A Snoop Round London's Hidden Battle Of Britain Bunker

By Londonist Last edited 29 months ago
A Snoop Round London's Hidden Battle Of Britain Bunker
A Spitfire's nose. Photo Paul Lindus.
A Spitfire's nose. Photo Paul Lindus.
Always on duty. Photo Paul Lindus.
Always on duty. Photo Paul Lindus.
An operator's headset. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
An operator's headset. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
At readiness. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
At readiness. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Bag the Hun. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Bag the Hun. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Dried Egg. Photo Paul Lindus.
Dried Egg. Photo Paul Lindus.
Enemy Sighted. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Enemy Sighted. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Entrance to the bunker. Photo Paul Lindus.
Entrance to the bunker. Photo Paul Lindus.
Little numbered markers were moved with wooden paddles. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Little numbered markers were moved with wooden paddles. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Map room from above. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Map room from above. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Map room from the observation gallery. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Map room from the observation gallery. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Mask. Photo Paul Lindus.
Mask. Photo Paul Lindus.
Morphia. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Morphia. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Nightdress. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Nightdress. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Not to be produced in public. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Not to be produced in public. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Operator. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Operator. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Standard issue undercrackers. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Standard issue undercrackers. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Pushers. Photo Paul Lindus.
Pushers. Photo Paul Lindus.
Airman's survival kit. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Airman's survival kit. Photo Sandra Lawrence.
The view from Sexy Rexy's post. Photo Paul Lindus.
The view from Sexy Rexy's post. Photo Paul Lindus.
Photo Sandra Lawrence.
Photo Sandra Lawrence.
The clock. Photo Paul Lindus.
The clock. Photo Paul Lindus.

A brand-new housing estate — all fake-cobble driveways, spindly, just-planted shrubs and shiny front doors. It could be anywhere, save for a curious, battered, facing-the-wrong-way metal sign attached too high up a lamp post:

Battle of Britain Bunker.

Eh?

The Battle of Britain had a bunker? In Uxbridge?

Apparently so. Fighter Command No.11’s Group Operations Room was a classified Second World War secret, ranking right up there with Churchill’s War Rooms and Bletchley Park. What’s amazing is that, unlike the other two, chances are you still won’t have heard of it. Happily, as one of the volunteers points out, nor did Hitler.

That wonky old sign is the least of the surprises you’ll find if:

a) you can find it and

b) follow it.

Neither is a given.

Assuming you leave enough time to ignore the signposts and find your own way down quiet suburban lanes past an old 18th century mansion and through a military-chainlink gate, duck under the entrance to a flat-roofed, brick pillbox and descend enough steps to feel like you’re going somewhere mysterious, but not enough to make your knees wobble.

Gloss-painted corridors full of cable-ducts and piping pass strange, locked metal hatches before an unremarkable doorway opens to a large, high-ceilinged chamber. A gigantic map of south east England and north west France fills the room, tilting slightly towards a narrow gallery of seats, each with its own Bakelite telephone.

The opposite wall is a giant bank of place names. Tangmere. North Weald. Biggin Hill. Kenley. Hornchurch. Debden. Below them, another bank, of tiny lights. Ordered to Readiness. In Position. Detailed to Raid. Left Ground. Enemy Sighted.

The ‘Ops Room’ directed RAF flight movement throughout the war. Tracking enemy planes and working out if they had enough fuel to actually bomb anything, getting British pilots out of the mess rooms into their cockpits then making the decision to send young men on potentially fatal missions were all done over the telephone, 45ft underground, encased in 5ft of solid concrete, in a matter of one to two minutes.

Oh, and by women. The chap in charge wasn’t happy about that at first, demanding two females for every male ‘expert,’ but soon had to eat his words when the ladies proved so good the place became a training base for everyone else.

From the Observation Corps in the field, armed with binoculars and prototype I-Spy manuals of enemy aircraft, to the women shoving wooden markers around that massive map, every London airbase, squadron, plane, crew and airman was accounted for and directed from down here.

It’s hard to imagine a system with less margin — and more opportunity — for error. Pilots, once they had turned on their engines, had two minutes to take off before their planes overheated. The amount of fuel carried by both sides was exactly enough to get up there, do your duty, get back. Outstay your welcome and the ground beckoned.

Of course it wasn’t entirely women running the show. If you’re lucky you might get to sit in the same place where one Rex Harrison gained his wartime record before returning to a civilian life talking to animals and teaching Audrey Hepburn to speak proper. By all accounts ‘Sexy Rexy’ put the WRAF girls fair off their stroke.

Bulging overhead like a Bond villain’s shark tank loom three observation galleries, their glass windows curved to avoid reflection. Here the overseeing was overseen by everyone from Eisenhower to Churchill himself. The latter often came down to watch but, to his frustration, wasn’t allowed to interfere. Worse, he wasn’t allowed to smoke, so he would chew through several cigars at each adrenaline-fuelled sitting.

From time-to-time even the King and Queen were smuggled in to watch proceedings from a secret hidey-hole.

The observation gallery now forms an eclectic museum which, alongside important RAF artefacts, houses some true oddities of the war. Larger-than-life bronze Hitler-head? Check. A pair of standard-issue WRAF knickers? Check. Risqué RAF slang booklet? Check. Pocket morphine syringe? Check. Bag The Hun — Exercises to Improve Your Shooting (for official use only…)? Check. Explanation as to why we have a Polish war memorial in Hillingdon? Double-check.

When RAF Uxbridge was sold as part of MOD cost-cutting exercises someone, somewhere, considered this extraordinary monument too important to lose. They were right. Open once a month and run by volunteers, many of whom used to work at the base when it was operational, entry is free. Booking is essential but for underground London lovers, this most bunker-y of bunkers is an exceptional experience; a palpable connection with one of history’s big moments. Just leave yourself enough time to find the place.

By Sandra Lawrence

Last Updated 03 June 2015

HoosierSands

That's the Hurricane's nose, actually.

The bunker is definitely worth seeking out. We didn't have much trouble finding it. Just don't blink.

Mike Tully

Yes, belonging to an RAF Polish squadron.

lundavra

Observation Corps!

Carl Goss

Fascinating. Love all that war and pre-war preservation going on.

Deb

The 'Booking is essential' link no longer links, and the 'Report a problem' doesn't allow me to...