Saved for the nation, Battle of Britain HQ

Country house command centre will be restored to its 1940 glory days

By Matthew Moore

[Article and images from The Daily Telegraph, 17sep10 page3]

SEVENTY years ago, it was a hive of activity - the country house where RAF chiefs commanded The Few in the Battle of Britain.

Now Bentley Priory is to be restored to how it looked in 1940 as it becomes a museum and permanent memorial to Fighter. Command. Under Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, the house in Stanmore, north-west London, acted as the RAF nerve centre in the battle against the Luftwaffe.

Officers used eyewitness, radar and radio intercept information to track the arrival of German aircraft, ensuring fighters could be scrambled before enemy bombers reached their targets.

The Grade II-listed building was immortalised in the 1969 film Battle of Britain, in which Lord Dowding, played by Laurence Olivier, was shown watching London burn from his balcony. Campaigners feared that Bentley Priory, designed by the 19th century architect Sir John Soane, would be lost to the nation after plans for a museum fell through in 2008 because of the financial downturn.

But on Wednesday night Harrow council approved unanimously proposals for the ground floor of the property to be restored to how it looked during the height of the battle - complete with a large map of Britain over the ballroom dance floor. As part of the deal to fund the project, 103 private homes will be built on the upper floors and elsewhere on the site. The campaign for a permanent memorial to Lord Dowding and the pilots he commanded has been led by retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge (below right), chairman of the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust.

Yesterday he said: "This museum will commemorate the entire Battle of Britain, but focus particularly on Dowding's extraordinary detection, command, and control system. Without it, there is simply no way we could have won the war, and that story cannot be told anywhere but Bentley Priory."

He added: "It's said that the Battle of Trafalgar saved England. I submit that the Battle of Britain saved the world." The museum, which will be funded in part by a £9.5 million windfall from the RAF's sale of the site to Barratt Homes, will open in spring 2013.

Visitors will be able to tour the office where Lord Dowding worked 48-hour shifts and see a hologram recreation of the man nicknamed "Stuffy" by his men.

The aristocratic living rooms which became the hub of Britain's air defence system will also be restored to their wartime state.

In the filter room, staff manned dozens of phone lines to collate information on German raids supplied by the RAF's nascent radar network and the thousands of volunteers recruited to keep an eye on the skies.

The most pressing news was passed to the operations room next door, where Lord Dowding's senior officers decided when and where to deploy the hard-pressed fighter groups.

Battle of Britain historians hope the Bentley Priory museum will enhance the reputation of Lord Dowding, whose achievements have sometimes been eclipsed by other Second World War commanders, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, one of his most trusted officers. Sir Keith was honoured with a bronze statue on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, which was moved this week to a permanent home in Waterloo Place.

Despite a prickly and distant personality, Lord Dowding earned the respect and loyalty of the pilots under his command.

He was also under the threat of forced retirement, only receiving reassurance that he would be allowed to retain his position on Aug 13 1940, when the Battle of Britain was well under way.

Bentley Priory remained an RAF base after the war and served as a training facility following the departure of 11 Group RAF formation in 2000.

The Bentley Priory trust will launch a campaign next month to raise the extra £1 million required to cover the museum's running costs.

[17sep10 15:05]