The ‘Battle of Britain Bunker’, Deep Below RAF Uxbridge

Down below the now defunct RAF Uxbridge base in West London is the RAF’s 11 (Fighter) Group Operations Room, otherwise known as  the ‘Battle of Britain Bunker‘. During the Battle of Britain this Operations Room coordinated the air defences for London and the entire South East – visit today and you will discover that it has been restored to its former glory…

Your journey at RAF Uxbridge starts in a nondescript corner of the old base, at the top of a steep flight of 70-odd stairs next to replicas of a Spitfire and Hurricane (known as the ‘gate guardians’ because they used to be sited near the main entrance). Descend the steps and you’ll find yourself in a network of narrow corridors which will lead you through to the old communications room – here there’s a 15 minute orientation video by the curator which describes how the fighter groups were directed during the Battle of Britain. This room also contains lots of interesting memorabilia, including some information on the several visits by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and something rather more unusual – a piece of liberated booty from Nazi Germany featuring the rather ugly visages of Adolf Hitler and Herman Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe…

From here you go just around the corner into a room that I guarantee will make your jaw drop – the Operations Room presented exactly as it would have appeared in September 1940 when the Battle of Britain raged overhead. The markers, the ‘tote’ board and map are all present and correct , in fact the map itself is the original – they discovered it rolled up in a cupboard when they were searching the site for objects to go into the bunker! This room was actually used to direct aircraft right up until the 1970s, and the bunker’s most recent use was as the central hub of the RAF’s information technology estate. I think I’m safe in saying that this was the most secure data centre in the entire country!

Up in the observation rooms which overlook the map there are displays on various aspects of RAF operations including information on RAF Uxbridge itself, the Royal Observer Corps, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the continuing role of women in the RAF to date, and even more objects liberated from Germany in World War II. There’s also a room dedicated to the Polish pilots, many of whom flew with the RAF during the war (their sacrifice is commemorated at the Polish War Memorial a few miles away).

This weekend’s opening was part of the national Heritage Open Days campaign but the Battle of Britain Bunker is open on a regular basis now, although only through pre-booked tours. You can find out more about these tours on their website here, and also learn about the work of the Friends of the 11 Group Ops Room without whom the Battle of Britain Bunker wouldn’t exist. This organisation was formed in 2010 to support and develop the site – they are responsible for fundraising, they provide the tour guides and also support the ongoing research relating to the base as well as the acquisition of new historical items. They welcome new members and offer a range of benefits including regular newsletters and opportunities to help with the running of the site.

Do pay them the Battle of Britain Bunker a visit if you get the opportunity, as this is one of the most important historical sites relating to World War II in the entire London area – in my opinion it is second only to the Churchill War Rooms on King Charles St in central London.

A note on RAF Uxbridge – if you arrive on the foot the easiest way to access the Battle of Britain Bunker is to walk through the base along St Andrews Road. RAF Uxbridge closed on 31 March 2010 as part of the Ministry of Defence’s scheme to ‘rationalise’ the military. Of course that word is a euphemism but I don’t think we should go into what that really means here – ask me privately about my opinions on the subject! Visiting it today is quite an eerie experience – all of the buildings are still in situ, but in various states of dilapidation. As I was walking along I spotted the base’s pub, Hillingdon House, the chapel (complete with a private parking spot for the padre) and some now very sorry looking 1920s family homes. What I found most surprising was the relatively recent construction – both the gym next to the overgrown sports field and some of the accommodation blocks a hundred yards or so into the site could have been built last week, if it wasn’t for the tell-tale sign of weeds growning in front of the doorways. It’s very sad to see RAF Uxbridge in this state – one can only imagine the hive of activity it represented before the fateful decision was taken to close it. It’s now awaiting redevelopment, but given the current financial climate who knows when they might start demolition and new construction on the site? I do feel a bit like Doctor Who when visiting places like this – both inside and outside the Battle of Britain Bunker, RAF Uxbridge is thick with echoes from the past…

Comments

  1. Shirley says

    My grandfather was civilian Adjutant at RAF Uxbridge when WWII started. He had transferred from Royal Scots Fusiliers to RAF in 1917. My grandparents bought 64 Vine Lane when it was built, opposite the small gate next to the golf course. After WWI or in the 20s they lived in a hut just inside St Andrew's Gate. I went in the bunker in the 70/80s and intend visiting again soon.

    • Pete Stean says

      Shirley, how fascinating thank you!

      It is a great place – I’m always recommending it to anyone with an interest in military history. Clearly lots of love and care went into its development. It’s a shame that Government cuts or ‘rationalisation’ put paid to the site itself – I imagine that the closure must have had quite a negative impact on the local economy, and its a shame to see lots of perfectly serviceable buildings sitting there unused.