Deep underground in Uxbridge is a museum. It didn’t begin life as a museum. It was dug out of the ground in 1938, by contractors, who were sworn to secrecy. The construction included pipework, electricity, telephone lines and sewers. The walls are made out of concrete, and a metre thick. Sitting above the ceiling is 30 feet of earth. Why so much of it? The bunker needed to be bomb proof.
Welcome to RAF Uxbridge’s the Battle of Britain Bunker, and No 11 Group Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain and D-Day, fighter aircraft operations were managed in this bunker. Now, after the addition of a visitor’s centre, it is a museum.
Hundreds of secret bunkers were built during WWII. If Britain had been invaded, a network of resistance fighters would rise up out of the ground and mobilise. After the war, they were supposed to be destroyed and forgotten but enthusiasts tracked some of the surviving sites down. Others were kept on to become a defensive operational sites during the Cold War. Many are still secret, but a few of them have been decommissioned and opened to the public.
In Liverpool, the Western Approaches Museum isn’t underground; it sits on a street corner in a stark building. Here, operations to protect Atlantic convoys from U-boat attacks were coordinated. While in London, underneath Westminster, Churchill’s cabinet met in the War Rooms. These days a visitor will see map rooms and the living quarters of the staff who existed like moles and rarely surfaced. The Churchill War Rooms were open to the public in 1985 and are a very popular tourist attract.
But deeper underground are the Nuclear Bunkers.
The York Cold War bunker was built in 1961 to monitor nuclear explosions. Part of the control centre for the Royal Observers Corps, it was opened to the public in 2006, and is now a heritage monument. Thankfully, it was never put to use for its key purpose: collating the details of exploded bombs in Britain and tracking radioactive fallout. The staff would have been civilian volunteers and members of the UK’s Warning and Monitoring Organisation.
Scotland had secret nuclear bunkers too. At Fife, a farmhouse obscures the entrance to one- Scotland’s Secret Bunker. Down below, 300 people would have lived there in the event of a nuclear war. Built in 1951, it had a chapel, cinema and RAF control Room. After forty years of secrecy, you can go underground and see it for yourself. Built on 2 levels, each as big as a football pitch, stacked on top of each other just like a bunk bed.
Hack Green Nuclear Bunker was originally built as a decoy site with the intention of encouraging German night bombers to attack it, instead of nearby cities. Given the name of Starfish, these decoys simulated cities with arrays of lights. During the Fifties, Hack Green was repurposed to provide air traffic control, then changed again to house a regional government in the event of a nuclear war. There were seventeen sites designated across the UK as government bunkers. Now in private hands, the museum includes a large collection of decommissioned nuclear weapons and simulated nuclear attacks.
Kelvedon Hatch Secret Bunker is deep underground, and operated right into the 1980s. The exhibits include fax machines and teleprinters – remember when they were cutting edge technology? It was supposed to be a place of safety for local government, who were told to take shelter under tables in the event of an attack. Doesn’t seem to be that safe.
All these underground museums lack of daylight, have labyrinth tunnels, early computing technology, and a strange sense that life would have fatalistically gone on regardless. Manufactured for the purposes of war, these days, they are a reminder of how close we came to devastation, and how also during WWII, dedicated services people lived in such gloomy conditions for long periods.
I wonder how far away each of us might live from one of these secret underground bunkers.