REVIEW: Bentley Priory Museum

Reviewing the best Military History exhibitions with Graham Goodlad.

Bentley Priory Museum
Open 10am-5pm Wed, Fri, Sat (March to September) and 10am-4pm (October to February)
Mansion House Drive, Stanmore, HA7 3FB
+44 (0) 20 8950 5526

During the Battle of Britain, a stately home on the outskirts of north-west London played a vital role in repelling the assaults of the Luftwaffe. Bentley Priory, which was the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command in the summer of 1940, now houses a small but impressive museum dedicated to the men and women who coordinated Britain’s air defences at this point of maximum danger in the Second World War.

The entrance to the Bentley Priory Museum in Stanmore, on the edge of London. Replicas of Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft are situated outside.

The museum can be reached by tube and bus from central London – Stanmore and Edgware are the nearest stations – or by overground rail to Bushey. By car, it is roughly 15 minutes from Junction 19 of the M25. The approach to the site is not perhaps what you may expect – Bentley Priory sits within a luxury residential estate, and a caretaker raises a barrier to admit visitors.

On entry, a cream-painted 18th-century mansion amid attractively laid-out gardens comes into sight. The building was extended in two phases, with the architect of the Bank of England, Sir John Soane, overseeing the first of these. An imposing clock tower is a prominent feature of the second, mid-Victorian period of development.

The museum’s entrance hall includes stained-glass windows depicting aspects of the history of the Battle of Britain. Much of what is visible today was restored after a fire in 1979.

Bentley Priory was used for a variety of different purposes during its long history. The widow of William IV, Queen Adelaide, spent her last months here. It served as a private house, hotel, and girls’ school before the Air Ministry acquired it in 1926. The RAF became the priory’s longest-serving tenants, finally leaving the site in 2008, after which a trust developed the house as a museum.

The one, the few, and the many

The focus of the museum is very much on the people of Fighter Command, although, outside, a replica Spitfire and Hurricane provide a reminder of the machines that turned the tide of battle. They are painted in the colours of two Battle of Britain veterans who helped to launch the museum project, Squadron Leader Cyril Bamberger and Air Commodore Peter Brothers.

A central part of the museum is the rotunda. Illuminated with natural light, around its walls are portraits and memorabilia of famous RAF pilots.

The displays are structured around three interlinked themes: ‘the one’, ‘the few’, and ‘the many’. ‘The one’ was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who was on the verge of retirement in 1939 but was asked to stay on as head of Fighter Command until after the battle.

‘The few’, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, were the fighter pilots, while the ‘many’ were the indispensable ground staff who processed the flow of data in Bentley Priory’s Filter Room, warning of incoming German aircraft.

As you enter the Priory, you notice the ornate entrance-hall ceiling and, on each side, the stained-glass windows depicting aspects of Battle of Britain history. Much of what you can see today was lovingly restored after a devastating fire in 1979. This includes the rebuilt grand staircase, opposite which hangs a remarkable, 15ft-long lace panel showing scenes from the London Blitz.

Most visitors will want to start their tour in Sir Hugh Dowding’s recreated office, where a ten-minute introductory film highlights his critical contribution to victory in the skies.

A recreation of the Filter Room, where ground staff processed information warning of enemy attacks. The real Filter Room was located deep underground.

As head of Fighter Command from 1936, he pushed for the development of improved fighter aircraft and for investment in the new technology of radar. Before the Battle of Britain began, his warning to the government not to divert fighters to the hopeless struggle in France meant that the RAF retained badly needed planes to counter the Luftwaffe attacks on southern England. He also gave his name to the ‘Dowding system’ of integrated air defence, which played a critical role in winning the air battle.

The stories of ‘the few’ are centre stage in the rotunda, a circular gallery brilliantly lit from above with natural light. Around its walls are portraits and memorabilia of famous pilots such as Douglas Bader, the ‘legless wonder’, alongside records of less well-known figures.

The international dimension is not neglected, with recognition of those who took part from a range of European and Commonwealth countries. Among these were Poland’s Witold Urbanowicz, who became a triple ace by shooting down 15 enemy aircraft during the battle, and the high-scoring South African Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, whose ten rules for air fighting inspired a generation of fighter pilots.

A recreation of the Filter Room, where ground staff processed information warning of enemy attacks. The real Filter Room was located deep underground.

A study of the information boards in the rotunda repays attention. Well-chosen photographs and text evoke the intensity of everyday life during the conflict. Air crew had to be ready before dawn to scramble at a moment’s notice to meet incoming foes. The dangers aloft – not just from enemy fire, but also from the risk of collision or mechanical failure – are also highlighted.

Tracking the enemy

Perhaps the most memorable part of the museum is the recreation of the Filter Room, where information from the chain of coastal radar stations was received and assessed. Life-size bronze figures are poised over a map of the UK, on which colour-coded counters represent the position of Luftwaffe formations. On a balcony above the map plotters, more figures represent the controllers who oversaw the process.

Once the numbers and course of the invaders had been established, information was passed to Operations Rooms, located at Bentley Priory itself, and the regional Groups into which Fighter Command was organised across the country.

General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, visiting Bentley Priory on 27 January 1944, along with his other senior air commanders.

It was then transmitted down to the Sectors, into which each Group was subdivided, and the individual squadrons that they controlled. This enabled pilots to be directed to intercept the enemy as rapidly and effectively as possible. Once the invaders had crossed the coast, information derived from radar was supplemented by the sightings of Royal Observer Corps units, which was also fed into the system.

Sound recordings of the urgent chatter of the Filter Room give an idea of the intensity of the work that went on at the height of the battle. The bronze figures are modelled on real individuals who served at the Priory, either in 1940 or later in the war. They include Joan Arundel, a plotter whose skills saw her promoted to almost every role in the Filter Room in a matter of weeks, and Eileen Younghusband, whose book One Woman’s War gives an insight into the work of Fighter Command.

A table-top model of the Bentley Priory Operations Room – the template for these facilities throughout Britain – can be seen in the former ballroom. The simple design incorporated a map table, an electronic tote board – a panel indicating the current deployment of a Group’s resources – and a dais on which the controllers stood.

The entrance to the former nuclear bunker, a short walk from the Priory building, is a reminder of how the site continued to be used during the Cold War. It was filled in when the RAF left in 2008.

Although Bentley Priory was never the target of a German bombing raid, the Luftwaffe high command knew of its existence. Astonishingly, two of its most senior officers, Ernst Udet and Erhard Milch, had been entertained there on a visit to Britain in 1938. The Filter Room and Operations Room were therefore prudently moved into an underground bunker in the grounds before the Battle of Britain began.

The 1940s bunker no longer exists, having been replaced after the war with a deeper, nuclear-proof facility a short walk from the Priory building. It was filled in during construction work after the RAF left the site. The entrance is still visible, and nearby information panels tell the story of the part that the bunker played in the Cold War.

Find out more:

Bentley Priory Museum provides an excellent introduction to the Battle of Britain. Allow at least three hours to digest the information, absorb the atmosphere, and enjoy the vintage café with its collection of second-hand aviation books and DVDs.
If you have more time available, 11 miles to the south is the Battle of Britain Bunker at Uxbridge (see MHM August 2018) where a preserved Operations Room can be viewed. This is also well worth checking out. •
Images: Bentley Priory Museum/Facebook/Wikimedia Commons.