[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Bentley Priory

A historic building which once played a key role in saving the free world is about to be lost to posterity, with barely a whimper of protest.

The story is of course more complex than that. When I say 'lost to posterity', that's what I might say if I was writing an eye-catching lede for a newspaper article. The building itself is not in danger. It's currently owned by the Ministry of Defence, but is being sold to private developers. The current plan is that it will be turned into luxury flats. Even this, in itself, is not what has attracted criticism. Rather it's the failure of the current plan to acknowledge the building's history and its role in Britain's past.

The building is Bentley Priory, north-west of London, on a site which has been continuously occupied since about 1170. It is architecturally significant in its own right, as it was extensively renovated in the late 18th century by the architect Sir John Soane, who was also largely responsible for the Bank of England. It's been used as a stately home, a girls' school and a hotel. It's also surrounded by gardens and a large park. But it is Bentley Priory's military history which most marks it out for preservation. The Royal Air Force purchased the site in 1926, and it was the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and also of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) prior to D-Day.

In the summer of 1940, Bentley Priory was at the centre of the most advanced air defence system in the world -- which was just as well, as Britain was about to be hit by the greatest aerial assault ever launched. Here, information about incoming German raids arrived from ground observers and top secret radar stations. The raw data was swiftly processed in the Priory's filter room, compared and analysed to come up with estimates of raid size, height and direction. This information was then immediately sent to the subordinate Groups, which in turn made decisions about how many fighter squadrons to send up and where they should try to intercept the raiders. So Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, did not directly control his forces during the Battle itself. His real contribution (apart from keeping the whole system running, which included keeping his commanders from tearing each other apart) was the sophisticated command, control, communications and intelligence system he moulded in the late 1930s (though, to be sure, drawing on the First World War legacy of LADA, the London Air Defence Area). Without it, the brave young men of the frontline squadrons would have been fighting blind, the Battle might have been lost, and with it the war.

The Priory's role in D-Day was almost as crucial. Now the tables were turned, and it was time for the Allies to return to the Continent. Their air superiority over the Luftwaffe was one of their key advantages, and so it was crucial to employ it correctly. Bentley Priory became the headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in 1943, under the command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (incidentally, one of Dowding's fractious commanders in 1940). Here, AEAF staff planned the air strikes on and behind the beaches, and the RAF's 2nd Tactical Air Force and the USAAF's 8th Air Force carried them out on and after D-Day. Without effective close air support, British, American and Canadian losses in the invasion would have been much higher, conceivably leading to its failure and a second Allied ejection from Europe.1

So, Bentley Priory would seem to me to be an ideal place for a museum dedicated to explaining how the sophistication of British and Allied air forces helped them to win the Second World War. It's easy enough to impress visitors with collections of powerful aircraft, and to humble them with exhibits portraying valour and sacrifice. And that's a very important and necessary part of the story. But it's not all of it. The Allies won in the air, in part, by building a more professional organisation than the Luftwaffe. At Bentley Priory is still preserved Dowding's office (desk and all); the filter and operations rooms are also still there, though I think turned to other uses. These are ideal sites of memory for this facet of the war.

Well -- what of all that? Does every last historic site need to be preserved? It would be very easy to say yes. But -- I live in a vast, sparsely populated and young (in terms of European settlement) country. Britain is small, densely populated and stuffed full of historic sites. I don't feel I have the right to tell the British that they must choose heritage over housing, especially if it might mean building on scarce greenfield sites instead. It's up to them (even if that means choosing houses only the very well-off can afford). Whether a deal between the Ministry of Defence and VSM Estates to develop and sell off the property truly represents the will of the people may be doubtful, but by default, if nobody protests the plan then I suppose it may as well be. At the moment, interest (of the non-commercial kind) seems to be confined to the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust, an article in the Sunday Telegraph, and a few scattered internet forums and blogs.

There has been some movement on the issue. The borough in which the Priory is located, Harrow Council, does seem genuinely concerned about its fate, and as the local planning authority presumably has the power of veto over its development. VSM Estates, which is managing the sale of the property (along with a number of others, and also the accompanying expansion of RAF Northolt) on behalf of the Ministry, is now willing to leave the Soane Rotunda and Dowding's office out of its plans, which leaves open the possibility of a museum or other heritage site in those areas. VSM Estates' main concern appears to be the noise and disturbances that would come with members of the public tramping through the building and gardens: those who can afford to pay £5 million for a luxury flat presumably don't do so in order to rub shoulders with the masses. (On the other hand, since previously VSM Estates proposed to turn the Rotunda into an exhibition space, presumably they planned on some level of traffic.) So, currently there's an impasse.

But even if an acceptable heritage plan can be worked out, setting up and running a museum costs a lot of money (especially if it's done right!) and somebody has to pay for it all. Money spent on yet another museum is money that can't be spent on something else, possibly even more worthwhile. Also, if VSM Estates lower their expectations for the sale of the property, that means less money for the Ministry of Defence -- which, after all, is not in the business of managing Britain's heritage but its armed forces. Some of the more reactionary commenters (apparently it's all the fault of political correctness) at the Telegraph site and elsewhere might do well to ask themselves whether it's more important to remember the sacrifices made by the young warriors of 1940, or to make sure that the young warriors of today have the best equipment, organisation and resources behind them. I'd like to think that's a false dichotomy, but given finite resources there's a chance it's not.

So as much as I, as an aviation historian and a potential visitor, would love for the redevelopment of Bentley Priory to incorporate a museum, I'd also understand if those making the decisions on this matter decided that their priorities lay elsewhere.

Thanks to Martin Waligorski of Spitfire Site for bringing this to my attention: see his post for more information and another view.

Image: Bentley Priory on 19 July 2007, being farewelled by Battle of Britain veterans. Source: Ministry of Defence.

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  1. Many websites, including Bentley Priory's own, say that on D-Day George VI, Churchill and Eisenhower monitored the progress of the landings from here. I haven't been able to confirm this, and as far as I can tell, Eisenhower spent 6 June 1944 at Portsmouth and at SHAEF at Bushy Park -- which does seem like a more logical place to get an overall view of the situation. On the other hand, Bentley Priory was until recently the home of the RAF's historical unit, Air Historical Branch, and they should know ... []

3 thoughts on “Priorities

  1. Chris Williams


    "To Whose Gods
    [In which conservation, running out of control, threatens to break the thread of history.]

    Man has raised the pyramids alone
    Has mountains through his efforts and endeavours overthrown
    With pain strength and discipline his deities outgrown
    And carved his initials on their stones

    Let the earth move the monuments and mounds
    Let acid rain eradicate and the rolling oceans pound
    What can never last forever let in time be broken down
    And let history cast the ruins underground

    Of the stone circles fallen and decayed
    Let quarrymen and masons come and take the bones away
    Ship them out from railheads a thousand tons a day
    And let no trace or memory remain

    To new skies the wire towers reach
    In factories in railway yards and iron foundries
    At Cambois power station lying smouldering by the sea
    And to new Gods let these cathedrals be

    And when the time capsule opens on our age
    Will a future generation stand bewildered and amazed
    Among the brick stacks cooling towers and masonry remains
    And ask to whose Gods were these cathedrals raised?"

    Me, I spend a chunk of my professional life trying to help out under-funded museums. There's only a finite amount of money that can ever go towards them. So I incline towards ripping out Dowding's office and the filter room, and reconstructing them at Hendon.

    The filter room would be a way cool hands-on destination for schoolkids - set it up with replica kit, give them all historical roles, then get them to re-enact Adlertag. Teamwork, er 'citizenship skills', and historical understanding would all benefit.

    PS Lose the BoB, lose the war? Nah. Actually, losing the BoB might have helped to precipitate Sealion, AKA: "the destruction of the Kreigmarine and the Luftwaffe".

  2. Post author

    Yeah, ok, so I should have put in an extra weasel word!

    Your point about other, under-funded museums is a good one. (One of the comments on the Telegraph site pretty much implied that Bentley Priory was more deserving of Lottery money than the Mary Rose -- it being a mouldy old pile of timber and all. What a pillock. Of course, money spent on the Mary Rose is money not being spent on other museums ...) One point I didn't make was that it's not like there aren't plenty of other museums and memorials devoted to the RAF/aviation/etc anyway. That's why I tried to think of a way to make a Bentley Priory museum different from the others. I don't see a lot of point in having a museum there just for the sake of having a museum. (An interactive filter room would be very cool though -- you could also have observers watching simulated raids come in over the coast, trying to estimate their numbers etc and reporting that to the filter room, and other kids watching oscilloscopes at a simulated CH station ... though that last would probably have to be simplified greatly, of course. Then at the end reveal the 'true' raid strength and see how close they got.)

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