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EXACTLY three-quarters of a century after the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies over southern England, and 45 years after the death of the man who masterminded the operation that prevented a Nazi invasion of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and his team are back in action at Fighter Command’s impressive secret command centre in Middlesex.
Well, not exactly. So that the heroic efforts of Lord Dowding and the young fighter pilots he commanded are not forgotten, a museum has been created at Bentley Priory as a permanent memorial to their successful endeavours.
To preserve it for posterity, the public are not allowed into the room from which Dowding ran the intense three-month campaign, furnished with his desk and the seats used by prime minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower when they visited.
Instead, it has been ingeniously used as a backdrop to a 20-minute audio-visual presentation about the Battle of Britain, with glimpses of an actor playing the role of Dowding and speaking the words he uttered or expressed in letters to Churchill and others, as he sought support for his strategy.
He argued that Britain should not lose valuable fighter resources in the defence of France and that they should be retained to defend Britain. Not everyone agreed but eventually his tactics were proved right.
The Bentley Priory Museum at Stanmore, just north of London, which opened in 2013, is a brilliant and evocative reminder of a period in history that should never be forgotten. It also commemorates the national heroes whose bravery and determination in fighting an aggressive enemy were pivotal in ultimately achieving freedom from tyranny not only for the United Kingdom but also for civilisation.
The aim of Hitler’s Luftwaffe – the German Air Force – was to destroy Royal Air Force (RAF) airfields and infrastructure, paving the way for an amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. Dowding developed a system involving new technology – radar – and rapid communications through a set of reporting chains which monitored and led to the interception of Luftwaffe flights. That achievement will be enshrined in three stained glass windows at Bentley Priory Museum, two of which are already in place, alongside other windows depicting the Spitfires and Hurricanes that played such a vital role.
It was the Battle of Britain’s victory over Hitler’s forces that led Winston Churchill to utter his memorable tribute: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The brave young pilots, mostly British but also from many other countries, were referred to by Churchill as Dowding’s “chicks” and eventually became known as “the Few”.
Dowding retired as Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command, unwillingly, on November 24, 1940, before the end of World War II, and the failure to reward his efforts by making him an Air Marshal was widely criticised.
In retirement he turned his mind to the fate of the airmen who had sacrificed their lives in the battle. Did they still exist in another dimension and, if so, could they communicate with their loved ones?
When they met, she asked him why he had invited her to lunch. Dowding explained that shortly after receiving her letter he had visited a medium through whom Max had spoken. “I wish you would take my wife out to lunch,” Max is reported to have said. “You will like her.” And he did.
Dowding was a widower, his first wife having died two years after they married, following a short illness, leaving him with a young son. He and Mrs Whiting fell in love and married and she proved to be a great influence on his life, persuading him to give up game shooting and become a vegetarian.
Dowding, who was given a peerage in 1943 in recognition of his wartime services, became increasingly occupied with spiritual matters and with Spiritualism in particular. He recorded his quest for spiritual knowledge in a trilogy of books that had a huge impact on a grieving world: Many Mansions, Lychgate and Dark Star (all of them recently republished by White Crow Books). He also campaigned against animal cruelty and his wife, Lady Dowding, was a founder of Beauty Without Cruelty, the first company ever to launch a range of ethical cosmetics and one that still exists today.
Badly crippled by arthritis in his later years, Lord Dowding made his last public appearance in a wheelchair in September 1969 when he attended the royal premiere of the film Battle of Britain in which he saw himself portrayed by Laurence Olivier.
When he passed away, less than four months later, he was described by Psychic News as “our most famous living Spiritualist”. A private cremation service was held and his ashes were laid to rest in a memorial service at Westminster Abbey.
The casket holding his ashes was carried by a Battle of Britain pilot and a close friend of Dowding. Four wing commanders carried the Air Chief Marshal’s insignia and the escort was formed of 16 surviving Battle of Britain pilots.
Lord Dowding’s ashes were buried just beneath a hole pierced through the wall of the abbey by a fragment of a German bomb towards the end of the battle and just a few feet away from those of Lord Trenchard, founder of the RAF.
“Opposite,” The Times reported, “is the grave of Oliver Cromwell. All around are the graves and chapels of the Kings of England.”
Among those invited to the 1970 memorial service was Hunter Mackintosh, president of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, and medium Ena Twigg, who said she saw Lord Dowding’s spirit standing between two vases of roses at the altar during the service. He looked radiant, “full of life and vitality”.