Arguably the most iconic RAF fighter station of the Battle of Britain; Biggin Hill opens a museum
The new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum and Chapel opens its doors to the public on what is arguably the Battle of Britain’s most iconic airfield on February 2 2019.
RAF Biggin Hill played a pivotal role in the Second World War. Originally established in 1917 as a testing ground for pioneering developments in flight, the famous aerodrome has given us many of the comforts we take for granted as we fly around the world today – air-to-air communication, seat belts, altimeters, pressure gauges to name a few.
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But it is Biggin Hill’s role in the Battle of Britain (July – October 1940) that defines its history. Part of a chain of airfields that protected the capital, RAF Biggin Hill was memorably described by Churchill as ‘the strongest link’.
During the Second World War fighters based at Biggin Hill shot down 1,400 enemy aircraft for the loss of 454 pilots. Because of its proximity to London the airfield became a target for the Luftwaffe and between August 1940 and January 1941 it was attacked 12 times. In one attack its workshops, stores, barracks, WAAF quarters and a hangar were all wrecked killing 39 people on the ground.
The inspirational experiences of ‘the Few’, who risked their lives in the skies above Britain, and ‘the Many’ who supported them on the ground are now to be revealed in a new museum at the site boasting a new interactive, multimedia display and a wealth of newly discovered and assembled archives and collections.
Following a 16-month construction project backed by major funding from the National Lottery and Central Government the brand new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum offers visitors the chance to experience the history of Britain’s most famous airfield through the stories of the people who served and lived there.
The museum has also secured the future of St. George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, the moving memorial to the RAF pilots and crew killed during the Second World War.
The Grade II-listed Chapel, built in 1951 at the behest of Sir Winston Churchill, with a wooden floor made from slats of sectioned propeller blades and 12 stained glass windows designed by Hugh Easton’s studio (responsible for the Battle of Britain window at Westminster Abbey), has been painstakingly restored to its original 1950s design and will continue to serve as a place of worship and pilgrimage.
From the fighter pilots facing the realities of aerial combat and the local pub landlady creating a sense of normality, to children scavenging souvenirs from the battles overhead, the story told by the museum is, they say “above all about the people who served, worked and lived” there.
More than 80 exhibits – many donated by the public – are included in the museum which follows the themes of Early Years, Station Life, Community Life and Remembering.
They include a 50kg unguided bomb, the Biggin Hill ‘Scramble’ and ‘Victory’ bells, a Luftwaffe tea set and even the table from a local pub that had fighter pilots’ names carved into the wood.
The fears, excitement and losses of aerial combat are revealed through items such as an escape crowbar from the cockpit of a Spitfire, a cockpit clock for a ME109 German aircraft, a Browning machine gun, log book, fragments of pilots’ maps, compasses, complete uniforms and flying jackets.
The wealth of personal items include cigarette cases, swagger sticks, ID cards, wallets and binoculars – together with letters, photographs and oil paintings by legendary WAAF artist Elva Blacker.
The audio guide commentary is led by historian Dan Snow, who is joined by the voices of veterans including the late author and Wing Commander Geoffrey Wellum who was the youngest Spitfire pilot to fly in the Battle of Britain at just 19 years of age, and Tom Neil who flew 141 combat missions during the Battle and shot down 14 enemy aircraft in the course of the war.
“Historians often face the challenging job of representing history second hand and the heavy responsibility of telling other people’s stories on their behalf,” says Snow. “However, Biggin Hill Memorial Museum is offering a very different experience. Through video interviews, photographs and written testimonies, the real people involved in the Battle of Britain will share their experiences with you first hand.
“I hope visitors to the museum will be inspired through these honest accounts of life at war and the many people behind the military successes passed down as legend through the years.”
A visit to the Museum climaxes in thought-provoking displays on combat, bravery, fear and loss. The museum has also developed a very active schools programme and promises to help preserve the memory of those whose extraordinary bravery in the skies and on the ground played a significant role in shaping the course of the 20th century.
A selection of archive photographs from World War Two drawn from the Biggin Hill collection:
Biggin Hill Memorial Museum
Biggin Hill, Kent
The Biggin Hill Memorial Museum tells the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station, in particular its role during the Second World War; and provides a sustainable future for St. George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, built at Winston Churchill’s instigation.