Skip main navigation

The Battle of Britain and Bomber Command Museums

Peter Elliot and Ross Mahoney discuss the establishment of the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command Museums at RAF Hendon.
ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome back. So in the last section, we looked at the decision to create an RAF Museum here at Hendon. We’re going to move on a little bit and look at the creation of the Battle of Britain Museum. And here we’re stood in what was once called the Battle of Britain Museum is now the Battle of Britain Hall as part of the RAF Museum. Peter, can you tell me why we end up with a Battle of Britain Museum here at Hendon?
PETER ELLIOT: Well, there had been plans to perhaps site a Battle of Britain Museum at Beacon Hill but the decision was taken as part of the museum’s expansion plan in the late 1970s to base it here at Hendon.
ROSS MAHONEY: And I mean, what does the collection represent? I mean, how important is it to the museum?
PETER ELLIOT: The Battle of Britain obviously is one of the RAF’s defining moments, when the RAF effectively saved the nation. And clearly that is a story that the museum must tell. And with our outstanding collection of aircraft, particularly the German aircraft of the Battle of Britain, but also the aircraft from the RAF that took part in the battle. It was an obvious choice to bring them together and tell the story.
ROSS MAHONEY: Just going back to the creation of the museum, the museum was a separate entity to the RAF Museum for a long time, wasn’t it? Why did that– why was that the case, and why did it eventually become part of a broader museum?
PETER ELLIOT: It seems to be that although the initial Royal Air Force Museum was funded by the Ministry of Defence, they were less keen on funding expansion, and obviously more staff costs, and running costs, and so on. And so the Battle of Britain Museum was set up as an independent trust.
ROSS MAHONEY: What role do you think this hall plays in the public memory of the Battle of Britain? We’ve got behind us a statute of Keith Park. What sort of role do you think the museum, and this hall in particular, plays in commemorating what’s arguably the RAF’s defining moment?
PETER ELLIOT: In many ways it’s probably the only place in the country where you can see such a collection of aircraft that took part in the battle, artefacts from the battle, stories about the people themselves– the well-known people, like Douglas Bader for example, whose uniform is on the first floor.
ROSS MAHONEY: So there we have it. We heard a little bit about the history of a unique collection in the United Kingdom and the role the museum plays in the public’s memory of the history of the Royal Air Force. In the next section, we’ll be going on to discuss briefly another bit of the site that was also a separate museum, and that’s the Bomber Command Museum. Now we’re stood in what was originally, in the early 1980s, the Bomber Command Museum, which was the next phase in the development of the site here at Hendon. Peter, can you tell us why do we end up with a Bomber Command Museum, in addition to what was already here on the site?
PETER ELLIOT: Well, of course since the museum was founded, the aircraft collection has continued to grow. And between the opening of the original museum and the end of the 1970s, more aircraft were becoming available. Some of those had gone into the Battle of Britain Museum, but aircraft like the Halifax behind us here had become available and needed somewhere to be displayed. And in a sense, the Battle of Britain Hall is talking about the fighter pilots, the fighter crews, and their ground crews’ role, in particularly the Second World War.
This building talks more about the bombing role in general, from the First World War through to– well, up to the Gulf War with aircraft that have come in since, like a Tornado. So we needed more space to display aircraft, and obviously people will keep coming to see new aircraft and so on. Again, the Ministry wouldn’t fund the building and the staff. So a separate trust was set up to run the Bomber Command. The money had to be raised through an appeal and so on.
ROSS MAHONEY: I mean, one of the interesting– of course, Bomber Command in the Second World War, its history is quite controversial. In essence, the Bomber Command Museum is one of the first public memorials to Bomber Command in general, but I suppose in the sense of the Second World War. Was there any controversy about its opening, or has there been anything since? Or have people just recognised that this is a memorialisation and commemoration of a part of the RAF’s history?
PETER ELLIOT: I think as you say, the bomber role, particularly in the Second World War, has always been perhaps not– controversial isn’t perhaps the word I would use. But there’s a big difference between Fighter Command saving Great Britain, and some people’s perception of Bomber Command bringing retribution to the German population. I think there was some controversy when we discussed looking at the bomber offensive in more detail, and looking at the effect on Germany at the individual level, so to speak, the de-housing and so on. But mostly feedback has been more about it being a source of memorial to the 55,000-plus who died in Bomber Command.
ROSS MAHONEY: In terms of the aircraft in the collection that’s in this hall, I mean it obviously spans Bomber Command’s history, but also the successor to Bomber Command, Strike Command. We have a Tornado and so forth in the collection here. I mean, has the collection in this hall changed at all over the course of the history, and why has that been the case?
PETER ELLIOT: In the early years, we covered bombing from the First World War. For example, the Sopwith Tabloid, which took– admittedly a replica aircraft, but a type which took part in some of the early bombing operations of the First World War. And yes, we have changed aircraft periodically as new aircraft became available. The Fairey Battle behind you came in at the end of its restoration programme. The Buccaneer came at the end of the Gulf War and helps to bring the story of that bit much more up to date. And since then we’ve added Tornadoes, that type came out of service to show, again, part of the progression and the fact that Air Force history keeps happening.
ROSS MAHONEY: Thank you, Peter. An interesting point, the RAF’s history keeps on evolving. And as that happens, the museum gains new types that are representative, and we see that here in the Bomber Command Hall. In future sections, we’ll go on to look at the history of the site up at Cosford, and in particular, the National Cold War Exhibition. So come back to us later.

The Battle of Britain and Bomber Command Museums at RAF Hendon.

In this step, Peter and Ross examine the following statements and questions:

  1. Was there a defined strategy to develop the Hendon site beyond the Historic Hangers in 1972?
  2. The Battle of Britain Museum received a warm reception on its opening
  3. In the public’s memory, the Battle of Britain represents the historical pinnacle of the RAF
  4. The Bomber Command Museum was opened 15 years after the demise of Bomber Command
  5. This would have been one of the first public memorials to Bomber Command of any type
  6. With the advent of the National Cold War Exhibit at Cosford, the museum became The Bomber Hall. Was there any significant change in the emphasis of the collection?

We would welcome your thoughts below.

This article is from the free online

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now