History

Bentley Priory RAF Museum: how data helped win the Battle of Britain

I recently visited the Battle of Britain Museum at Bentley Priory in outer London. The Priory was used by the RAF as its HQ during the Second World War, making it one of the handful of locations around London and the south east from which it can be claimed with some justification that the war was fought / won / saved.

Much of the Priory’s lands are now gated private development, the funds from which helped fund the building’s restoration and conversion to a museum. That gives visiting the museum a somewhat exclusive air as you have to get security to let you in through the gates into the private grounds in order to reach it.

The museum itself does a much better job than many other larger and more famous ones at explaining the role of data, and management of data, in the Battle of Britain. The idea that radar was the secret winning technology is these days seen as rather a myth – because the Germans not only knew about radar but had their own, technically superior, radar systems.

What the British had, however, was the data and management systems to put the information from radar to fearsomely and thankfully efficient use. The British had systems that matched up radar data with other information (such as from volunteer observers scanning the sky), filtered it to turn the mess of confusion into a stream of clear and accurate knowledge, dispersed it speedily to those who needed it and then displayed it clearly. That was what made radar a winner for the British whilst for the Germans, without such systems, it was a side-detail of little impact in this battle.

Part of that data system was a series of standardised control rooms around the country (such as the one in Hillingdon), using the same layout and same carefully designed features such as colour coding schemes on clocks and maps to show how recent information on display was. Bentley Priory was the location where the first of these was built in a test form – a beta of the Battle of Britain, as it were – and then subsequently hosted the filtering control room that was at the heart of the network.

Bentley Priory Battle Of Britain Control Room Recreation

There was a reminder too of how much the Battle of Britain was fought not just by the British but by a successful pan-European coalition:

Bentley Priory Battle Of Britain Poster

Definitely worth a visit if you are still interested in the topic after having been to the more famous and larger museums.

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