Honoring the many and the few
It sits low on the ground, a spare, elegant building that celebrates the most inspiring of stories. The new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum fits snuggly into the surrounding landscape enfolding the St George’s Chapel of Remembrance. From this airfield station in Kent, Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires took to the skies in the dark days of July to October 1940, piloted by young men intent on the defence of the country. 454 of them perished in the furious aerial conflict with German forces in the Battle of Britain.
Now in the new museum, opened in early February 2019, I discover the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station told through the lives of those who served and worked here. It makes for a humbling – but uplifting – experience. In the softly lit, well laid out rooms the life of Biggin Hill unfolds, from its early days, its daily life, the community around it and now how we remember those who had lived and died here. Voices reach out from the past from video mounted screens and interactive displays. A host of objects set the scene: old flying jackets, uniforms, maps and photos, a Jewish prayer book, a child’s gas mask and box, a cockpit clock from a downed German aircraft, all take me into a busy station where uncertainly and danger were met with amazing courage and dedication.
I am taken back to the airfield’s beginnings when, in 1917, it was set up to test new developments in fight. Then came World War 2 and the Battle of Britain, Biggin Hill’s defining moment in history. Part of a series of airfields that were to protect the capital it was, said Winston Churchill, ‘the strongest link’. Much focus naturally is on the young fighter pilots who served here and who were `scrambled’ to dash into the skies at often only a few minutes notice and who were famously described by Churchill as ` the few’. On the audio guide featuring Dan Snow, I hear the voices of the late Geoffrey Wellum (the youngest Spitfire pilot to serve at 19 years of age) and pilot Tom Neil telling of their never -to-be-forgotten experiences.
But this museum tells us too about `the many’ who supported them and served here; the ground crews, the engineers, the tea ladies and civilians from the town. Of the three Military Medals awarded for bravery in the WAAF, three were given to Biggin Hill WAAFs. Sergeant Helen Turner who worked on the switchboard, stayed at her post during heavy bombing raids and won her Military Medal for bravery in 1940. Trixie, a young woman who provided refreshments to those working at the station, was killed during a bombing raid in August 1940. I read about Lilian, eldest daughter of the Simpson family who lived in Biggin Hill, and who met a Canadian pilot who served at the station who later became a prisoner of war. I read letters they exchanged throughout the war. Older brother Harry Simpson, inspired by the pilots around him at Biggin Hill, joined the RAF at 18 but was lost to his family when his Lancaster failed to return from a mission.
In the museum’s Nightingale Cafe, I meet Geoff Greensmith who was born nearby and whose father Bill ran the original Nightingale Cafe on the base. The only child allowed into the airfield, he tells how he watched the ground crews attend to the Hurricanes and Spitfires and scavenged for souvenirs from the planes. Far from fear, he often felt only excitement at what was going on around him.
An inner courtyard between the museum and the Chapel contains a consecrated memorial garden where roses will bloom. Later I walk through a passage with a glass ceiling which connects the museum and Chapel where visitors are invited to look up at the sky, the combat zone where many young men died. The original Chapel was dedicated in 1943, but burnt down in 1946 and a new chapel was built in 1951. Later Geoff explains how while most things were lost in the 1946 fire, the original chapel Bible was much later found to have survived and is on display.
Now restored to its original design, the Chapel commemorates those of different nationalities who fought here. All 454 names of those who lost their lives are listed behind the altar and gifts from their home countries are on display. With its low ceiling and polished wooden floors, made from the slats of propeller blades, and stained-glass windows honoring the station fighter pilots, the Chapel is a quiet, reflective place. After the Department of Defence stopped using Biggin Hill as an airfield, the future of the Chapel became uncertain. With funding from the National Lottery and the Central Government, the museum project ensured its future. Long in the making, the new museum and restored Chapel now stand together on hallowed ground and a visit makes an absorbing encounter with a pivotal episode in British history.
Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, Main Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3EJ.