Whenever we think of the Battle of Britain, our thoughts turn to FighterCommand, if we thought of Fighter Command, our thoughts would then turnto Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding, and if we thought of Hugh Dowdingwe would then think of the nerve centre of Fighter Command, Bentley Priory.
It was in July 1936, that during a complete reorganisation of the RoyalAir Force, the task of creating an all new section fell to Air MarshalSir Hugh Caswell Tremenhere Dowding KCB. This section was to be known asFighter Command. Dowding had had an impecible career that had originatedin 1900 as an Army Subaltern with the Royal Garrison Artillery and it continuedwith the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. He had commandedFighting Area in the earlier Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) organisationin 1929-30 and thereafter for six years he was employed as Air Member forResearch and Development on the Air Council. He was a man who had faithin the Radio Direction Finding(RDF) later to become known as Radar of whichhe had great influence on its future development.
Dowding was a man of strong character with a mind capable of deepthought and foresight, and had very positive views on how his new Commandand the air defence system should develop. He was of a naturally reservednature with a disinclination towards most forms of socialising; his semminglyhumorless, often grumpy image portrayed to those not of close aquaintance,plus a facility of quick acid comment, gave him enemies and a reputationfor being difficult. He sought the favour of no-one. From his early servicedays the nickname 'Stuffy' endured.
Dowding was given Bentley Priory as his headquarters. It was to be thenerve centre of Fighter Command. It was back in March 1926 that the RoyalAir Force aquired a rather dilapidated house and land in Stanmore thatis now known as Bentley Priory. On 26 May it became Headquarters of InlandArea that administered a number of air force home establishments and wasunder the command of Air Vice-marshal Tom Webb-Bowen CB, CMG. But beforethis, the 'Priory' had an interesting, yet chequered history. Originally,a rather insignificant small house that was owned by a Mr James Duberlyit had been renovated, with the addition of many additional rooms thatgreatly increased its size, and became a highly prestigious country estatein the possession of The Hon James John Hamilton. In 1789 as 9th Earl andFirst Marquess of Abercorn, he engaged the services of architect Sir JohnSloane to carry out massive extensions to the house and buildings at considerablecost. Later, it was owned by builder Sir John Kelp and when a Mr FrederickGordon took over the elegant buildings and land it was turned into a luxuriousprivate hotel. Before much of the property was sold off it had been usedas a private boarding school for young ladies before the Royal Air Forceaquired it in 1936.
Prior to moving into Bentley Priory, Dowding lived and conducted hisaffairs from his home at Wimbledon Hill in the south west of London, andit was from here that he oulined his plans for setting up an OperationsRoom at the 'Priory'.
Dowding went to say that in the centre of the Ball Room would be themain Operations Room Table that would be covered by a huge map that wouldcover from Edinburgh in the north to the French coast, and from the borderof Wales in the west to the east of Belgium. A viewing gallery would berequired along the North and West sides of the Ball Room so that it wouldbe possible to observe the various movements that would be displayed onthe map below. Also, teleprinters would have to be installed, and thesewould be placed in the Rotunda.
An intricate telephone and communication system would have to be installed.What was happening around the British coastline would be clearly displayedon the huge map that occupied the ballroom. Reports from the long-distanceradar could possibly be received direct, and then relayed to the GroupsHeadquarters. Any Intelligence information would most certainly be receivedfirst at Bentley Priory and then circulated to groups and military offices.Finally, all movements of enemy and friendly bombers would be tracked anddisplayed on the map, but possibly for reasons of not making the mapboardto complicated and messy, friendly fighter movements would not be shown.A series of lights would be installed on one of the walls, and these wouldindicate as to the state of readiness of fighter groups.
LeadingAircraftman Jim Griffiths went on to say that as an LAC his weekly paywas 31/6d of which a 10/6d of that was placed in a Post Office SavingsAccount. He enjoyed life at Bentley Priory, and he had many memorable timesplaying sports, the odd dance at the NAAFI and visits to theatres and pubs.Occasionally he received weekend leave which he spent mostly with his parentsalthough he did have a good relationship with his girlfriend. At BentleyPriory, he had his own room unlike other LAC's on station who had to livea barrack room lifestyle, and the food at Bentley was absolutly first class.There was an odd parade but there was also a lot of hard work that wasgenerally spread over long hours.
Work on the Experimental Operations Room was sufficiently advanced by11th December 1939, that Dowding wrote to the Air Ministry requesting theinstallation of GPO telephone lines. He also made mention of the intentionto limit the field of experiment to a single link up with No.11 (Fighter)Group, and in so doing, concentrating effort in developing and provinga prototype component of the future organisation.
Hugh Dowding in his role as Chairman of the Home Defence Committee'sSub Committee in May 1937, which was also the date of the creation of No.12Fighter Group, gave a lecture to members of the RAF Staff College on "FighterCommand in Home Defence". and when we look at the basis of Dowdings lecture,we are to find that his ideas and opinions were remarkably prophetic.
Hugh Dowding first spoke about how a war would be most quickly lostand stated that this might possibly be caused by indiscriminate air attackson London and creating panic amongst its population. As an alternative,an immeadiate paralysis of the food supply would have exactly the sameeffect and that if the country could be secured against a quick decisionof this kind, then the only defeat could come from the slower process ofexhaustion of equipment, personel, food, raw materials, sea transport andother resources. He went on to state that the focal point of the machineryof Government and the main centre for the distribution of the countriesfood supplies would be London itself, and concluded that the most importanttask would therefore be the defence of London itself. The most importanttask therefore would be that defending London would be the most importanttask in the defence of Great Britain. Dowding went on to say, that if hewas the dictator, then first and foremost, he would destroy the enemy'sAir Force at his airfields, reserve storage depots and factories etc.
Dowding had a strong interest in radar, he believed that radar was tobe the eyes of Britains defence system. It is understandable then, thatit was of great importance to Dowding that he had direct communicationswith radar stations from Bentley Priory. Over the last few years radarhad improved by research and by trials. Dowding had faith in radar.
It was at Orfordness in 1935 that radar had expanded to such a degreethat further accomodation was required. Land was purchased at Bawdsey Manornear Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast, and here although the research teamwas quite small, the quality, variety and inventiveness was remarkable.By April 1937, they were engaged in radar trials endevouring to locateaircraft flying on pre-arranged courses over the North Sea. The resultswere said to be confused and disappointing and Dowding thought that thegeneral standard of information was as yet unacceptable for his OperationsRooms. Nevertheless, by August the same year a plan for the constructionof coastal radar stations had already been aggreed.
Eachof these would have four receiver masts that would be 250 feet high andfour transmitter masts with each one being 350 feet high. The reason forduplication was their vulnerability to air attack, and the likelihood thattransmissions would be interfered with or 'jammed' by the Germans. In theevent of a mast or its aerials being damaged, or operating frequency beingimpared, there were others that were ready to take over. To improve resultsthey would be sited close enough together to form a chain where each stationoversaw part of its neigbours detection area.
In the photograph on the right, the transmitting masts can be seenon the left while the four on the right are the receiving masts that wereconstructed of wood to eliminate any stray reflections which may affectdirection finding and height reading.
Radar was in the hands of both civilian scientsts and RAF Signals specialists,and after studying the results of the unsatisfactory trials in April 1937,Squadron Leader Raymond Hart was to become very influential in the studyof radar operations. With other members of the team they agreed that ifthe radar stations were sited close enough together, then there would bean overlap in their fields of observation, which this would make it possiblefor every part of the coast to be watched. Although the technique madethings complicated, it did require very careful handling and correlationof readings from two adjacent stations, but this method allowed the stationsto be linked like a chain along the coastline. The system was approved by Dowding who, from early in the peace had great faith in radar and progress was being made with correlated information from the radar stations being relayed directly to the Bentley Priory Filter Rooms.
Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was to stay at Bentley Priory for the duration of the Battle of Britain and until he was relieved of his position as AOC Fighter Command. The 'Priory' was constantly in use throughout the rest of the war and today stands as a monument to the operations that were conducted there that finally led to victory in WWII.
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