Bentley Priory at Stanmore, was formerly an 18th Cent stately home designed by architect Sir John Soane and owned by the Marquess of Abercorn, and was a magnet for the cream of society before being purchased by the Air Ministry in 1926 and converted into an RAF base. Ten years later in June 1936, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (“Stuffy” as he was known) arrived for his first day as commander-in-chief of Bentley Priory – which became the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command – the nerve centre of operations during the battle for national survival that raged in the air between July and October 1940. So four years after taking command, amid the noise of air sirens, he would “stand there, eyes raw with tiredness watching the Battle of Britain unfold in the skies above him”
By the start of that summer 1940, Hitler had conquered Europe and set his sights on Britain. The Luftwaffe numbered some 2,800 aircraft, and Nazi commanders estimated that victory over the Royal Air Force would take a matter of days. But Dowding and his men had other ideas. Bentley Priory was covered in green and brown camouflage paint and surrounded with sandbags, whilst inside, all its great rooms filled with desks, maps and Bakelite telephones. Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command were co-ordinated from here in dogfights across Britain. Stuffy, who had devised the Dowding System, an integrated defence of radar, raid plotting and radio communication, would often work for 48 hours at a time.
In 2007 the building was sold by the Ministry of Defence to the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust – a group of veterans who won permission to convert it into a museum and education centre.
Entering the newly renovated building, we were immediately faced by many new specially-commissioned beautiful etched and stained glass windows, wonderfully illustrating the various facets of the Battle of Britain, in a very airy setting.
As we continued, we saw that rest of the museum was finished to a similar very high standard seldom found in Museums, and that the exhibits were laid out in very sympathetic settings which re-created the heady days of the battle. A wonderful array of medals and memorabilia in the rotunda was counterbalanced by an excellent multi-media video of Stuffy Dowding’s time at the Priory.
We were privileged to be the only group present during the morning and all the staff were available to answer our many questions. The view of London from the patio was magnificent, amply illustrating the Priory’s dominant location, and it was so easy sitting there, to visualise the air battles above, as Stuffy did.
After lunch, we had 3 guides to help us around the extensively-stocked RAF Museum so many aircraft, in fact, that 2 of the 3 the guides worked their socks off to make sure that they covered every aspect of all planes in the 2 hours allowed, and lost a lot of us on the way. But even wandering on our own, the impressive collection basically spoke volumes for itself. A very enjoyable day Well organised Steve Duckworth.