I begin the new year by reflecting on a crucial turning point in this country’s history, and fortuitously, one that is within a stone’s throw from where I live and remarkably as a local resident free to attend and take in and appreciate the many lessons within and available for those who view the great wars as a distant memory today. The Battle of Britain Bunker in the London Borough of Hillingdon was the operation center from where the Royal Air Force oversaw the operations on that fateful day in September 1940 and today, with thanks to assistance from the local council now stands as a modern museum showcasing a number of items located recovered and preserved for prosperity in addition to the bunker itself, a remarkable time capsule as intriguing to visit and explore as the Churchill War Rooms in London.
But this wasn’t always the case and for a number of years the preservation of the bunker seemingly was consigned to history with the deterioration and degradation so prevalent and common amongst other historical military sites around the country. Arguably, one of the saddest traits so commonly found are the shells of military installations that served a crucial role in the history of the nation, often restricted for public access and as such with conflicting needs often degraded despite the treasure of history within. My late uncle wrote a remarkable book on the secrets of Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast that remains relatively secret and guarded to this day, another installation that would be incredible to explore in great detail should the opportunity arise. And as with the bunker, one whose memories and lessons should be available for us to remember.
I had the distinct pleasure and honor last year of visiting the various sites of the Imperial War Museum to witness the living history of this great institution across the south of England and the dedication that goes into the preservation of these sites for prosperity and to educate those to whom the greatest generation are often seen as a mythological or at worst, forgotten aspect of history. With great effort the work of the IWM has ensured the various sites, HMS Belfast, the Churchill Bunker and Duxford as annexes of the main museum provide a great level of detail and information with various displays and equipment on show. Visiting the Bunker today felt very much akin to those experiences, with a noticeable effort to ensure this historical location remains at the forefront of our memories for the role it played. RAF Uxbridge like a great many former military sites has with the growing demand for residential sites been sold in part and developed into privates homes and properties, elements of its former use still prevalent around the town through signage and memory but a shadow and shell of its former self.
Whilst a continuing presence is still close with the Royal Air Force base in Northolt, certainly for me personally it is difficult to envision this suburban town once played a crucial role in turning the tide against Nazi invasion of this country but in part due to the council’s decision to take over bunker and develop a new visitors centre that chance to visit and explore is now a more welcoming and educational experience. Given the obvious expenditure that went into the site there was perhaps the argument to charge for this attraction and certainly for visitors from further afield an entry fee does apply but as an educational resource for residents both old and young it is remarkable to attend for free and learn about the history of this town.
Given the nature of the site and its location, the first challenge was to locate the museum itself but after navigating former restricted and private roads that still maintain elements of the signage from its past you arrive and find yourself in awe of the new museum and welcome centre and the statue that stands in the car park acting as a guardian almost to the treasure within. Stepping into the centre you immediately see the usual traits of a modern museum but very quickly find yourself within the displays and attractions. I wasn’t sure what to expect, perhaps because a local museum has certain connotations of quality and depth attached from experience but this was a remarkable location to visit, modern, clean, informative. The displays a mixture of digitized information, quotes and videos projected onto surfaces.
For the children an opportunity to dress up as their heroes from the Air Force, a concept I always struggle to understand but even I couldn’t resist today donning a Royal blue cap and posing for a photograph. The open plan of the facility allows a great deal of light to enter the museum which I always find a great deal more welcoming and relaxing in contrast to dark, older buildings. For me, it had echoes in this regard of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan with its great tall windows allowing light to flood in. Its modern construction technique that minimises the surfaces and just allows you to feel more relaxed and able to enjoy the moment within. I adore this methodology and museums that recognise that need to maintain a level of peace and harmony when you are surrounded, fundamentally with such a sombre element of history.
The exhibits themselves range from an assortment of uniforms and medals worn by the personnel from this location and the Air Force in general during this conflict, a series of equipment used to defence the area such as the anti aircraft guns. Shell fragments, weaponry are prevalent which is interesting to see for those who appreciate the more tactile reality of these objects as opposed to pictures and photographs. Certainly the constraints of being a local museum are found here to a degree with fewer items on display in contrast to a museum such as RAF Duxford but then this is a museum purposefully for the preservation of memory around the role this bunker had during the Second World War. Whilst there is perhaps, the opportunity to display a wider range of aircraft for example certainly how and what is on show is sufficient and does well to tell the story of the Bunker.
It was informative watching the videos and reading the various information points, a fun nostalgic act was the alert bell that required listening on an old style telephone, although given how consigned they are to history whether younger generations will understand quite what to do in a generation or two is another question. As a military museum it serves its purpose well, telling a chapter of history that was crucial in ensuring this nation remained liberated from the clutches of the fascist regime with a very detailed and concise array of images, equipment and memories to take away from your visit. Whilst they didn’t serve a purpose for me on my visit today as with other museums the Bunker’s visitor centre has a library space to sit down and reflect on some of the history surrounding you in addition to learning and conference areas.
During the course of the day a number of guided tours of the bunker itself take place hosted by volunteers with a great deal of passion and pride in the facility. Our tour today was hosted by a gentleman named Frank who had a wealth of knowledge of the history of this location. Beginning outside you start with a talk around the basic history of the area and its military history. For an absolute novice such as me it was intriguing to hear the role the area played during the war and even more astonishingly as I alluded to earlier how that legacy was seemingly almost confined to history with the closure of the site previously. Thankfully now, at least for the time being there seems a concerted effort to ensure the site remains open and a viable location both for the borough and arguably the country as a whole. Leaving the confines of the visitor centre you then enter the Bunker itself, not attached and requiring entry down 70 or so steps into the confines of the operations centre and the various museum rooms.
Due to the restriction of space and indeed the fact it has only recently been preserved and restored to any great degree entry to this area is timed and under guidance although there is remarkable freedom to explore and wonder to a degree once your lecture has concluded. Frank delivered a thorough and detailed explanation on the site going into detail around the room itself as well as the wider role it played and the duties of the personnel within. Learning for example how Churchill would visit to witness the roles of the staff of RAF Uxbridge, the connection to other satellite stations such as Duxford and Northolt but also the remarkable role women played during the conflict. If you have ever wanted to impress a positive feminist ideology or legacy you could do worse than attend and witness and learn about the very real and momentous role women had during the Battle of Britain, true, objective and empowering history. Far more so than a hashtag or social media movement.
On conclusion of the lecture you are afford an opportunity to explore some of the adjoining offices and rooms that have been converted into small museum spaces with a number of mementos and equipment from this operating base including, which had a slightly greater impact perhaps on local visitors the helmets and stationary emblazoned with the UXB lettering. In addition there were individual rooms for the role women had whilst stationed at the Bunker, the various individuals showcased and their stories albeit briefly, on display to learn and draw inspiration from. The tragedy perhaps is the confines of the facility and the shortened time you have down in the historical bunker that whilst the level of information on display is kept minimal there is a great opportunity to tell the story the WAAF had during the Battle of Britain. One of the great honors was to listen to the volunteers such as Frank imbue their knowledge of these individuals who served with great determination and spirit to ensure our liberty and prosperity.
Regardless of their gender when there was a requirement for people to step forward and serve their country that generation did, that for me was the overwhelming message I took away from my time at the Bunker today. Quite simply, there are few isolated events in world history you can pin point and identify that played a turning point against a tide of true evil, the events of The Battle of Britain are one such event in our nation’s history and thankfully there now exists a fitting museum to remember those events. However, like the War Rooms in Whitehall the Bunker, whilst a museum was built as an operations centre in a time of war, space is limited and to allow others to share in this experience you are directed to leave and return to the surface, to explore the visitors centre, partake of a refreshment or purchase from the gift shop.
Leaving the location you return to the normality of civilization and with construction and residential planning in the 21st century the somewhat surreal prospect of being a very short drive from the commercial town centre and the shopping precincts now prominent in Uxbridge. Leaving the gates of the Base I was reminded somewhat of that final scene from another iconic war movie Sink The Bismark as the two characters leave the confined world of the War Rooms below Whitehall into the normality of London and the world around them. It’s astonishing to realise the crucial role RAF Uxbridge played during the Battle of Britain, no more or less so than the other military facilities and compounds around the United Kingdom that fought to protect the liberty of its people. Having lived and worked within this town for the past decade, I’ll concede these events had largely passed me by until today despite having invested time in the last 12 months visiting the various sites of the Imperial War Museum.
Perhaps then that is the lesson and memory to take from today, the important to preserve the history of these locations for generations hence, and to ensure the words of Kipling that echo on Remembrance Sunday, ‘Lest we Forget’ don’t ever become a meaningless utterance. Because, the Battle of Britain Bunker almost was confined to the annals of history, perhaps driven by a nation’s attempt to heal and move away from those dark events a need to close and banish these sites from physical existence, out of sight, out of mind. But they serve to teach important lessons, one such for me today was in a society that once more is trying to resolve complex gender issues and roles there was a moment when those differences were set aside and men and women came together for a far greater purpose. So should the opportunity present itself, then venture into the suburbs of North West London and visit this historical location, or any such location and champion its merits and virtues before as was briefly seen here, it is consigned to a footnote in history.
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