This post will feature the newly opened, Battle of Britain Bunker and Visitor Centre on the former site of RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is the only Second World War bunker to be preserved and open available to the public. The former RAF site was sold off for a new housing development in 2010. The Bunker was available for tours, booked in advance. Now however the site has been heavily invested by the financial backing of Hillingdon council and houses a new Visitor Centre adjacent to the Bunker, whereby prior booking is no longer necessary. The Visitor Centre explains about the line of work that happened in the Bunker and features interactive exhibits and visuals relating to plotting, radar and collecting calls from telephones. It is also a good feature for those visitors who are less mobile as they can still see information and learn about what happened in the Bunker.
Outside the complex visitors are welcomed to the statue of New Zealander Keith Park (1892-1975), the Second World War Royal Airforce commander. He oversaw the running’s of the operation room at RAF Uxbridge for two years from 1940-1942. He was known as the “Defender of London” in Germany and for organising fighter patrols during the Dunkirk evacuation the Battle of Britain campaign. What’s more, the grounds also include a mock Hurricane, Spitfire and memorial close to the entrance of the Bunker immortalising the words uttered by Winston Churchill when he entered the Bunker on a visit in 16th August 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.
Upon arrival visitors must report to the entrance desk at the Visitor Centre to collect tickets to visit the Bunker. The Bunker operates tours in the mornings and afternoons. Please ensure to take a ticket and keep it on your person until the guide leads you to the entrance of the Bunker, it is here where you hand your ticket to a steward. When entering the bunker, you go down a long flight of stairs so be watchful.
The Bunker was the location for No. 11 Group RAF’s operation which served as part of the Dowding system. The Dowding system served as the world’s first conception network on land to control airspace in the United Kingdom. It used a telephone network to gain intelligence as opposed to radar that could have been intercepted. This Bunker is most famous for controlling airfield operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and additionally the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the D Day Landings of 1944.
Geographically there were several fighter command groups stationed in the United Kingdom they were divided into different geographical locations. No. 11 Group which encompassed the South-East, No. 10 Group covering the South West, No. 12 Group covering the Midlands, No. 9 Group covering the North West, No. 13 covering the North East and lastly No. 14 Group covering Scotland. Focusing on No. 11 Group its headquarters was located at Hillingdon House at RAF Uxbridge. The group’s operating room was within the Bunker underground, to avoid detection. A previous bunker was built over ground in 1939 but the idea of having an operations room over ground was too obvious in case of an enemy air attack.
The commands that occurred in the Operations room within the Bunker was passed onto airfields within the group. These airfields were divided into 8 different sectors. The Operations Controller was seated above a plot map and a display on the wall relating to the other RAF stations within the group covering; RAF Tangmere, Kenley, North Weald, Debden, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Northolt. These were the stations were fighter squadrons were based. It is important to note that everything displayed in the Operations room was always suited to the view of the Operation Controller. Additional staff included; Army and Navy Officials, Plotters, telephonists and RAF officers, one of which was the late Hollywood actor Rex Harrison.
The map of the United Kingdom and northern France was displayed on a large board whereby the Operations Controller could see very clearly where plotters would update them with necessary information. This was a job carried out by plotters who were mainly women from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAFs). They were fed information from Chain Home Radar stations monitoring approaching aircraft, it was the Royal Observer corps that detected aircraft that was friendly or hostile. This information was fed to a Filter room whereby the plotters in this room would breakdown the information and relay it to the plotters in the Operation room. The plotters used long thin rods that would move markers on the map indicating numbers of aircraft and how many feet they were in the sky. It also displayed friendly and hostile aircraft. Depending on what information they receive the would move the markers across the map to provide the Operations Controller an up to date understanding of affairs happening in the skies.
Going back to the display on the wall depending on the different stations lights will flicker to state whereabouts aircraft is and to show the Operations Controller a physical embodiment/tracking of their decision making from standby to action. It is also important to note that the visibility and weather balloons was also marked on the display, again providing the best view to the Operations Controller so they can be best informed to make decisions. The plotters job was important as they had to ensure the information was kept up to date, otherwise that could mean drastic consequences for aircraft and cause confound decision making for the Operation Controller. When changing shifts, the plotters had to standby the other plotter they are shifting with to see what information they were being fed to again make sure the information on the map was current. This was also true when a plotter needed to take a break, the covering plotter had to stand with the plotter wanting a break for approximately 10-15 to ensure all information fed to them was being kept up to date.
The location of the Battle of Britain Bunker is easy to get to, it is close to the Town centre of Uxbridge, Greater London and has good connections to the A40 and M40. It is an easily accessible day trip from London as the tube serves Uxbridge on both the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. Additionally, the U2 is the nearest bus to serve the Bunker which will then take an extra 10-15 minutes to walk to the venue.
Residents of Hillingdon Borough can visit for free (upon showing Hillingdon resident card) as with servicemen/women and ex-servicemen/women. Please check with the venue for exact proving to those visitors from outside the area.
All in all, the Bunker and Visitor centre is a great day out for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in the Battle of Britain.