Grahame Park WayStanmore NW9 5LL
21 April 2016
As Linda wrote at the time, our visit to the RAF Museum on 23 March was very incomplete, so today we tried again, paying close attention to the little map you can pick up at the entrance. Even so, we did not find it easy, as the Battle of Britain Hall is mainly labelled 'Echo Alpha Tango' (Eat, ie the restaurant, you see) and the clearest signage of all is to the Conference Centre....
Still, this time we did try harder, and walked through the 'Milestones of Flight' following signs to the Control Tower. Here we found a couple if information boards about Air Traffic Control, but mostly it was a portrait gallery of First World War Flying Aces from all nations. A 'victory' is the shooting down of any enemy aircraft, and five 'victories' makes you an Ace. We noted that one US pilot had 18 victories, but 14 of them were balloons, which we thought might be a rather easier target than some.
There was just one Russian who, having been appointed an attache in Washington, chose to become a US citizen rather than return to the now-Bolshevik USSR. The 'Red Baron' is obviously a different meaning of the term red: but von Richthofen was of course here, as were many British and Dominion Pilots. The fact that there were no parachutes in those days was brought home by the story of Max Ritter von Muller, who preferred to jump to his certain death rather than stay in his burning plane.
There was an interactive screen on this floor, but it was out of order as indeed were the lifts. We don't know whether this was 'again' or 'still' following our last visit a month ago, but we were glad stairs are not a problem for us.
Next we came to the story of how the RAF saved Britain from invasion in 1940. I shall just say now that there was not a single mention of the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy here or anywhere that I could find, leaving me to wonder where the RAF got the aviation fuel. And also to reflect on Admiral Jervis' remark to the House of Lords in 1803: 'My Lords, I do not say the French cannot come, I merely say they cannot come by sea'. Since it was the Royal Navy who saved the Army at Dunkirk, with precious little air cover (explained on a wall: need to save the planes for later) I felt the RAF version was a little oversimplified, to say the least. But I digress.
The story is told in three phases, really: Radar gave Britain a huge advantage; if Goering had concentrated on the Radar stations, the RAF would have been unable to see; but then Goering switched to trying to wipe out the planes and airfields; and that would have been successful had Hitler not ordered the target to be switched to London and the other cities. So, the displays and film explain, we won the Battle of Britain, the USA entered the war, and so to D-Day and Victory.
We passed the simulator (£3.00) and followed signs which said 'this way' to reach the Bomber Hall through a plastic tunnel. The foyer area is dedicated to Remembrance, with boards about the Cenotaph, war memorials and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One side wall provides information about AeroFilms and Britain from the air. We were struck by photos of the terrible floods of 1953, well within our lifetime.
There were also some screens with information about the life of Prisoners of War: many RAF pilots ended up in German hands, and in the camps reserved for the airforce (Stalag LUFT), as we know from innumerable feature films. The description of the long marches forced on them as the Allies advanced was pretty harrowing.
But of course the main point of the hall in the absolutely enormous aeroplanes. 'How did they ever take off?' mused Linda. We saw planes of all periods and followed the history of bombing through to the nuclear option, air-to-air missiles, and then the unmanned flights now used. There was a separate section about the Cold War and the tensions that Linda and I grew up with.
We enjoyed the history of Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service. They were once deployed with the RAF but now that all military hospitals are closed, they work in units of the NHS and are also used in repatriating wounded service personnel. We saw film of them working during the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Linda had wanted to see a Halifax Bomber, having read the Kate Atkinson novel, but none survived the war intact. So we were very interested in the story of the plane lifted from Lake Hoklingen in Norway and restored. This aircraft was part of the attack on the Tirpitz.
The next attraction was some filmed information about the Dambusters Raid, or Operation 'Chastise'. It took us a few moments to locate the button which starts the film, since it was a couple of metres away from the screen. Despite having seen the 1955 feature film several times, I learned several new and interesting facts: Guy Gibson was only 24 years old when he commanded 617 Squadron; the bouncing bomb was code named 'Upkeep'. And, most interesting of all, the Squadron's Badge depicts a dam being breached with the motto 'Apres moi le deluge'.
The Historic Hangars contained more aeroplanes, but also a model of a crashed bomber crew in a life raft, about to release a pigeon. We made our way out (through doors labelled 'welcome to the Conference Centre') and headed to the Battle of Britain Hall. Here there was a display about the rise of the Nazis and the way they circumvented the Treaty of Versailles and were able to have their airforce ready as soon as Hitler began his open rearming. We saw Neville Chamberlain and his 'piece of paper', and exhibits about Evacuation, Anderson Shelters and the Auxiliary Fire Service. A few minutes of film gave us information about the development and importance of Radar. There was also a section outlining the story of Enigma.
A huge (St Pancras 'Meeting Place' size) statue of Sir Keith Park dominates one end of the hall, but more absorbing was the wall covered with Squadron badges, and Linda and I spent a few minutes dusting off our latin and translating. A wall was lined with the names of all the Battle of Britain pilots (2353 of them) of who 544 died. 791 more died before the end of the war, a terrible number until you read that 55,000 bomber crewmen died. Upstairs there was a display of uniforms and medals and a couple of celebrity life stories: Douglas Bader was one, and Lawrence 'of Arabia' another, though his time in the was under the pseudonyms Ross and then Shaw.
The Museum had done an Art project with some students, and we admired portraits of RAF personnel in their old age alongside photographs of them in their service days.
We returned to the ground floor and the modern world by walking through a Sunderland Seaplane, bombs and all, though the last exhibit to catch our eye was a Nazi V2 rocket presaging, I suppose, the next stage in air power after the aeroplane.
We had found the museum really interesting, and would never have seen it all in one visit, even if we had known where to go. But clearer signage would be good....