THE ROOM WHERE HISTORY WAS MADE: INSIDE THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN BUNKER
The Battle of Britain Bunker at Uxbridge, near London, opened to visitors in 2018. This incredible bunker housed Fighter Command’s Operations Room, which controlled the RAF’s command of the Battle of Britain during those desperate days in 1940.
The bunker and exhibition tell the story of all of the crucial RAF Fighter Command operations of World War II including the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Blitz and D-Day. Opened to the public in March 2018 and staffed by some enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides, it is a must for anyone still amazed at how a number of ordinary men and women doing their allocated jobs, combined with the skill of young pilots, saved Britain at a critical moment in World War II.
The bunker is in the grounds of Hillingdon House, which was purchased by the government in 1915 and used as a military hospital for Canadian soldiers wounded at Vimy Ridge.
After 1918 it was taken over by the RAF and used for training RAF recruits. One of the men trained here was T E Lawrence, who, seeking anonymity from fame as Lawrence of Arabia, signed up under the pseudonym John Hume Ross (you can read more about Lawrence here >>).
By World War II it was the HQ of the Observer Corps, 11 group and RAF Bomber Command.
The bunker was completed just eight days before the outbreak of war in 1939 and saw its first action only six days after the outbreak of hostilities. Sixty feet underground, with walls a metre thick and under 30 feet of soil, the bunker was impenetrable to bombs of the era, and had its own ventilation, water and electricity systems, which still work to this day.
Churchill stood where the small path ends and first said the immortal words which became the most fitting tribute to the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain
The tour begins with, appropriately, a visit to the exact spot where Churchill stood after emerging from a visit to the bunker at the height of the battle. Visibly shaken by what he had just witnessed, he said to General Ismay,
“Don’t speak to me; I have never been so moved. Never has so much been owed by so many to so few”.
That last phrase he was to repeat some days later in the House of Commons, and has become the best known tribute to the pilots who flew in that battle.
Now a memorial stands here to the men and women of the Operations Room from which the greater part of the Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons were controlled. Nearby there is a further memorial to 303 Squadron, most of whom were Polish; the Polish red and white flag picked out in red and white begonias. The guide informed his attentive group that the most successful squadron in the battle was this one.
It was time to enter the bunker and in the 76 steps downward we trod in the footsteps of the 280 people who worked here every day and night in four watches, as well as those of significant visitors like Churchill, Eisenhower, de Gaulle and George VI.
You are greeted immediately by the sound of air blasting through the ventilation shafts, through countless pipes and shafts running along the bare walls. At a sharp bend in the steps, we were told that this was deliberately put there to avoid a direct hit from German bombs, which could have caved in the entrance and trapped those within it.
It’s an eerie and awe-inspiring moment when you enter the actual Operations Room, most of which is authentic, appearing exactly as it did at the height of the battle on 15 September 1940 at 11.30 am.
The huge table, covered in a map of the French and English coasts, has the little wooden blocks, covered in numbers, at various locations on the map. Behind the map, the whole wall is covered in a confusing array of lights and names, weather details, pictures of barrage balloons and in the middle of them all, a small clock, with segments in red, yellow and blue. A mannequin of a WAAF stands by the map, headphones on, plotter at the ready to move the wooden blocks around.
It is a sight familiar to many through films and documentaries, yet here you actually are, standing in the very place where commanders and ranked personnel of the RAF held their nerve and conducted the operations which prevented Hitler from gaining mastery of the skies and the subsequent seaborne invasion of Britain in his planned Operation Sealion.
The Commander could see the map and board from his vantage point, as every second counted when it came to making decisions.
This air integrated defence system, initiated by Air Chief Marshal Dowding, was unique to Britain and was responsible for its ultimate victory; and we were there, in the heart of it. We could only wonder at the bravery of the pilots directed from here, average age 22, many with less than six hours in the cockpit of a Spitfire before they were sent into battle, or the courage needed by the staff around this table, knowing their split second decisions could have such a dramatic impact on the lives of others.
We sat enthralled as the excellent guide explained how the system worked.
Information came in from the radar stations and the Observer Corps (awarded the title Royal by George VI after the battle) and went through to the filter room at Fighter Command, RAF Bentley Priory, where those on duty had only four minutes to decide if the reported aircraft
were friend or foe, or indeed could be explained by flocks of birds or atmospheric conditions. Wooden blocks were moved around the plotting table, which held details about the amount of planes and if they were friendly or hostile.
Once identified as foe, the details of numbers, type of aeroplane, height and direction went directly to Uxbridge. Under intense time pressure, the commander had to study the Tote Board on the back wall, which gave updated information on the air readiness of his available squadrons, and give the order to the airfields to scramble their pilots.
We were almost holding our breath as we began to understand that snap decisions needed to be made instantly – the Germans would be above London in just 20 minutes if not intercepted. The lives of civilians on the ground and pilots in the air hung on the skill and mental strength of those in that room in 1940.
The guide explained what all of the wooden blocks meant, talking us through the Tote Board and how it worked, explaining the colour coding systems, the function of the coloured clock, the numbers and the impact of the weather on the whole thing. It was utterly engrossing and I finally understood how the whole system worked. After years of watching war films, I could now appreciate the details of what was going on.
The critical last days of the battle are well documented, how the terrible damage done by German bombing had damaged the airfields, how the young pilots flew on through their exhaustion often on four sorties a day, how close Britain was to disaster.
On 15 September 1940, now known as Battle of Britain Day, every squadron available was in the air to meet the massive threat as Goring sent his Luftwaffe across in huge numbers.
There was a dramatic moment when the guide switched on the red lights for ‘Enemy Sited’ across the entire Tote Board and we could imagine for ourselves the tension that must have crackled in the air at that point.
Churchill happened to be present that day (apparently always insisting on sitting next to the Commander rather than in the remote Visitors’ Viewing Gallery where he should have been) and asked how many planes were held in reserve. ‘None’, was the reply. But that day turned out to be decisive. It was an overwhelming and decisive defeat for the Luftwaffe.
Hitler decided he could not gain the air superiority he needed and switched his attention fully to the terror bombing of the Blitz and the forthcoming invasion of Russia.
In February 1941 Operation Sealion was cancelled and Britain was safe from invasion.
Want to know more about the events on that historic day? This documentary covers that day in detail.
Also from that Operations Room, nearly four years later, all fighter operations were conducted on D-Day. Lines of communication were set up between the Fighter Direction Ships, the Bunker and the RAF squadrons. The Bunker’s Controller gave the order to scramble a squadron towards Normandy, and the Fighter Direction Ships directed the squadron according to events on the ground.
Being in that room truly felt like standing in the footsteps of greatness, and was an incredible moment for all of us.
Visitors were then able to go to the upstairs rooms to view the plotting table and Tote Board from the perspective of the overall commander, (during the Battle of Britain usually Air Chief Marshall Keith Park or Lord Willoughby de Broke) where there were also plenty of artefacts, uniforms and small displays, before returning up the 76 steps to the reality of modern life above.
The main exhibition hall is really well laid out with plenty of clear information boards, some great displays and good interactive stations to attract all ages. Following lines painted on the floor you can follow the steps of the Dowding System to really see the stages of how it worked.
Bakelite telephones ring as you approach them and issue instructions, including sounding the air raid siren or ringing the scramble bell. I couldn’t resist several goes at sounding the air raid siren and imagining the effect it would have had on ordinary civilians who then had to rush for shelters.
I tried plotting on the operations map, wearing a set of 1940s headphones and struggling to interpret the information coming through and act fast enough within the allotted minutes. ‘Hurry up’ it kept shouting at me as I tried to work out where the different sectors were, wielding my plotting rod and trying to move the blocks smoothly over the surface without much finesse.
Through personal speakers you can listen to the voices of the women who worked there, read their letters and see items of their personal lives like lisle stockings and a nightdress made from parachute silk.
For those who want more detailed military knowledge, one area deals with the controversy over Leigh-Mallory’s Big Wing policy and its effectiveness, a subject still under much debate by historians.
The exhibition also covers the foundation of the RAF and its formation after World War 1, as well as small exhibition about D-Day. There is also plenty for kids to do here, including dressing up as a pilot or WAAF, lots of interactive displays and a trail to follow.
It turned out to be a fascinating visit, with much to attract families and casual visitors as well as dedicated military historians and academics, and is one I heartily recommend.
VISITING THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN BUNKER
Visitor Centre: 7 days a week, 10am - 4.30pm except for Christmas Bank Holidays
Bunker: Visits are by tour only at 10.15am, 11.30am, 12.45pm, 2pm and 3.15pm
See website for Winter tour times
Adult: £7 with bunker tour, £4 without
Child (0-18 yrs): Free
Getting there: Use postcode UB10 0BE but bear in mind it is difficult to find as there is a new housing estate being built in the area and it is very easy to get lost. There are signs to the bunker from the A4020.
Parking: There is plenty of free parking on site
Food: There is a good café on site
Accessibility: The Visitor Centre is fully accessible but the bunker can only be accessed by 76 steps