‘The airfield that saved Britain’: A new exhibition finally tells Biggin Hill’s remarkable story

‘Up there, the Spitfire seemed to understand’
‘Up there, the Spitfire seemed to understand’

As a memorial museum opens at Biggin Hill, Lucy Davies explores an exhibition that sheds new light on the heroics of ‘The Few’

To the men dozing fitfully on chairs in the dispersal hut, the shrill “dring” of the telephone in the corner meant only one thing.

“Scramble!” would come the command from the other end of the line, and the men would be up, alert, out, in a rush for the door. 

“That darned phone,” recalled the British fighter pilot Geoffrey Wellum, in an interview shortly before he died last year. “You were waiting the whole time for it to go… and you knew this was the one. You heard the flight sergeants outside: ‘Out the bloody way. Start up, start up!’ ” 

The rule book stipulated they be airborne in four minutes and, often as not, they managed it in fewer. Their Spitfires were just 30 yards away and ground crew would already have started the engines. “There was your fitter on one side, rigger on the other and they sort of lifted you into the cockpit, held your straps, strapped you up,” recalled Wellum. “One hand on the stick and the other on the throttle… it seemed to hurtle up into the wide blue yonder like a kangaroo. But [up] there, the Spitfire seemed to understand. You felt it through the seat of your pants, the vibration, you felt part and parcel of it – it was up to you then.” 

Wellum was one of the several hundred aircrew stationed at RAF Biggin Hill during the Second World War who, against desperate odds, took down near 1,400 seemingly unstoppable enemy Luftwaffe planes during the Battle of Britain in 1940. That contribution, which not only blocked Hitler’s planned invasion but laid the ground for his eventual defeat, was one of the most pivotal of the entire war. Their victory led Winston Churchill to describe Biggin Hill as “the strongest link” in his line of defence between continental Europe and London. 

The brand new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

Since then, though, the nitty-gritty of those pilots’ usually terrifying, sometimes exhilarating experiences (along with those of the thousands of ground crew and support staff) has faded from view; absorbed into the broadstrokes of latter-day history curriculums. 

“The Biggin Hill story is better known internationally than in Britain,” says Jemma Johnson-Davey, director of the new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, which opens to the public next week. “We’re hoping to correct that.”

The museum, in Bromley, south London, serves as a timely antidote to the renewed criticism of Britain’s Second World War airmen following an attack on the Bomber Command memorial in London’s Green Park on Sunday. It has taken 16 months to build, at a cost of around £5 million (£2 million of which came from a Heritage Lottery grant).

Robin Lee Architecture’s design, which wraps around the existing St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance like a cloister, prompted some criticism from locals, one of whom suggested the building resembled a death camp.

A child's gas mask and box, from a private collection

There were also rumours it had been constructed from German bricks, though these turned out to be Dutch (not before 22,000 people had signed a petition). “Ah, brick-gate,” says Johnson-Davey. “But not everyone knows that some of the airmen who fought here were from other countries. There are some Dutch names on the wall in the chapel. You could say the bricks honour that link with our European allies.” 

Inside, the exhibition is intended as a “contemporary” presentation of war; one that doesn’t dwell as much as we are used to on “victors, villains, enemies”, explains Johnson-Davey. “Our mission is to offer a personal, intimate view of the war rather than one that dwells on the main events.” 

Many objects and ephemera that have been donated or lent came from relatives of pilots or ground crew, or from people who lived nearby. Often villagers could see the fighting going on above their rooftops: sun glinting on the plane’s wings and bellies, endless looping vapour trails. “We include the people who made cups of tea, the pub landlady, children: every single person who was swept up in what happened,” says Johnson-Davey. 

An Irvin flying jacket

There’s Geoff Greensmith, for instance (who, like Sqn Ldr Wellum, appears in a video at the museum), who was just five when war broke out. His parents’ café ended up within the boundary line of the army camp, sealed behind barbed wire.

“As a kid, [the pilots] were like men from Mars,” he recalls. For a time, it was all “Blanco-polished boots, stamping up and down, bugles sounding three or four times a day”. His father used to feed the Italian prisoners of war bacon sandwiches. The only “scary bit”, was when a German parachuted out of his flaming aircraft. “I’d never seen a German before… but he wasn’t a monster. He cried, this guy. That’s what upsets me still.” 

Objects on display include cockpit clocks, uniforms, Luftwaffe crockery, even a table from the local pub, inscribed with the names of some of the pilots who drank there. The White Hart in nearby Brasted was, says Wellum in his museum interview, “our haven. You knocked back pints and rubbed shoulders with locals. As if you just got off the 6.50 from Waterloo after a busy day at the office. All the time, suppressing thoughts of absent friends and whatever you did, you never let your imagination run away with you.”

A cockpit clock, from a private collection

The museum was also given two drawers-full of undeveloped negatives that had been acquired by a local historian when the RAF left Biggin Hill in 1992, which turned out to include many hundreds of snaps the pilots took of each other, as well as Churchill’s visit in 1940. They dated back to the Twenties, when Biggin Hill was just a grass airstrip, part of the London Air Defence Area that was established in 1917.

Back then, it was instrumental in developing aviation communication techniques. “To communicate from the ground to the air, or from aircraft to aircraft was fundamental not only in terms of strategy, but also human experience,” Johnson-Davey tells me. “I’m often struck by how lonely and how terrifying it must have been in a single-seater aircraft.” 

Towards the end of the exhibition space, the architects have created a Sky Room – essentially a white box with a lightwell. It’s primarily designed to give visitors a moment of quiet before they enter the chapel, after the intense stories of the preceding rooms. But more importantly, given that the only place to look in a bare, white-walled room is up, that lightwell draws the eyes irresistibly skyward. Unlike the ground beneath, its variously cloud-veined, drizzle-streaked and sunlit dome looks exactly as it did all those years ago, when it was often the very last thing a pilot saw.