Battle of Britain 70th anniversary: Inside the Ops Room at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

By Richard Moss | 03 September 2010
A close-up photograph of a map plotting table
The plotting table in the Duxford Ops Room© Richard Moss/Culture24
It doesn’t matter if it was a documentary or a movie - if you have ever seen any film about the Battle of Britain, the Operations Room at Duxford will be a familiar place.

The nerve centre of the Battle, the “Ops Room” – whether at HQ or airbase level – was the setting for the vital collation, plotting and dissemination of information to the fighter squadrons who scrambled to meet the threat of Luftwaffe bombers and their fighter escorts.

Even today at Duxford, 70 years on from the height of the Battle of Britain, the Ops Room is an atmospheric location.

“There was certainly a lot of drama to be had between the people on the ground who were issuing instructions to the people in the air,” says Imperial War Museum Duxford's Head of Collections, Stephen Woolford, as we stand amidst the plotting tables, switchboards and wall charts with their mysterious cyphers.
a photo of a wicker chair with a blue tin helmet, gas mask bag and headphones resting in it
A wicker chair with a WAAF's tin helmet, gas mask and headphones© Richard Moss/Culture24
All the familiar props are in place, from the central plotting map table with names like Wattisham, Mildenhall, Debden and Hornchurch - carefully marked with red circles - down to the wicker chairs where headphones, gas masks and RAF blue tin helmets lie waiting for WAAFs to arrive and plot the deadly aerial battle.

On the wall hangs an iconic RAF Operations Room Plotting Clock with its painted dial divided into coloured triangles of red, yellow and blue for 2½ minute periods, correlating to the coloured pieces on the map table.

The atmosphere is heightened when the original Tannoys crackles into life. “You can hear what was happening in the air so you get that drama of the people following the action,” says Woolford, as a convincing recreation of the attack on Duxford in August 1940 fills the room.  

a black and white photograph of RAF men working the phones in a busy Operations Room
The Ops Room at Duxford during the height of the Battle of Britain© Imperial War Museum
Woolford was charged with reconstructing the room in the 1980s after the IWM took over the former RAF airbase a decade earlier.

“What we’re looking at here is in fact a reconstruction of what this room looked like in 1940," he says.

“It was an absolutely fascinating project, and an opportunity to get involved in a very detailed and important piece of history to do with the Battle of Britain - one of the key issues that helped Britain win was how they directed their fighters into combat.”

The Battle of Britain RAF Ops Room had its roots in the First World War when early warning systems were used to spot Zeppelin raiders, the movements of which were carefully plotted in a control room much like the one we’re standing in now.

a photo of a clock with red, blue and yellow triangles incoporated into its clockface
The iconic Ops Room Clock © Richard Moss/Culture24
By the time of the Armistice it was a tried and tested method that survived to form the basis of the command and control system of Fighter Command.

However, the big technical change that helped tip the balance was the development of radar. “From the mid-1930s onwards the British put a lot of emphasis on it, developing a chain of radar stations around the UK known as Chain Home and Chain High for high coverage and low coverage," explains Woolford.

“The weakness of radar was that it only looked out to the sea, but it gave sufficient early warning to alert the controllers in the operations room to think about where they should place their fighter aircraft.”

Once the information came in from a radar station, or from the spotters of the Royal Observer Corps, it went into the headquarters at Bentley Priory, whose controllers passed it out to a whole series of rooms like the one at Duxford.

A photo of an operations room with telephones, switchboards, plotting table etc
© Richard Moss/Culture24
“People tend to think that the systems developed for air defence in the Battle of Britain were quite a new thing, but they actually have quite a long prehistory to them,” adds Woolford. “In fact, this building was built in 1928 - so it predates what became Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain by quite a long way.”

The pre-war date came with pre-war protection too. At Duxford, in common with most of the operations blocks at airfield level, the room was incredibly vulnerable. The only fortification came from the brick blast walls that still welcome visitors to the historic site today.

a photo of five lightboards with numbers and status reports on them mounted onto a wall - underneath them is a black board with the words: state of squadrons
The status boards bear the names of the famous Squadrons that flew out of Duxford © Richard Moss/Culture24
“It’s a brick bungalow basically,” says Woolford. “There’s no strengthening up there or anything - so a direct hit in a room like this would have been devastating.”

Fortunately for the Duxford Ops Room staff of WAAFs and RAF officers, the raids that hit the airfield during the Battle didn’t "take them out" – as happened at the frontline fighter station, Biggin Hill.

“Luckily they [Biggin Hill] did have a back-up," adds Woolford, "but if you keep hitting people hard enough and you keep disrupting their command and control system then they are not going to be able to fight so efficiently.

“Perhaps the best illustration of success in the Battle is demonstrated by the fact that the latter didn’t happen and the RAF managed to continue to put up fighter aircraft in sufficient numbers to cause the Germans significant damage.”

The famous fighter Squadrons of Duxford – 19, 242, 310, 611 and 312 - have now departed, but their names remain on the light boards on the Ops Room wall. Beneath them are status reports - “In Position”, “Detailed to Raid”, “Enemy Sighted”… 

Today the room at Duxford might be a calmer place, but the names, the memories and the atmosphere remain as tangible as ever.  

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