A couple of days ago I was fortunate enough to be given a private tour of Fighter Command and RAF Northolt. It was one of the most fascinating and inspiring experiences of my life.
During WWII, the RAF split the UK up into regions. One such region was the south-east looked after by 11 Group (the other Groups were 10, 12 & 13). We visited, 20 meters under the ground, the Fighter Command bunker for 11 Group. Being in the south-east it was a particularly busy Group; the bunker was visited more than once by Churchill, and outside it a stone commemorates the spot where Churchill first uttered publicly the words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
In the bunker one is first struck by the huge table displaying a map of the UK, Channel and near Europe coastline, on which sits small flags indicating deployed fighter squadrons. Intriguingly, the map and everything else in the room is set up as at Battle of Britain day, 15 September 1940, more or less the day the Battle turned. But what’s actually much more impressive is the large back wall of the bunker, beyond the table, on which a series of lights, flip charts and other indicators tell the Commander – who sat in a glassed off observatory overlooking the operations room – everything he needed to know about the state of Britain’s integrated defence system: where the squadrons were (at least half a dozen statuses, from standing by all the way through to engaged in action), pilots and planes available, height of the clouds, height of barrage balloons – and a whole lot more. This was integrated with information from the vitally important radar, and human observers on the ground.
A sophisticated telephone system kept in place by the GPO – unsung WWII heroes who repaired cables in craters next to undetonated bombs – operated by “tellers”, provided the vital link between all elements of the system. Failsafe devices ensured no one teller’s mistakes were relied on, and triangulated radar reports for greater accuracy. In the bunker there was even a colour coding of the information displayed on the back wall so that the Commander could tell at a glance how up-to-date was the information on which he was relying. And yet, despite all this, as a rule when German planes were on their way to bomb UK cities, Fighter Command had as little as 1-2 minutes to decide on whether or not to get particular squadrons airborn in time to intercept the intruders. Get it wrong, and, for example, Coventry might be bombed with the loss of 1500 lives in one night.
The key point hammered home to us by our guide – the Chief Historian of the RAF – was that the integration of the British Air Defence system gave us the edge over the Germans. Apparently the Germans actually had better radar than us, but no system of integration, and compounding this a culture of fear that encouraged those in the chain of command to tell their superiors the information they wished to hear, rather than accurate information.
We went on to the Sector Command building at RAF Northolt. Fighter Command transmitted its instructions to Sector Command stations on or near the airfields. They directly managed the squadrons as they took to and fought in the skies. Incredibly, only 3 or 4 years ago this building was due to be demolished, but the RAF Historical team rescued it, and it’s now being painstakingly renovated back to its precise state during the Battle of Britain.
The Polish Air Force Association has given a generous £50k towards the work. Of course, the famous 303 Polish squadron flew from Northolt. Famous because they had the highest kill number of any squadron during the Battle of Britain, despite entering it 2 months late (we were told that officially it was the highest “Claim” number, but that in reality they almost certainly were the most successful fighters). The reasons for the Poles’ success were, amongst other things, that they had experience of flying that their young British counterparts lacked – from the early war years in Poland and France – but also because they were fearless. Fighting to free their homeland, all they wanted was to shoot down Germans, even if at the end of it they found themselves falling to earth in a parachute, or worse.
Hopefully you now get a taste of why I found this day so very inspiring. For those of you who live anywhere near RAF Uxbridge – where the Fighter Command bunker is to be found – and nearby RAF Northolt – where the Sector Command building is being renovated – I thoroughly recommend a tour which you can book in advance. Soon pre-appointment may not be necessary, which would be even better. Myself, I shall take Marzena at some point to Northolt, where apparently the Polish Officers’ mess room and memorabilia are something to see. We didn’t have a chance, in our already packed itinerary, to take this in.