FROM ONE BUNKER TO ANOTHER
On the 17th June 2013, personnel from Eng Ops Sqn, Logs Sqn and Ops Sqn escaped the windowless confines of RAF Coningsby’s Wing Operations Centre (WOC) into the daylight to undertake a 2 day Force Development Staff Ride to London.
Organised and led by Chf Tech Richie Smith, the event was designed to provide an understanding of the role played by the RAF in World War II from the perspective of a sector HQ Ops room. Personnel would see at first hand the difficulties faced by commanders at the time when planning and delivering operations and enable comparisons to be drawn with modern day activity.
We set off from the WOC on day one and headed south, first stop – the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge. The Bunker was used by No. 11 Group Fighter Command during the Second World War. Fighter aircraft operations were controlled from there throughout, most notably however, during the Battle of Britain and on D-Day. Today it’s run by the Royal Air Force as a Force Development asset and heritage attraction. We met the curator and guide for the afternoon, along with a small contingent of veterans, and descended the 70 steps to enter the more familiar surroundings of forced air and artificial daylight. After navigating the long corridors the group assembled in the Plotting Room. From here the curator explained the history of the Bunker, the role it played during the War, and gave accounts of how it functioned during the Battle of Britain. 15th September 1940 was to be the decisive day of the battle with Fighter Command shooting down 56 enemy aircraft with the loss of 26 of their own. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill witnessed the desperate events as they unfolded which led him to first quote the famous line “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few” as he left the Bunker. The line was written down by an aide and was used again on 20th September as the Prime Minister gave an address in the House of Commons. After a short film in the media suite and a look around the museum, the group thanked the curator, signed the visitors’ book and left Uxbridge – Next stop Northolt for overnight accommodation.
Day two began with a short tube ride into central London and a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms deep beneath the Treasury building at Whitehall. No guided tour this time, instead we took our place in the queue, collected an audio-guide and went underground, into darkness once more. The Cabinet War rooms provided the secret underground headquarters for the core of British Government and senior military figures throughout the Second World War. From here commanders could meet and operate in relative safety, free from the threat of aerial bombardment. The War Rooms became operational on 27 August 1939, just days before the invasion of Poland on 1st September. Britain went on to declare war on Germany on 3rd September 1939. The War Rooms Museum gave the group an insight into what life would have been like during the War and how life and work continued underground. As we followed the audio guide around we were able to see the Trans-Atlantic Telephone Room where top secret conversations between Churchill and President Roosevelt took place. Then onto the Map Room which forms the hub of the entire site and remains exactly as it was when the lights were turned off on 16th August 1945, the huge maps on the walls show tiny pin holes depicting the progress of Allied convoys. Across the corridor is the Cabinet Room which is where Churchill and his inner circle would gather and plot during the War, scratches on the arms of the leather chair in which Churchill sat show the intense pressure he was under at these times. Finally we were led to Churchill’s room, this office-bedroom is the most luxurious of all the living quarters as you would expect. Churchill only stayed overnight on three occasions during the War, preferring to stay at No.10 instead, though he did make four of his wartime speeches from the desk in the room including his speech on September 11th 1940 warning of Hitler’s’ plan to wage a war of terror against the United Kingdom. After seeing at such close quarters the cramped conditions in which personnel were expected to operate in, often under intense pressure, the group agreed that life in the WOC is perhaps not so bad after all. And so after a couple of hours the tour concluded and the group were once again allowed access daylight and the world outdoors.
After a quick lunch-break in St James’ Park, the afternoon would see the group take a walking tour around Central London to visit important monuments. The first of which, situated on Victoria Embankment, was the Battle of Britain Monument, constructed to commemorate “the few.” The monument depicts almost life-size airmen scrambling for their aircraft during the battle, whilst bronze plaques list 2936 airmen and ground-crew from 14 allied countries that took part.
A little further along the Embankment is the RAF Memorial. Built in 1923 as memorial to airmen who died in the Great War, it stands on the Thames with its huge gilded eagle looking south towards France. Today it serves as a tribute to brave Men and Women of the RAF – past, present and future.
A short walk through Horse guards Parade and across the Mall, the group then arrived at the Sir Keith Park Memorial at Waterloo Place. A New Zealander by birth, Park first served with the Anzac Brigade in Gallipoli, he transferred to the British Army and was wounded in the Battle of the Somme, later he transferred again to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps where he was awarded a Military Cross and Bar along with a Distinguished Flying Cross. After the First World War Park joined the newly formed Royal Air Force and would later take command as AVM – AOC No.11 Group. He would be called upon regularly to oversee events in the Bunker at Uxbridge and was present, along with Churchill on 15th September during the Battle of Britain.
The final destination was the hugely impressive Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park which stands as a tribute to the 55,573 Bomber Command crew who lost their lives in the Second World War. Unveiled on 28 Jun 2012 by Her Majesty the Queen, bronze sculptures of seven Bomber Command Aircrew form the centre-piece while the open roof above allows the light to fall directly onto them. Part of this roof structure contains recycled aluminium recovered from a Halifax Bomber which was shot down during the War. The Memorial contains inscriptions, carvings and dedications including a quote from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers are our means of victory.”
With the itenary complete and photographs taken the only thing left was a tube back to Northolt, collect the minibus, and then back to Coningsby. The thoroughly enjoyable 2 day trip gave the group a real sense of what it must have been like at the heart of operational planning and strategic control during World War II, as-well as giving time to reflect on the courage and bravery of those that served and ultimately gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom.
Chief Tech Richie Smith