The best museums and heritage sites across the UK where you can explore the Battle of Britain
For a few summer months in 1940, a mighty air battle was fought above the skies of England. Today the Battle of Britain is remembered as the RAF’s finest hour, but had the young men who took to the skies failed to defeat the German Luftwaffe there was every chance that Nazi forces would have invaded and occupied the British Isles. British museums and heritage sights hold the key to understanding this pivotal moment in history.
Imperial War Museum, Duxford
The Imperial War Museum is the go-to when it comes to modern warfare collections, and while the London museum’s collections cannot be dismissed, especially with a Battle of Britain Spitfire Mk 1 slung from the ceiling of their atrium, it’s at IWM in Duxford where you can really explore the Battle of Britain in great detail.
Formerly a Battle of Britain fighter station, Duxford has a permanent exhibition called Battle of Britain and the Air Defence of Britain on show in Hangar 4. The Hangar itself is a Battle of Britain veteran and inside you will find a Hurricane and Spitfire as well as the intact remains of a German Messerschmidt ME 109 – shot down during the battle and presented as it was when it crashed into a Kent field in the summer of 1940. Other artefacts include a Heinkel 111 tail and a recreation of an Observer Corps watching outpost.
Beyond the hangar Duxford is the most intact World War Two aerodrome you can visit – with a Battle of Britain Ops Room, Spitfire pens and period control tower all visible on site. Occasional tours of the North side of the aerodrome also take place in the company of expert explainers who can bring alive the base’s stories and many personalities, who include among their number, Douglas Bader.
RAF Museum, London
The RAF Museum, London based at Hendon, which was also a fighter station during the battle, boasts the largest collection of Battle of Britain aircraft in the country and the largest collection of intact Luftwaffe aircraft in the world. Plans are currently afoot to transform the historic site at Hendon but the collection is still fascinating and the most important visit on any investigation into the actual aircraft that took part in the Battle.
As well as an original Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane, the collection also holds some of the lesser known aircraft that were involved in the battle including a Bristol Blenheim and a Gypsy Moth trainer in which ‘the few’ sharpened their flying skills. There is also a multimedia story entitled Our Finest Hour, which includes archive footage of the battle.
On the German side the peerless collection includes a Messerschmitt Bf109, Messerschmitt 110, a Heinkel 111 bomber and a Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber, all key planes in the Battle of Britain as it unfolded across British skies from summer into autumn 1940.
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Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, is situated at the remains of the former Battle of Britain RAF Tangmere airfield in West Sussex. The airfield was in operation from 1916 right up to the post war years and was a fundamental location for the Battle of Britain, defending the south of England from the raids of the Luftwaffe. Its significance was highlighted on 16th August 1940 when it was heavily bombed by the Germans, and you can see some of the remnants and artefacts of this attack in the Museum’s Battle of Britain Hall.
The poignant collection here reminds visitors of the devastation and destruction caused by the Battle and displays include the remains of a Hurricane shot down over Brighton with the loss of its young pilot (whose personal effects are on display) and the blood splattered uniform, complete with Mae West life jacket of a the first Battle of Britain pilot to win a VC, Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, who was famed for climbing back into the cockpit of his stricken Hurricane and shooting down a Messerschmidt 110.
Aircraft remains and the stories of the men who flew many of the planes that flew from Tangmere make this volunteer run museum an important port of call on any Battle of Britain museum tour.
The Kent Battle of Britain Museum
The former RAF Station at Hawkinge was the closest RAF base to enemy-occupied France. Being only 10 minutes flying time from the Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas-de-Calais and within range of the long range cross-Channel shells from the German batteries stationed along the French coast meant that the Folkestone area became dubbed ‘Hellfire Corner’.
Today the Kent Battle of Britain Museum is based on the site, it claims to have the oldest established and largest collection of Battle of Britain recovered artifacts and memorabilia in the country.
The volunteer-run museum is a treasure trove of excavated artefacts from the Battle – with finds from more than 700 aircraft recovered from crash sites dating to a 20-week period of the Battle of Britain, together with an impressive collection of uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, artwork and replica aircraft. Among the latter is a recently acquired Boulton Paul Defiant, painted in Battle of Britain colours and made by volunteers at the Boulton Paul Factory in Wolverhampton.
For those wishing to immerse themselves in one of the most dramatic theatres of the Battle of Britain, this museum is open all summer until the 31st October 2017. We highly recommend a visit.
Churchill War Rooms
When London came under attack Churchill and his war cabinet went underground. Having learnt from bitter experience in the First World War the damage and disruption that bombing raids could do, the British government employed a new tactic and The Cabinet War Rooms were built in 1938, underground at basement level, to protect the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and the central core of the military command in the event of a war.
They became fully operational on August 27 1939, a week before Britain declared war on Germany. Churchill’s War Cabinet met here 115 times, and the Rooms were in use 24 hours a day until 16 August 1945, when the lights were turned off in the Map Room for the first time in six years.
Following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, The Cabinet War Rooms were shut down and left untouched until the 1980s when the doors were opened to the public. Entering the Churchill War Rooms as it is today known is to step back in time. The highly atmospheric time capsule contains a warren of interconnecting rooms that effectively transport visitors back to wartime Britain. One of the many highlights can be found in the map room – a scoreboard from the Battle of Britain.
The Churchill Museum, also on site, examines the life and work of Winston Churchill and his role as the country’s leader during World War Two and after.
Bentley Priory Museum
Bentley Priory, a grade II listed mansion, part-designed by famous architect Sir John Soane, was the epicentre of RAF operations during the Battle of Britain. The HQ of RAF Fighter Command it was home to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief during the Battle of Britain.
The Museum focuses on telling the story of ‘The One’, ‘The Few’, and ‘The Many’, and how British forces combined to win the battle of Britain and prevent a German invasion.
‘The One’; Sir Hugh Dowding is often considered a defining factor in the RAF’s success. During the 1930s he is credited as the man behind bringing both the Spitfire and Hurricane into RAF service and being a keen proponent the RADAR system, all of which were fundamental to the British victories. Later, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, Dowding employed a command and control system, later known of as the Dowding System, which made use of modern technology and fast communication to pre-empt future raids.
There are scores of objects on display including medals, logbooks and photographs, while a recreated filter room and model of an ops room give an idea of the activity that took place here.
The Museum also memorialises ‘The Few’ that is the 3,000 fighters and pilots who manned the planes and engaged in combat first hand in the skies above Britain. And also ‘The Many’, the numerous men and women who worked to develop the aircraft, those who watched out for approaching planes and those who tended to the wounded and other casualties in the worst days of the war.
Battle of Britain Bunker, RAF Uxbridge
Descending the 76 steps to the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge is a truly unforgetable experience. Sixty feet below ground is the UK’s best preserved Operation Rooms, where plotters and controllers worked tirelessly to defend London and the South East from the planes of the German Luftwaffe.
Today the 11 Group Ops Bunker is preserved exactly as it was on September 15 1940, when Winston Churchill visited . On that day, arguably the most significant day of the battle, all of the bulbs on the squadron state board glowed red, indicating that every No. 11 Ops group squadron was engaged in fighting at one time. Churchill noted this in his memoirs and it was at Uxbridge where he was said to have uttered his famous words.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many to so few.”
The Bunker at Uxbridge was the base for the defence of London and ultimately the defence of Britain. The expertly preserved Ops Rooms allows visitors a unique insight into RAF operations during this critical stage of the war and the battle.
RAF Air Defence Radar Museum, Neatishead
The RAF Air Defence Radar Museum in Neatishead, Norfolk traces the history and development of Radar from 1935 to 1993. Early Radar systems helped operations teams identify where enemy planes were gathering in order to predict future raids. Radar systems employed the most cutting-edge technology of the day and fundamentally changed how the RAF approached warfare.
The Radar museum has a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Battle of Britain from a Radar perspective that examines how this relatively new system was pushed to the limits during the summer of 1940 and how it was fundamental to the British Victory.
Visitors have the chance to experience the early Radar system as it would have been during the Battle of Britain while the recreated filter and operations room teaches you all about the successes and limitations of this new technology.
Run by volunteers, the museum is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Bawdsey Radar Station
Another important survivor telling the story of the role of radar during the Battle can be found at Bawdsey Radar, in Suffolk.
In September 1937 Bawdsey became the first fully operational Radar station in the world. Watson-Watt and Wilkins, pioneers of the Radar system and their research team set up their base at Bawdsey for further research and development following successful tests of their equipment.
At the outbreak of war the team were moved from their vulnerable coastal location, leaving Bawdsey as a solely operational centre. Radar stations like this one provided invaluable intelligence during the war and as a result were a high-priority target for the Luftwaffe. Bawdsey was bombed at least 12 times but its reinforced roof and concrete walls prevented it from being completely destroyed.
The volunteer run museum is closed until September 2017 for conservation work to be undertaken but the website has information about special open days and updates on developments.
Newhaven Fort in East Sussex has huge significance to the Second World War, with displays covering the Dieppe Raid and the development of the fort through both world wars, but probably most important to anyone exploring the Battle of Britain is their room dedicated to the Royal Observer Corps (ROC).
The ROC collection features equipment, artefacts and memorabilia covering the history of the ROC from its formation in 1925 (when it was simply the Observer Corps) until final stand-down in 1995. The Observer Corps was responsible for spotting and reporting aircraft movements throughout the Battle of Britain and the rest of the Second World War.
Various other collections and locations relating to the Observer Corps can be explored across the UK – many of them volunteer run and based at Observer Corps locations. See The Royal Observer Corps Association website for more information.
Visitors to Newhaven Fort can also experience what life was like during the Blitz for ordinary citizens via a reconstruction of a blitzed street and an air-raid shelter – accompanied by the sounds of enemy bombs, the shouts of Wardens and the chilling sounds of the air raid siren. An essential place to learn about the background to the Battle of Britain and the hard work of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) services, Women’s Land Army and ordinary citizens alike who combined to help secure victory.
Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum
Manston in Kent is home to the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum, based at what was RAF Manston but is now Kent airport. According to curator Peter Turner, Manston was possibly the most heavily bombed airfield of World War Two.
The museum boasts a Spitfire and a Hurricane situated in two galleries packed with military and civil memorabilia from the war. Also on the site is the RAF Manston History Museum which focuses on the history of the airfield from 1916 to 1999.
Part of the British success in the Battle of Britain was down to the foreign pilots who flew with the RAF. One such man was Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, based at Tangmere. Early in the war, a small band of intrepid Americans flew for the RAF and sadly Billy was the first American serviceman in the RAF to die in action. Shot down in the skies over Sussex, a gravestone bearing his name can be found in the south-east corner of Boxgrove Priory graveyard.
Fighting on Britain’s side were not only Americans but also Poles, Free French forces, Czechs and many Australians, New Zealanders, South African pilots and men from India and the Caribbean. The Poles in particular have become renowned for their exploits during the battle with Nos. 302 and 303 Squadrons, manned by Polish pilots, downing 203 enemy aircraft for the loss of 29 pilots killed.
Despite being introduced to the fray relatively late, No. 303 Squadron went on to become the most successful squadron in the Battle, shooting down 126 German planes in just 42 days. Their most successful pilot was however a Czechoslovak, Sergeant Josef Frantisek, who had previously served with the Polish Air Force during the German Blitzkrieg of 1939. Before his death in a landing accident in October 1940 he managed 17 confirmed victories flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter.
A memorial to all those who died fighting in the Battle of Britain was opened on the Thames embankment in 2005. The Battle of Britain Monument depicts a number of scenes including a scramble of RAF pilots and related topics including the workers who made the aircraft, the female munitions workers, the ordinary people in the blitz and the Observer Corps spotters.
At Capel-le-Ferne in Kent visitors can find the The National Memorial to the Few, pictured above. The memorial, also home to an impressive visitor centre and a number of other Battle-related attractions was opened by Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in July 1993.
The brainchild of an ex-Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander Geoffrey Page, it is a sculpture of a pilot on a sandstone plinth located on the white cliffs between Dover and Folkestone. On the plinth are carved the crests of all the squadrons that took part in the conflict.
The visitor centre, including a hi-tech ‘Scramble Experience’ was opened in 2015 and as well as telling the story of The Few, it offers evocative views across the white cliffs and the channel.
To find out more about the Battle of Britain visit the RAF’s official Battle of Britain website