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Found 1 result

  1. The prologue My second planned visit to an historical Battle of Britain site was to the Battle of Britain Bunker at Uxbridge, in London's western suburbs. This was the site of the Operations Room for Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park’s 11 Group, which bore the brunt of the Battle. The bunker was used for other purposes after the war but is now restored, close to its 1940 appearance, as the centrepiece of a museum run by the local council, Hillingdon. You can find the museum’s website here and background on the history of the bunker on Wikipedia, here. The Ops Room ‘played itself’ in the Battle of Britain film, in 1969. So as with Bentley Priory, my trip to Uxbridge ticked three boxes – seeing the movie location, visiting an important historical site from the Battle, and seeing the museum exhibits. Uxbridge, like Stanmore for Bentley Priory, is at the end of a Tube line, two in fact. I walked from the hotel to Leicester Square and took the Piccadilly Line out to Uxbridge, the last half or so running in the open. It’s a walk of maybe 20 minutes to the bunker, though the route is a little convoluted. I was even more pressed for time that day, so I hopped on a black cab at the taxi rank in front of the station for a c.5 minute door-to-door ride. I turned up shortly before opening, which is ten till four-thirty, with last admission an hour before. This gave me an opportunity to photograph the two ‘gate guardian’ replicas and the museum exterior. The visit This Spitfire IX, finished as 5R-E of 33, Squadron with ‘D-Day stripes’, is near the bunker entrance.   This squadron has no particular connection with the Battle of Britain, having served in the Middle East until returning to operate with the 2nd Tactical Air Force supporting D-Day and later operations in NW Europe, ending up with Tempests. But it's a nice replica!   By contrast, the Hurricane is very much at home here, being a Mk I, RF-E, in the colours of 303 (Polish) Squadron, which operated with great distinction during the Battle, from nearby RAF Northolt. Behind it, in a brick wall and just out of sight to the right in the photo below, is a green door leading to the back garden of the house in which 11 Group's Air Officer Commanding Keith Park lived during the Battle. The inexpensive tickets were purchased at the shop/reception area just inside the bright, modern exhibition centre. There is another building next to this which looks like a large blockhouse, partly camouflage-painted, whose function apparently was, and is likely still, to house and protect the generators used to provide power to the bunker. Sadly, I didn’t have time, after my bunker tour, to see much of the exhibition centre, though I did get to take this picture while waiting for the tour to start. If you arrive between bunker tours, the exhibition, as well as the museum shop, provide plenty to do and see while waiting. I think my only company for the tour was a school group of well-behaved teenagers, Polish I think. The guide was a smartly turned out ex-NCO type, Ray, who started us off with the inevitable safety briefing, which included the fact that access was via 72 steps, down the original wartime stairway, to what was known to those who worked there as ‘the Hole’, sixty feet underground. The tour proper started, in front of the site’s small but imposing memorial to the role of the bunker, with a short history of the location. Apparently, these were the grounds of a ‘big house’ bought by the government and turned over to the Royal Flying Corps in WW1, after the locals had objected to its original intended use as a PoW camp. The bunker itself was built in the run-up to WW2 to replace the previous above ground one, to reduce vulnerability to air attack. This is the concrete-shrouded bunker entrance. Behind the blastproof steel door is a small guardroom complete with an RAF-uniformed mannequin guard, who looked rather bored. This is the view looking back the upper flight of steps from the landing onto the second flight, which leads on down at about right-angles. And here are some views of the Ops Room from ground level. With Ray delivering his informative spiel. One of the snippets of information from this relates to the map – the GSM, or General Situation Map. Apparently this was rolled up and stored somewhere else in the bunker when it was converted to other uses – a comms centre I think – for the Cold War. When eventually found for the restoration, it has deteriorated a bit and some trimming was required. However its general shape and appearance seem to be much as it was during the Battle. There are some wartime pics taken of it which show more location names, so perhaps there were different versions, even then. Here's some of the plot markers in close-up. The ones with one or two yellow flags denote friendly fighter squadrons, those without having the 'H' prefix which denotes them as a hostile raid. Apparently there were different styles of markers used at different periods. Similarly with the map, comparison with wartime photos suggests that there were also some detail differences with ‘the tote’ on the back wall – where a column using a row of coloured lights displayed the status of each squadron in each of 11 Group’s geographical Sectors. This was named after the UK’s former national horseracing betting shop chain, presumably from the resemblance to the typical ‘bookies’ display boards listing horses, courses, races and odds. Also on the tote, below the squadron status display, were separate ones for each sector indicating cloudbase height, cloud cover level and information on local balloon deployment. Along with the map, all the information is placed so as to be visible to the personnel looking down from the control dias. The map – covered in a transparent overlay which the British Army used to call ‘talc’, or perhaps it is glass or perspex - had some markings from D-Day, presumably because of the 75th anniversary. Usually, the aircraft markers on the table are laid out to show the tactical situation at the height of what became Battle of Britain Day, 15th September 1940. Ray’s talk described the operation of ‘the Dowding system’ (which seems to be a modern term, unused until recently) whereby ‘tellers’ would receive details by land line of friendly and enemy or unidentified formations from the Filter Room at Bentley Priory, passed on from the radar/RDF chain, the Observer Corps, and other sources, including the ‘Pip Squeak’ IFF system. ‘Plotters’ around the table would then place markers on the GSM and update them as more information came in, using trays of markers stored below the table edges and moving their ‘plots’ with (ideally) billiards cue-like rods with electromagnets on the end. As enthusiastically demonstrated by one of the other visitors! The Sector stations listed on the tote (which generally also had additional ‘satellite’ airfields to which one or more of their squadrons could be deployed) had their own control rooms, usually built on the actual airfield. The Group control room ran the battle, deciding which Sectors would intercept which raids and passing these instructions to the relevant Sector control room, which scrambled their fighters and directed them to the target. Looking backwards from the ground floor map, there’s a row of desks which were manned amongst others by (I believe) the ‘tellers’ who received plot details by land line before passing them onto the 'plotters' at the map table. Above their desks are the curved glass panels designed to give the Controller and his assistants, sitting at the upper level, a clear view of the map, regardless of lighting – if you take a flash picture from up there, Ray told us, you’ll see it doesn’t reflect on the glass and interfere with your view. I left my flash off throughout so as not to be a nuisance. The angled section of the upper level, to the left, is where you may remember Winston and Lady Churchill sat during their visit on Battle of Britain Day, as portrayed in the film, when Churchill asked Park what reserves he had, to be told 'None!' These are their desks viewed from the upper level; you can more clearly see the D-Day markings on the map from this angle. In describing fighter armament, Ray passed around three .303 rounds in a belt. I ended up with them last (before handing them back naturally!) and was surprised to see they were in non-disintegrating metal links. But I suppose these are less likely to come apart and get lost than the real disintegrating Prideaux links! The talk lasted for about three-quarters of an hour, after which we were ushered up to the upper level. I didn’t have much time left by this point, so what I had, I concentrated on the 11 Group controller’s area. In the upper right wall, next to the tote, is a rectangular glass panel that was installed after the Battle of Britain, to give VIP visitors ‘a room with a view’, not least King George VI who used it twice, apparently. In the foreground is the Duty Controller's station... …and this is the view while I was sitting in his chair. I managed to resist picking up one of the ‘phones and in a suitably authoritative voice, calling ’This is the 11 Group Controller. Ninety-two Squadron, intercept Hostile One Zero!’ But here I was, sitting exactly where many such an order was given, looking down at the GSM and the tote, just as the real Duty Controller did. A feeling to be savoured! In developing their justly-famous and long-lived sim, Rowan decided not quite to replicate the precise mechanics, but the feeling is uncannily similar. As I sat there looking down, I could almost hear the Rowan WAAFs, much as the real ones would have done, announcing politely but firmly ‘New raid detected…!’. Simulation and history met in my mind. But I had a date with a Premier Tours bus at Victoria (which I only just met). So I had to go back up those 76 steps without waiting for the rest of the party and without touring the exhibition area. The two gate guardians were of course waiting for me up there. My taxi driver had given me his card and was there within minutes to whisk me back to Uxbridge station for a train and tube ride back into central London. I’d had no time to peruse the museum shop so failed to pick up a copy of the book I was after there – the Haynes ‘workshop’ manual ‘Battle of Britain – RAF Fighter Command’ which ‘does what it says on the tin’ and has both wartime and modern photos of the bunker I’d just visited. Which I know, because I got a copy of the book the next day at the Imperial War Museum Lambeth, at a much reduced price to boot, on my last museum visit of my brief London break. So I’ll close these two museum visit reports with a photo of the real Spitfire on display at the IWM - despite the later-war camouflage and markings, R6915 is a real Mk Ia which flew and fought during the Battle of Britain. But there are more than ever Battle of Britain-related museums and sites to visit, and I fully intend to work my way through some more of them on future trips. It’s all rather wonderful that so many people have worked (and still work) so very hard, some as unpaid volunteers, to keep alive the history of the Battle. It's all the more vivid for being on display where it was actually fought. If you can make it to Uxbridge or Bentley Priory, they’re highly recommended. If you can't, well I hope these reports and the links in them will give you an idea of what you're missing! You can find more information about the Battle of Britain Bunker museum here: Website: http://battleofbritainbunker.co.uk/ Friends (supporters) site: http://friendsof11group.co.uk/
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