FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Underground in Uxbridge

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on May 18, 2013

The Battle of Britain Bunker at Uxbridge has, apparently, been something of an open secret for almost forty years. For most of that time it has been open to visit by appointment, but first you had to know of its existence. In the pre-internet era this information was not widely disseminated, so most of the visitors tended to be from serving members of the forces, veterans and military enthusiasts.

In the last few years there have been a number of open weekends which have given more people the chance to visit and gradually spread the word, but this year has seen the best opportunity yet. The bunker has been opened to all comers every weekend from late March through to the end of June. It is possible that this trial period may be extended, but this has not yet been confirmed.

Ghost town

Ghost town

The route to the bunker is a strange one, taking you through the terrain of the now closed RAF base with abandoned buildings on each side of the fenced in footpath alongside St Andrew’s Road. A row of white terraced houses looked particularly forlorn with vegetation overtaking the pavement, streets and buildings. It looked for all the world like the set of a horror film, or a post-apocalyptic ghost town. As hard as it is to imagine today, it is intended that this vast site will be re-developed to create an extension of Uxbridge town centre.

A few of the buildings, such as the station’s cinema and the White House (Hillingdon House) are listed and will be preserved. Hillingdon House (1844) was home to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital during the First World War but went through a bewildering number of changes in ‘ownership’ over the years, including stints as home to the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Observer Corps, Bomber Command and the staff of No 11. Group Headquarters.

Gate guardians at the entrance to the Battle of Britain Bunker

Gate guardians at the entrance to the Battle of Britain Bunker

The final section of the walk currently takes you through the middle of a construction site where the base’s pub once stood and you could be forgiven for wondering if you were on the right track. Thankfully, it is just at this point that a sign points down another road, past Hillingdon House, to the bunker. The bunker itself is as discrete as you would expect from a location intended to be highly secret – though the re-positioning of two gate guardians (replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire) give a big clue to the wonders beneath your feet!

A descent of 76 steps takes you down to the heart of the bunker where a number of volunteers were on hand to help us understand the complex. The informative introductory film was essential to get a decent grasp of the vast array of lights, colours and indicators of the tote board that filled the impressive operations room. I didn’t envy the task in front of the four controllers who took it in turns to make the crucial decisions about which squadrons to scramble.

Descent into the heart of the bunker

Descent into the heart of the bunker

It took enemy aircraft approximately 20 minutes to get from France to their targets in London and up to 4 minutes for this news to reach the operations room. As it took squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes 14-16 minutes to get up to 20,000 feet this left between 30 seconds and two minutes to make each crucial decision. Not just once, but hundreds of times. I won’t complain about stress at work ever again, after hearing what these guys went through day in, day out!

Once the enemy had been sighted the lights on the tote board for that squadron turned red. In his memoirs, Churchill describes the chilling moment on 15th September 1940 when every light on the Tote Board had turned red – meaning that all available squadrons were now engaged with enemy aircraft. The fate of Britain was in the hands of the few.

The  Battle of Britain takes shape on the map board

The Battle of Britain takes shape on the map board

The bunker is a remarkable place to visit, whether you are down in the Operations room or at the controller’s desk in the upstairs gallery. As well as this, the bunker is home to an impressive collection of artefacts about the Second World War, the history of RAF Uxbridge, the Royal Observer Corps and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Amongst the exhibits on display was a framed letter from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, convincingly described as “Britain’s most important adopted son”, acknowledging the re-naming of his wartime residence (opposite the bunker) as Park House. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park and 11 Group were responsible for the air defence of London and the South East during the dark days of 1940 – as well, as being responsible for the fighter patrols used to protect the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk.

Sadly, Park House was demolished in the 1990s to make way for new build married quarters, but the green doorway in the garden which he used as a shortcut to access the bunker remains to this day. We hadn’t given it a second glance on our way into the bunker, but it was impossible to ignore when we re-surfaced.

Through the green door...

Through the green door…

It is surprising that such a historically significant site as this bunker still doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. Aside from that, it really is a terrific place to visit and I would strongly recommend taking a look while it is still as easy to visit as it was today.

Gallery

A walk along St Aubin’s bay

Posted in Jersey by folkestonejack on September 13, 2012

I spent many a day on the long stretch of beach in St Aubin’s bay as a child and was always fascinated by the strange constructions on the sea wall and one rather odd bit of wall seemingly standing in isolation on the beach. I am sure that I asked many questions that were impossible for my parents to answer at the time, so it was a pleasure to be able to walk the shoreline armed with a newish guidebook and answer my younger self!

The source of wisdom for my walk was ‘A guide to the German shoreline defences of St Aubin’s Bay’ which was published by the Channel Island Occupation Society in 2010 (available to purchase from the tourist information centre). The guidebook takes you on a walk from Resistance Nest Richtfeuer (at the old bus garage) to Resistance Nest Aubin Hafen with explanations of everything that you see on the way.

I spent about two hours taking a leisurely walk along the route, starting on the promenade but then moving down on to the beach for most of the way to St Aubin’s Fort. The tide was sufficiently far out that the causeway to Elizabeth Castle was completely uncovered and the view across the bay was very clear (in complete contrast to last year when it was barely visible through the fog). The blue skies and sun augured well for the coming airshow.

It transpired that the isolated stretch of wall I remembered at La Haule was in fact no innocent piece of sea wall, but part of a panzermauer (anti tank wall). In 1992 the government in Jersey connected this up, though it is still easy to appreciate how odd it look standing on its own.

Panzermauer at La Haule

Some of the bunkers on the island open for visitors from time to time, including Resistance Nest Millbrook which was sealed after the liberation and not opened again until 1984. Today, it is fully restored and the CIOS say that it is now one of the most complete bunkers of its type in Western Europe. Unfortunately the bunker was not open during my trip, but that means I have a good excuse to come back before too long…

Sights on the walk

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