Feature Extract: Uxbridge Battle of Britain Bunker
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Uxbridge’s amazing Battle of Britain Bunker combines one of the country’s most important RAF buildings from the 1940s with a state-of-the-art visitors’ centre.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” These famous words were first spoken by Prime Minister Winston Churchill after leaving the Battle of Britain Bunker in Uxbridge, West London on August 16, 1940. (These words were later adapted for his famous speech in the House of Commons.) He had just witnessed the organisation of the air defences that were being used to protect the nation against enemy attack during the first major air campaign over Britain during World War Two. The bunker, located 60ft (28m) underground, contained the Operations Room of No.11 Group RAF, which oversaw the defence of London and the South-East during the war.
Formerly one of the most secret and highly guarded sites in the UK, the historic bunker was acquired by Hillingdon Council from the Ministry of Defence in 2016 and it’s now an impressive museum, maintained as a national asset for future generations. The council invested more than £6 million in a state-of-the-art above-ground visitor centre and more than 37,000 people have now walked down the 76 historic steps to experience the original bunker first-hand.
Under the control of RAF Fighter Command, the bunker was an integral part of the Dowding System – the world’s first integrated air defence network. It was named after ACM Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command (1936-1940) and brought together technology, ground defences and fighter aircraft to create a co-ordinated network. The bunker – known as ‘The Hole’ by RAF personnel – was at the heart of this system, which provided the necessary protection and offensive air power during major operations, including the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) in 1942 and D-Day in 1944.
The purpose of the bunker was to receive and display information about approaching enemy raids, co-ordinate fighter aircraft, organise ground-to-air defences and provide direction for the Observer Corps. Situated in the centre of the bunker was the Operations Room, which contained a plotting table with map, Squadron Status (Tote) Board, a dais for operations and intelligence clerks, liaison officers and supervisors and the ‘Royal Box’ for important visitors. The plotting room was overlooked by three glass-fronted cabins. The central room housed the duty controller who would direct day-to-day operations. Another cabin contained Observer Corps personnel and barrage balloon officers and the final room was used by the army to operate anti-aircraft guns and searchlights and by the Royal Navy to observe invasion attempts.
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) formed 85% of the Operations Room staff, with 20 individuals positioned around the plotting table. Working in pairs, comprising a Plotter (Clerk Special Duties) and Teller, the WAAFs would receive information from Fighter Command headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory Stanmore, northwest London and the Observer Corps and place blocks and arrows on to a large map to track the movements of enemy aircraft over Britain.
Heart of the Defences
Joan Fanshawe (née Moxon) served as a Plotter at Uxbridge between July 1940 and January 1942 and described working in the bunker as “hectically busy when big raids came over… there was no time to think of anything”. Staff worked eight-hour shift patterns, which often involved periods of inactivity followed by episodes of busy and intense work.
Stories from personnel who served in the bunker can be explored at the site’s Battle of Britain Bunker Exhibition and Visitor Centre, which opened in March 2018. Visitors can learn about the Dowding System and discover the professional and personal lives of the people who worked under the command of No.11 Group, including plotters, map tracers, pilots and groundcrew.
Other highlights include the medals of Wg Cdr Ronald Gustave Kellett, DSO, DFC, AE, Commanding Officer of 303 (Kościuszko) Squadron during the Battle of Britain, a section from one of the bunker’s original map tables, a ‘scramble’ bell from 1937 that was used to alert pilots to run to their aircraft and a commemorative chess set based on the Operations Room plotting table with pieces that represent key political and military figures linked to the Dowding System.
See the November issue of Britain at War to read the rest of this exciting feature. The November issue is in the shops now!
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