It’s impossible not to be moved by this riveting reconstruction of the Operations Room and Battle of Britain exhibition
This coming weekend should have seen the Imperial War Museum Duxford thronged with crowds watching the 80th Anniversary Battle of Britain Air Show. But Covid-19 has managed something the Luftwaffe never did, in stopping the airfield’s Spitfires and Hurricanes taking to the skies. There’s rich compensation to be found in Duxford’s new Battle of Britain hangar and atmospheric Operations Room, opening tomorrow in commemoration of Battle of Britain Day. I spent three riveting hours there last Friday, with my aviation-loving husband.
The heart of the new exhibits is the painstakingly reconstructed Ops Room, housed in its original squat, brick-built block. Here, displays set out the Dowding System – the crucial network of radar stations and Observer Corps who sent swift intelligence to RAF Fighter Command on the enemy raid’s size, direction and height. There are also photos commemorating Duxford’s WAAFs, commanders and extraordinary pilots (in 1940 most were Czechs, Poles and Canadians).
The most poignant object is Squadron Leader Brian “Sandy” Lane’s battered cigarette case, dented when he crashed while flying a Miles Magister in 1938. Lane was just 23 when he became leader of Duxford’s No 19 Squadron, in September 1940. A photo of him, taken just after a Battle of Britain sortie, shows a face harrowed well beyond its years. Two years later he would go missing in action over the North Sea.
It is impossible not to feel churned by emotion when you listen to a short, voices-only recreation of the part Duxford played in the historic events of September 15 1940. At 14:05 squadron leaders were alerted to a huge incoming raid off the coast of Dover and Dungeness, heading towards London. Then the command, “Scramble! Scramble!” The overhead lights go down so you can see the lights on the “tote board” marking the status of the five Duxford squadrons. By 14:10, “All squadrons except 242 scrambled.” “Why isn’t Douglas up yet?” asks Command, and a nonchalant Douglas Bader, 242’s leader, replies, “Stop worrying Woody. We’ll be up soon.”
The blow-by-blow account is spine-tingling stuff. As a child of Kent who grew up with tales of the dog-fights my mum saw, my heart missed a beat when the raid was reported over Maidstone and Sevenoaks at 14:40pm. Then the moment of engagement, “Bandits sighted over Southeast London,” says Bader, then: “Tally-ho! Tally-ho!” and “Break up!” The final minutes of the narrative are darker. Czech pilot Josef Hubacek yells “I’m hit!”. By the time you hear “Enemy heading back across Channel. Bring yourselves home, gentlemen,” your nerves feel taut as a violin string.
The Battle of Britain hangar is a more contemplative space. It gains resonance from the fact that this new display – a Spitfire, two Hurricanes, a crash-landed Messerschmitt BF 109E, V-1 rocket (Doodlebug), searchlights and anti-aircraft guns – is now in a space that was actually used to house planes in 1940.
The narrative path is more thoughtful and cohesive than its previous incarnation. You move from defeat in France and the Dunkirk evacuation to the Battle of Britain, then the Blitz. Individual heroism is celebrated, such as the story of the Nigerian-born Senior Air Raid Warden Ita Ekpenyon, who joined the ARP in 1939, risking his life for others on multiple occasions.
I sped from here to the grass runway, to see a Hurricane taking off. Turns out a 99-year-old ground-crew veteran who’d tended to that very plane was visiting with his family. He’d been stationed at Duxford during the Battle of Britain and the RAF had put the plane up as a tribute to him. As for the pilots, The Few are now one: 101–year-old Flying Officer John Hemingway is the only Battle of Britain pilot still living. But Duxford’s moving new displays mean their valour will never be forgotten.
The new Ops Block and Battle of Britain exhibition hangar at IWM Duxford opens Sept 15. Booking: iwm.org.uk 0207 416 5000
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Battle of Britain, United Kingdom, World War II
Actu monde – GB – Battle of Britain, IWM Duxford review: a spine-tingling tribute to the valour of The Few