September 15 is Battle of Britain Day, commemorating the day in September 1940 when it became clear that England would be victorious against Germany in the skies over London. In June, I had the opportunity to go to the bunker where the Royal Air Force command directed the battle and Winston Churchill chewed his cigar for several hours, watching… waiting…
I think America, as a whole, doesn’t quite appreciate all that England went through in the early days of World War II. By the time the United States entered the war in December 1941, England had already been at war with Germany for almost a year and a half. In May and June 1940, Germany had taken Belgium, Holland, and France — and then turned its sights on England.
After weeks of nighttime bombing, it became clear on 15 September that Germany was launching an all-out attack on England. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that England would win. Germany had more planes (though fewer pilots) and their planes were technologically more advanced the British fleet. And Germany was on a roll…
Churchill joined his commanders in a bunker outside of London. (The bunker is now surrounded by a middle-class subdivision.) Smoking wasn’t allowed. An officer told Churchill that he would not be able to light his iconic cigar. Higher-ranking officers were astounded that he said this. Churchill took it in stride. For the next several hours, he chewed — but did not light — his cigar.
Going down the stairs, you get a sense of claustrophobia. Everything is very close. From the command center, Churchill and his commanders could see the status of every squadron. The status board listed each unit in the airfields under this command; the lights indicated the units status — out of commission, preparing, scrambling, or in the air.
This portion of the status board shows the Biggin Hill air field and the status of each of its 4 squadrons.
Notice the clock in the lower left of the photo. The color coding of each 5 minute increment was a way that they could relay how current the information on the positions of the aircraft was. How did they track the plane while they were in the air? Radar and several skilled radar operators and map technicians.
You know that scene in numerous WWII movies where the women wearing headsets push model planes around on a table-top map? That’s what they did in the bunker. Radar operators would track the position of each plane — and try to filter out for things like flocks of geese — and relay the position to the map women. The women, in turn would then use the color code system so the commanders could see how current the position was. For example, if the time right now was in the blue, the commanders knew that anything with yellow was 5 minutes old and anything red was 10 minutes old. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a rather ingenious system.
After the battle was over on 15 September, Churchill emerged from the bunker. They were exhausted, but relieved that they were victorious. It was here that Churchill first said the famous quote that he’d re-use the next day in his speech to the British people:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Standing in the Battle of Britain bunker was quite an experience. You could almost hear the voices of the commanders and the servicemen and women. You could almost feel the tension. To visit, you need to make arrangements ahead of time, but it is well worth the visit.