Group Operations Room, Hillingdon
Description: Group Operations Room
Date Listed: 1 December 2005
English Heritage Building ID: 501317
OS Grid Reference: TQ0654883514
OS Grid Coordinates: 506548, 183514
Latitude/Longitude: 51.5405, -0.4650
Location: 6 Vincent Dr, Hillingdon, Greater London UB10 0XF
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804/0/10078 RAF UXBRIDGE
01-DEC-05 Group Operations Room
11 Group operations block. Commenced late 1938, completed August 1939, built to designs of Bob Creer of Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings. Reinforced concrete with internal structure of rolled steel joists. The bunker is entered via steps set in an angled passage with shuttered concrete lining.
INTERIOR: is remarkably intact. Steel door to lobby, a wire-mesh grille into which another door is set providing an additional method of screening visitors to the building. A line of steep steps, flanked on both walls by fixed power cabling, descends to the bunker; these and other steps in the bunker are flanked where necessary by iron railings, cast to Art Deco-inspired patterns. Timber doors, brass switch plates and wall-mounted electrical trunking throughout. The functioning of the bunker depended on supply of electrical power, telecommunications equipment and a secure ventilation system. Plant Rooms X and Y retain original electrical generating and air filtration plant, that in Room Y having a filtration unit manufactured by Porton Down Experimental Station with casing by Portsmouth Dockyard, this being an indication of the pioneering nature of this bunker. Air compression system for ejecting sewage. Fuse Room with complete set of fuse boxes, for ventilation, lighting, teleprinters, GPO power and small power. GPO Room with original boxing and telecommunications plant. Message centre with original fittings including Lampson voice tubes.
Operations and plotting room has along one side a raised dais with panelled front for controllers, affording a clear view of the map table (with original map refixed to it) and the Slat Board that recorded the state of readiness etc of fighter squadrons within the Group: this board is a reconstruction (c1968) of a type of board system introduced in October 1940, some of the marked blackboarding of the earlier Tote Board system surviving to its rear. Information was cross-referred to a colour-coded clock, which remains wall-mounted in its original position to the left of the board. Above and flanking the dais are the rooms occupied by senior RAF and Army personnel, with original glass-fronted screens projecting into the room.
HISTORICAL NOTE: This underground operations room, built in 1938, played a role of fundamental importance in the economic marshalling of air defence which sustained victory in the Battle of Britain and in other key actions of the Second World War. By September 1940 Britain had become the first nation in history to retain its freedom and independence through air power. The RAF thus ended the aura of Nazi invincibility that had characterised its Blitzkrieg tactics elsewhere in Europe, providing a glimmer of hope to resistance movements in occupied countries, which in turn - via the voice of the media - encouraged the pro-British interventionist lobby within the United States and laid the groundwork for Anglo-American co-operation and the American rearmament that preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Finally, the denial of Britain to the Luftwaffe ensured its retention for continued resistance to the Axis powers, the invasion of northern Europe in 1944 and, more controversially, the bomber offensive against targets in Germany: it has also been argued that without victory in the Battle of Britain the Soviet army would not have stopped at the Elbe in 1945, with obvious and very different consequences for the political geography of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. The airfields associated with the Battle of Britain of 1940 relate to historic sites and fabric stretching from those used by the RAF to those used by or built especially for the Luftwaffe, including the now-protected sites at Paris Le Bourget and Deelen in the Netherlands. Of all the sites which became involved in The Battle of Britain, none have greater resonance in the popular imagination than those of the sector airfields within these Groups which bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe onslaught and, in Churchill's words, 'on whose organisation and combination the whole fighting power of our Air Force at this moment depended' (Churchill, 292). It was 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshall Keith Park from his underground headquarters at RAF Uxbridge, which occupied the front line in this battle, with its 'nerve centre' sector stations at Northolt, North Weald, Biggin Hill, Tangmere, Debden and Hornchurch taking some of the most sustained attacks of the battle, especially between 24 August and 6 September when these airfields and later aircraft factories became the Luftwaffe's prime targets.
This structure bears a very direct relationship in terms of its internal plan, detailing, fixtures and form to its intended function. This includes a pioneering system of air filtration, internal communications systems and telecommunications equipment all designed to ensure the continuation of operations in a hostile environment, one that anticipates the design of military and civil defence headquarters in the Cold War period. The plotting room, surrounded by operations and control cabins, comprises the strategic heart of this building. The original map has been refixed to the plotting table, and the Tote Board which recorded the state of readiness of fighter squadrons has survived in part behind a late 1960s reconstruction of the Slat Board system introduced in October 1940. It has otherwise survived in a remarkably complete state of preservation, very much as described by Churchill on his visit on 15 September 1940, with a raised dais for controllers and glass-fronted boxes for senior commanders protruding above the plotting table. From this room, during the Battle of Britain, Air Vice Marshall Keith Park commanded the deployment of squadrons within 11 Group's sector stations. Filtered information was sent from Royal Observor Corps' posts and radar stations to Fighter Command's HQ at Bentley Priory, Stanmore, and simultaneously to the Group operations rooms, whose commanders took the critical decisions concerning both the deployment of anti-aircraft gunfire and fighter sectors under their command. 11 Group's strategic importance also ensured that - in addition to co-ordinating regular fighter sweeps over the Channel and occupied Europe - this building played a key role in the deployment of fighter squadrons for the evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940, the ill-fated Dieppe raid of 1942, the invasion of NW Europe in 1944 and subsequent operations, and the defence of London and the south east against the V1 rocket menace. It continued to serve as an operations room in the early phase of the Cold War, closing in 1958.
The operational infrastructure which was being put in place by Sir Hugh Dowding - in command of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain - from March 1936, which had its origins in his earlier position on the Air Council as Member for Research and Development. Although historians have drawn attention to the production of obsolete aircraft (notoriously exemplified by the Fairey Battle) in order to achieve crude parity with Luftwaffe figures, the early development and sophistication of German radar technology and the speed and manoevrability of the new generation of monoplane fighters designed by Camm, Mitchell and Messerschmitt, there is a broad consensus of opinion that it was the infrastructure put in place by Dowding that provided the key to the incisive and economic marshalling of fighter squadrons which guaranteed Fighter Command's survival in the Battle of Britain of 1940. The essence of this relationship of technology to command and control has become familiar to students of the Battle. It saw the system of Chain Home radar stations (the first five of which became operational in 1938, further to development work at Bawdsey) and Observor Corps posts linked by telephone and teleprinter to the Filter Room at Fighter Command Headquarters (Bentley Priory), where the plots were checked with those of adjacent stations before decisions concerning deployment and attack could be made. In his detailed description of the 11 Group operations bunker at Uxbridge, Churchill (1949: 293-7) wrote: 'All the ascendancy of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centres and telegraph cables, which had been devised and built before the war under Dowding's advice and impulse'. It could be said, indeed, that 'Dowding controlled the battle from day to day, Park controlled it from hour to hour, and the 11 Group sector controllers from minute to minute (Wood and Dempster, 1969: 84-90).
So successful was this defence system that the Luftwaffe's own defences were realigned on the British model: one of the critical links in the latter's chain is the operations block at Deelen, now protected by the Dutch government. As a consequence of their historical importance, surviving examples of sector operations rooms within 11 Group (at Debden and Northolt) have been recommended for statutory protection, and two sector operations blocks on key stations in 12 and 13 Group to the north (Catterick and Duxford). This is the most important of all the fighter operations blocks to have survived, being in a much better state of preservation than the other Group operations headquarters at Watnall (Nottinghamshire: 12 Group), Newcastle (13 Group) and Box (Wiltshire: 10 Group). The operations and filter rooms at Bentley Priory (II*) have been removed and its underground operations block, built during the Second World War, substantially remodelled in the 1980s.
RAF Uxbridge's principal function in the inter-war period was the training of recruits, for whom barracks built around an extensive parade ground had been erected in 1928. Close to the operations block is one surviving wing of Building 79 (Sergeant's Mess), which served as an operations room before the completion of the bunker, and Building 79 (The Stand-by Set House) which retains original generating plant by Bellis and Morcombe.
David Reynolds, '1940: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?', International Affairs, 66 (1990), pp.325-50; Bruce Barrymore Halpenny, Action Stations 8: Military Airfields of Greater London (Cambridge, 1984), pp.235-43; Operations Record Books, PRO AIR 28/ 872, 1144, 1281, 1286, 1431 and 1655-6; W.G. Ramsey (ed), The Battle of Britain Then and Now, (5th edition, London, 1989), 14-28; Churchill, W. The Second World War. Volume II: Their Finest Hour (London, 1949); Lake, J. and Schofield, J., 'Conservation and the Battle of Britain'. In The Burning Blue. A New History of the Battle of Britain, Addison, P. and Crang, J. (eds), 229-242 (London, 2000); Wood, D. and Dempster, D. The Narrow Margin (London, 1969).
Source: English Heritage
Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.