a new location with facilities for the thousands employed by T.R.E. Consequently, T.R.E. moved to Malvern in May 1942, where it remains to this day, although having been re-named in the post-war years the Radar Research Establishment (R.R.E.), Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (R.S.R.E.) and finally Defense Evaluation Research Agency (D.E.R.A.)
Having created with team which would eventually expand into the Telecommunications Research Establishment, R.A. Watson Watt (from 1942 Sir Robert Watson-Watt) was the first Superintendent of the Bawdsey Research Station. He was appointed Director of Communications Development in May 1938 and A.P. Rowe succeeded him as Superintendent. Rowe was to remain Superintendent throughout the rest of the war.
Special thanks to
Ian Brown of the Radar Archive
For generously providing this information