At the end of this week, on July 10th, it is the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Even now, so many decades on, this event remains prolific in the public eye – and rightly so. The heroic efforts of the RAF in the 1940 were vital in thwarting the Nazi ambitions of invading the British Isles, in securing the needed foothold from which the eventual D-Day landings would be launched, and, in this, the eventual allied victory. It was a key struggle in not just national history but global history too, and one that, as needs to be remembered, was waged from the suburbs of Harrow, at the historic house of Bentley Priory.
Of course, the Priory had been a place of importance long before its role in the war – with it notably having been the residence of the Dowager Queen Adelaide in the nineteenth century, who we looked at a few weeks’ back. When Adelaide passed in 1849, the Priory changed hands before settling as a hotel for a short while – in which the owner extended the railway line from Harrow to Stanmore so as to convenience his guests – until the early twentieth century, when the house became a girls’ school. Yet like the hotel before it, the school was eventually forced to close, this time due to the financial depression that followed the First World War in 1924. For two years after, as had occurred before in the building’s history, Bentley Priory lingered stagnant, until in 1926 the house was acquired by the Royal Air Force, and in the 1930s, as a second war loomed ever-larger, the Priory became the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command – in so doing starting what is perhaps the most important chapter in its extensive history.
It was then that the house underwent a number of improvised alterations as Fighter Command raced to prepare for the coming conflict. This involved a number of renovations – most notably of the Priory’s two largest rooms – what are now the anteroom and the Ladies Room for those who have visited the house. These were converted into the Operations Room and the Filter Room – which would become the heart of the soon-to-be famous, and highly important, ‘Dowding System.’ This system was named after its creator, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, who at this time, was a local Harrow resident – staying at his sister’s home in Stanmore on Gordon Avenue. Indeed, in 1943, Dowding would affiliate his own name with the local area when he took the title Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory.
Before this, however, his system was crucial in securing victory against the Luftwaffe – indeed, many argue it was the key reason on the British side for the victorious outcome of the battle. As the world’s first integrated air defence system – incorporating a number different elements, from radar to human observers to radio control of aircraft – it made up for any deficiencies found in radar, or any of the other elements for that matter, thereby ensuring that the correct squadrons across the country were scrambled in time to intercept the Luftwaffe before they could reach their targets.
But a vital part of this process was the feeding of this information – taken from so many different sources – to one location and then the subsequent synthesis and diffusing of it to the relevant locations. It was here, in Harrow’s own Bentley Priory and what is now the anteroom and Ladies Room, that this process took place – ensuring a rapid and yet surgical response to the incoming Nazi attacks, and in so doing facilitating the successful repelling of the Luftwaffe.
Surprisingly, despite how important the Dowding System made the Priory, the grounds were on the whole largely undamaged by the war. Two small bombs did destroy a wooden hut near the married quarters on the grounds, and over the course of the conflict a number of windows were shattered as a result of nearby blasts – but, of all these, it was an allied aircraft that came the closest to destroying the Priory when it attempted a landing on the house’s front lawn.
Following the victory in the Battle of Britain and in the ensuing struggle of the Blitz, the grounds continued to be an important site for the nation, with Dowding continuing to guide the defence efforts from his desk in the house until he left office in November 1940. Then, as the war neared its end, the Priory again became an important site for different reason – becoming the planning headquarters for D-Day (although much of the detailed planning work would take place elsewhere at Kestrel Grove, another local Harrow site).
With this all in mind, then, it is no small thing to say that Bentley Priory – and in this Stanmore and the wider Harrow area – was one of the places across the country (and the world) where the Second World War was won for the allies’. In the summer months of 1940, Britain as a nation hung on a very narrow precipice – they had been thrashed at Dunkirk and now Nazi Germany, then undefeated, sat on its doorstep. It was in this uncertain time that Bentley Priory took on its most important role as the headquarters of Fighter Command, becoming the heart of the RAF’s efforts to defeat the Luftwaffe in the skies above Britain, and in so doing ensuring the world and the future that we now inhabit.
With the anniversary of this crucial moment in history coming up, there may be no better time to visit the recently opened Bentley Priory Museum (open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturday from 12:00PM to 5:00PM), the home of a number of artefacts from the struggle waged and won within its walls.
For more information on Bentley Priory and its museum, visit here: http://bentleypriorymuseum.org.uk/whats-on/
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: City & Country