Designing the Battle of Britain

12 September 2013

It’s the anniversary of Battle of Britain Day this weekend, named for the decisive battle of the Battle of Britain on the 15th September, when the Luftwaffe tried to ‘sweep the RAF from the skies’ over Britain, and pretty much everything that either side could put into the air was up there.

This time last year I went to visit the Battle of Britain Bunker at Hillingdon, the operations room which managed the air defences of the South Coast. It’s now an RAF museum, and has an energetic young curator who is trying to increase public access to this important part of our military heritage.

 Of course, the big map table which tracked the progress of the battle has been made famous by films such as The Battle of Britain (1969). But I was actually more interested in the monitoring system on the wall, a system of lights that enabled commanders to see at a glance the status of every section of every squadron at every airbase in Group Eleven, which covered the south-east.

Spitfires and Hurricanes could only stay in the air for about 30 minutes before they ran short of fuel, so on 15th September they were in a constant cycle of being ready on the ground, in the air, returning to base, and refuelling and re-arming. 

 

What the lights represented was a live real-time information system, kept up to date largely through phone messages and slips of paper. In an age when the first valve driven computer was still being designed (at Bletchley Park) it’s an impressive piece of information design.

The Battle of Britain Bunker is open by appointment for guided tours. There’s also a virtual tour online.

The photographs are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved. 

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