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Last Updated: Friday, 20 July 2007, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Sad salute to war command centre
By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News

Battle of Britain veterans attending the official closing ceremony for RAF Bentley Priory - the command centre from which Hitler's all-out air assault was stopped in its tracks - share their memories and feelings about the site's future.

RAF Bentley Priory (pic taken by Royal Air Force)
Plans for RAF Bentley Priory include an education centre and flats

"Churchill sat in this chair and King George VI in this one", says Flight Lieutenant Owen Burns matter-of-factly.

"Along with General Eisenhower, they were here at Bentley Priory monitoring the Normandy landings on D-Day."

The chairs in question have pride of place in the office of Sir Hugh Dowding - the mastermind behind the Battle of Britain, the most important event in RAF history.

Flt Lt "Robbie" Burns speaks reverentially of the office, or the "holy of holies" as he calls it, and will not dare sit in the late Lord Dowding's seat or touch anything on his desk.

The 91-year-old former gunner is one of 15 veterans who have gathered to say goodbye to RAF Bentley Priory, where Lord Dowding devised his plans to protect Britain against aerial attack.

They are 15 of "The Few" which the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill referred to in his now famous quote: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

'Spiritual home'

Set in sumptuous grounds, the Priory is a handsome house in Stanmore, north west London and, prior to the summer of 1940, it was already well-known for having been almost totally rebuilt by the great 18th century architect Sir John Soane.

The RAF base at Bentley Priory is now surplus to requirements and the historic building, subject to planning permission, is to be turned into a museum and apartments.

Hearing the Battle of Britain veterans talk of their "spiritual" home and their "grandfather" Lord Dowding, it is easy to understand their sadness and anger.

Flt Lt Burns said the closure was a "tragedy of the first order".

Kenneth Wilkinson
There's no suggestion of building houses at Blenheim Palace or Trafalgar Square, and I think altering this building in any way is entirely wrong
Veteran Kenneth Wilkinson

"When I walk through the door of this building, there's something about it," he said.

"People conducted a war from this building and if it wasn't for the Battle of Britain, all able-bodied Englishmen would have been taken to Germany as prisoners of war and made to work in the mines."

Squadron Leader Tony "Pick" Pickering said Lord Dowding was "ahead of his time".

The 86-year-old former fighter pilot from Rugby said: "I have been coming here for 50 years for reunions and dinners.

"We meet as a family and we all look up to Lord Dowding as a grandfather. We think of him and how his strategy saved this country."

While they understand the pressures of money, and look forward to the building being opened to the public, they just wish it could be kept as it is.

Flying Officer Kenneth Wilkinson, 89, from Solihull, said: "There's no suggestion of building houses at Blenheim Palace or Trafalgar Square, and I think altering this building in any way is entirely wrong."

'Saved the world'

RAF Bentley Priory is due to close in spring 2008 as part of the Ministry of Defence's consolidation project for Greater London.

Retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge is chair of the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust, set up two years ago to ensure the preservation of key heritage parts of the site.

He estimates they will need at least 5 million to turn the "historic heart" into a "visitor's attraction".

In addition to funding from the redevelopment of the site, the Trust is also hoping to secure Lottery funding and a public appeal will be launched in the spring.

He said creating a permanent exhibition would commemorate the sacrifices made and help people understand the historic events which "saved the world".

Tony Pickering
Tony Pickering has been coming to Bentley Priory for 50 years

"Bentley Priory is the epitome of the command of the Battle of Britain and if the Battle of Trafalgar saved Great Britain, the Battle of Britain saved the world," he said.

"It was the decisive battle of the Second World War, which enabled Britain to dig in for the long haul and defeat the powers of fascism."

Defence minister Lord Drayson, who also attended the sunset closure ceremony, said it was "vitally important" to maintain the building's heritage not just for the RAF, but for the country.

"The building is no longer required and we have a responsibility to the tax payer to make sure we make best use of resources," he said.

"We will ensure the heritage is maintained so future generations can understand what "The Few" went through."

But listening to the three veterans, one would think they hadn't gone through very much.

The trio are all so stoic, cool even about their experiences. It was "just a job", a "challenge", it was "life".

Ft Lt Burns summed it up: "It was a great experience for young people and it made men of us."

After a hectic day of media interviews, tea-drinking and chatting with the "old boys", they took part in the formal closure ceremony, which included a fly-by and drill display.

They then headed off to reminisce some more over dinner and a pint of Battle of Britain ale, no less.


SEE ALSO
Historic London air base closes
19 Jul 07 |  London
RAF cuts aircraft costs by 1.4bn
17 Jul 07 |  England

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