To commemorate Battle of Britain Day, Jonathan Glancey reports from Bentley Priory, the historic wartime headquarters of RAF Fighter Command.
Anyone who treasures the tradition of freedom nurtured in these islands will value beyond sterling, beyond any amount of gold, Winston Churchill’s immortal words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
This legendary phrase was conjured by the wartime premier after a visit to RAF Uxbridge on August 16, 1940, where he witnessed operations directed by Air Vice Marshall Keith Park’s 11 Group against the Luftwaffe. In the back of the car taking him on to Chequers, Churchill leaned over to his military assistant, Major General “Pug” Ismay, and said: “Don’t speak to me. I have never been so moved.” And then: “Never in the history of mankind has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Thoughtfully, Ismay remonstrated: “What about Jesus and his disciples?” “Good old Pug”, retorted the prime minister, who duly recast the sentence into the immortal words above, which he would pronounce in a speech to the House of Commons a few days later. Today, Battle of Britain Day, we can put a precise figure — £1.2 million — on what we still owe “The Few”. This is the sum the Battle of Britain Bentley Priory Trust must raise by the end of the month, assuming the Heritage Lottery Find approves a grant for £650,000 next week, to assure the completion of the £13.5 million Bentley Priory Museum and Learning Centre scheduled to open next July.
Bentley Priory is special. Here is an 18th-century English country house overlooking central London, with St Paul’s clearly visible, that, from 1936, was the headquarters of the newly formed RAF Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding. Dowding directed the Battle of Britain from an operations room sawn from the south drawing room. He chose the south-facing library as his private office, overlooking a sculpted Italianate garden and a sky that appears, today as then, to span the breadth of London.
Like many visitors to this extraordinary house, designed largely by Sir John Soane, architect of the original Bank of England, I have been enthralled by Dowding’s profoundly modest, yet noble office. With funds in place, a new generation of visitors will marvel at how Hitler’s plans to invade Britain, and his dream of crushing the RAF, were put paid to in no small part from this room with its simple leather-topped desk, Bakelite phones – hotlines to squadron commanders and Downing Street – framed pilot’s licence and famously terse typed memoranda.
For all its kedgeree-for-breakfast atmosphere, porticos and parterre, those Italianate gardens, sweeping stairs, clock tower and private grounds, by the outbreak of the Second World War Bentley Priory had been transformed into a model military command centre; even then, only the camouflage paintwork daubed across its stone facades gave the game away. Bentley Priory has been worth saving for the nation since it was closed and sold off to developers by the Ministry of Defence in 2008, not just for its illustrious wartime record, but because it has long been part of our social and architectural heritage.
Built, from 1766, close to the site of an Augustinian priory founded in 1170 near Stanmore in Middlesex by Ranulf de Granville, a crusader killed 20 years later during the Siege of Acre, the house was bought by James Hamilton, first Marquess of Abercorn, in 1788. As Soane reshaped it, Hamilton endowed Bentley Priory with a glittering social life. Guests included the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson – and the attitude-striking Lady Hamilton – William Pitt the younger, Sarah Siddons, George Canning, and Walter Scott who wrote Marmion, his epic poem about the Battle of Flodden Field, fought between the English and the Scots, in the summerhouse on the lake.
They close, in clouds of smoke and dust,
With swordplay and with lance’s thrust,
And such a yell was there,
Of sudden and portentous birth,
As if men fought in upper earth,
And fiends in upper air.
Swap “swordplay” for Browning .303s and “lance’s thrust” for 20mm Mauser cannons, and Marmion might be a stirring account of dogfights over southern England in the summer of 1940.
Home to the Dowager Queen Adelaide in the late 1840s – life-size replicas of a Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane dive towards the windows of her pretty drawing room today – and to a short-lived hotel and a girls’ boarding school before being snapped up by the Air Ministry in 1926, Bentley Priory has enjoyed a rollercoaster life. Frayed around the edges, it served several RAF roles into the 21st century, not least that of a highly distinctive officers’ mess and unofficial shrine to the RAF and the Battle of Britain.
It was 72 years ago today, that Bentley Priory experienced its finest hour. This was the day the Luftwaffe, with an aerial fleet of 620 fighters and 500 bombers, launched its greatest assault on this country. The principal target was London, the goal the annihilation of the RAF. Dowding, Park, the Observer Corps, radar and The Few were well prepared. At 11.05, the first of Park’s Spitfires were up from Biggin Hill. Hurricanes from Northolt, Debden and Kenley followed 10 minutes later. At 11.35, Douglas Bader’s “Big Wing” comprising 56 fighters took off from Duxford.
The battle raged long into that fine late summer day, by the end of which the RAF had destroyed a probable 61 German aircraft for the loss of 21 of its own. The following day, The New York Times called for a military alliance between Britain and the United States, and, effectively, Hitler called off his half-hearted Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. “While victory at Trafalgar saved Britain,” says Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, chairman of the Battle of Britain Bentley Priory Trust, “victory in the Battle of Britain saved the world.”
Since 2006 the trust, of which I am a member and the Prince of Wales is patron, has worked with local authorities, the house builders Barratt, the conservation developers City & Country, the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, architects, designers and gardeners, to conserve Bentley Priory. The main house is now home to a number of grand flats, while its principal rooms form the museum, evoking as far as possible the atmosphere of the old days. In the grounds are new homes designed by the classicist architect Robert Adam (not to be confused with his illustrious 18th-century namesake).
In an ideal world, the estate might have become a centre for aerospace research with homes for ex-RAF personnel and other uses reflecting Bentley Priory’s history. What has been achieved is a reflection of the art of the possible, tactics that have realised the strategic goal: the creation of the Bentley Priory Museum and Learning Centre. Almost. There is still that outstanding £1.2 million we owe to The Few, the last of whom are keen to see the museum open to the public, and to hold their annual reunion once again in this gloriously unlikely country house command centre.
Donations may be made by cheque — details at bentleypriory.org, or by text: BOBT40 and the amount you wish to donate to 70070