Winston Churchill – as he frequently did – summed it up best. “Never in the field of human conflict,” he said, in his speech of August 20 1940, “was so much owed by so many to so few.” He was referring, of course, to the efforts of the British and Allied pilots who flew with such bravery in the Battle of Britain – the bitter struggle to fend off Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe aircraft that raged in the skies over England in the summer of 1940.
This seismic showdown between RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires, and German Messerschmitt fighters, lasted for “just” three months and three weeks (July 10-October 31 1940). But it sings through the decades, as the stubborn stand which stopped Germany gaining air superiority over Europe; as the direct cause of Hitler's abandoning the idea of Operation Sea Lion, his plan to invade Britain. As a big turning point in a wider conflict.
Even as the years add up, the Battle of Britain remains a keynote chapter in this country's history and identity. And if you want to trace its narrative in the pertinent months of its eight-decade milestone, you could certainly start by seeking it in the following locations.
Battle of Britain Bunker
RAF Uxbridge – tucked into the western edge of the London conurbation – was decommissioned in 2010. But what was the nerve centre of air operations - RAF Fighter Command’s No.11 Group Operations Room, to give it its full title - in the hot weeks of 1940 still salutes its part in events via the “Battle of Britain Bunker”. This was the subterranean chamber where attacks were coordinated.
The main room is arranged as it was on September 15 1940 when Churchill paid a visit – maps laid out, plane positions plotted with markers, weather indicators taking into account conditions overhead. A wealth of artefacts – uniforms, photos, medals – add context.
Covid-19 restrictions mean access is in smaller groups than would ordinarily be the case, but the bunker is currently open for guided tours (these must be booked in advance; battleofbritainbunker.co.uk; £7).
The bunker is reached via 76 stairs - which may be be tricky for older visitors. However, as of 2018, the site is also home to a large visitor centre and exhibition which takes the tale further at ground level. It explains how Britain’s air defences developed between the First World War and the new era of military aviation heralded by the Second, via a host of audiovisual exhibits and first-hand witness accounts. Admission is part of the ticket price.
Battle of Britain Monument
Inaugurated in time for the 65th anniversary in 2005, this noble granite landmark pays its own tribute on the side of the Thames in the heart of London (on Victoria Embankment, some 200 metres north of Westminster Bridge; bbm.org.uk).
A 25-metre statement adorned with bronze relief sculptures depicting scenes of courage and duty, it also lists the names of the 2,936 Allied airmen and ground crew who put themselves in harm's way.
Polish War Memorial
His words were clear. “Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry,” Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding - the commanding officer of RAF Fighter Command - wrote in the wake of 1940’s dogfights, “I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same.”
Poland’s contribution to the many small victories which added up to a far larger one in that pivotal summer and autumn - No.303 Squadron RAF, which entirely comprised Polish pilots, achieved the highest ratio of enemy aircraft downed in relation to its own losses - should not, and has not, been forgotten.
The main totem to their sacrifice is the Polish War Memorial, on London’s west flank in South Ruislip. A lone column naming the cities of origin of many of the men involved, it sits by the south-east corner of (the still-operational) RAF Northolt - where seven Polish squadrons were based in the war.
Imperial War Museum
The main London branch of Britain's foremost military-cultural institution (south of the Thames in Southwark; iwm.org.uk; free entry, £3 donation requested) covers the UK's turbulent 20th century in depth.
Unfortunately, it has had to cancel or scale back its 80th anniversary Battle of Britain commemorations due to the pandemic. But the museum’s galleries still cover the whole of the war with a diligence, and an eye for the human cost.
The closest you can come to reliving the glamour and guts (rather than the horror and fear) of the summer of 1940 is to head to Cambridgeshire – where the former RAF Duxford is safeguarded as an off-shoot of the Imperial War Museum. As with the main museum, some of this year’s planned events, including a spectacular air show, have fallen victim to Covid-19. But the airfield is an evocative site which offers its own story readily.
Duxford was arguably the rapier thrust of the Battle of Britain; the airstrip where the “Big Wing” tactic of confronting the Luftwaffe head-on, and with weight of numbers, was put into full effect (including by the No. 242 Squadron of Hurricanes and the No.310 Squadron of Czech pilots).
Closed as an RAF station in 1961, it now houses over 200 heritage aircraft – their various histories supported by video footage and photographs stretched across eight display spaces. At present, this also means an extended Battle of Britain exhibition, which allows visitors closely to inspect a Hurricane, as well as the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a dummy Spitfire.
General admission to the museum (on non-air-show days) costs £19.80 for adults and £9.90 for 5-15s (iwm.org.uk/duxford).
The ghosts are a little harder to discern in this Cambridgeshire village, which sits three miles west of Duxford. Now a sleepy rural enclave, it was another prime player in 1940's aerial endeavours – RAF Fowlmere bristled with menace among its fields as Duxford's closest colleague in the defence of the realm.
It ceased RAF duties almost as soon as the war was won, in 1946, and the land was sold to local farmers in 1957. But drive through and you can still glimpse a pair of faded hangars where Spitfires once cooled their heels.
Out on the edge of the Surrey countryside, St John’s Primary School in Redhill offers a glimpse of the literal depth with which preparations for the bombardment of Britain were made in the first stages of the Second World War.
Earlier this month, the air-raid shelter in which pupils took cover at times of high danger was added to the National Heritage List (as a Grade II-listed structure), as part of the 80-year Battle of Britain commemorations. Set in a meadow next to the school, the bolthole is only vaguely visible above ground – its entrance and the top of its ventilation shaft can be spotted by keen eyes.
But its subterranean sections paint a picture of calm – or an attempt to provide it – amid chaos. Walls are still decorated with murals of characters from popular children’s stories, including Long John Silver, Robin Hood, Snow White and Robinson Crusoe - created by kids and their teachers between 1939 and 1941 as a distraction from matters on the surface (more details at historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1471390).
A clever piece of deception, easily overlooked, what seems to be a ruined cottage on Hemscott Hill near Morpeth has also been added to the National Heritage List in the last week as part of the Battle of Britain anniversary.
Despite – and indeed, because of – its appearance, this roofless dwelling contains a pillbox that would have been far less obvious to invading eyes than a more conventional concrete bunker – and was designed to repel enemy troops making their way inland having come ashore at nearby Druridge Bay.
“This unusual pillbox was built in a conspicuous place, and has walls of differing heights, creating the impression of a ruined civilian building,” a spokesperson for Historic England explains. “While the more standard forms of pillbox are relatively common, individual camouflage designs or those adapted to local circumstances are less so. In this exposed location, a traditional pillbox would not have been successful. It was paramount that the building was convincing, so the enemy would not realise it was a defensive feature.”
Further information at historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1471214.
The pretty village of Great Baddow, just outside Chelmsford, also claims a sizeable fragment of Battle of Britain heritage. During the war, the UK had dozens of “Chain Home” towers – primitive (although, at the time, very much state of the art) early-warning radar units, which stood dotted across the landscape. They proved crucial in the summer and autumn of 1940, and were still important guard-dogs later in the conflict, when the diminished threat from the Luftwaffe was replaced by the dark shadow of the V2 missile.
The towers would be decommissioned as technology advanced in the Cold War - to the extent that the sole remaining example to survive in tact is the one that rises 360ft (110m) above the Essex countryside. Even then, it has been moved. It was originally positioned at RAF Canewdon (near Rochford), and was relocated to Great Baddow in 1956.
It is, says Tony Calladine of Historic England, “a testament to the men and women who developed the technology” (see historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1456445).