The Battle of Britain and the Battle of Bosworth
This is a transcript of episode 39 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Celia Richardson, Billy Reading and Daniel Stirland as we continue our journey through the history of power, protest & progress in England.
A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In this series we explore the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. So, how does it work? We've got ten categories, ten expert judges and thousands of your nominations and together they will lead us to a list of 100 places that tell England's story. In this episode we continue the Power, Protest & Progress category, which has been judged by historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga.
Today we're looking at those places chosen by David which embody power and conflict and to take a journey through these locations I'm joined by Celia Richardson and Billy Reading.
So, location number seven in the Power, Protest & Progress category is, I'm delighted to say, the battlefield at Bosworth. On the 22nd of August 1485 Henry Tudor brought a small rebel army to face a much larger royal army of King Richard III. In the heat of the battle Richard was surrounded by his enemies and lost his horse in the marsh. However, he fought on boldly to the last, vowing to die or to win but he was cut down in the thickest press of his foes. Even his enemies describe him as dying like a valiant prince.
Legend has it that a man called Reginald Bray picked up Richard's gold crown from a nearby thorn bush and crowned Henry Tudor on the battlefield as King Henry VII of England. This was a major turning point in the Wars of the Roses, which together with the Battle of Stoke two years later, represented the end of that 30-year conflict between the two rival royal houses of Lancaster and York. It was a battle of such huge importance but it took a long time, didn't it, to discover the definitive location of the skirmish?
That's right. Bosworth retains a really enduring appeal in British history. It's not just a story of defeat in victory but it's a story of treachery and intrigue and it's still... there are still unanswered questions about it now, even over 500 years later. So, our understanding of where the battle was fought and exactly how Richard III died is still being radically reformed and hotly debated and it's taken many years for the exact location of the battle to be pinned down. But eventually, in 2010, a group called the Battlefield Survey proved that the battle was fought about a mile southwest of Ambion Hill on either side of Fenn Lane.
So, how did they prove that? What was the evidence they used?
There was a big metal detecting survey which helped them to really pin it down and during that survey they covered a huge area of land and finally recovered a really unique collection of medieval cannonballs -I think the most from any European battlefield- and also a scatter of small items lost by combatants in the battle. The most iconic find was that of the Bosworth Boar, which was a badge worn by Richard's supporters, which was found in 2009.
So, that completely confirms that this happened here, because you've got proof that Richard III's troops were fighting.
Well, let's talk about some of the key events that led up to the battle. So, of course, the Wars of the Roses- a series of battles fought in England from 1455 to 1485/87, depending on your perspective, between the houses of Lancaster and York. And the name The Wars of the Roses came from the fact that the badges used on the two sides were roses, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists. And there are lots of debates about the causes of the conflict but we could say that it's down to the weakness of the king, Henry VI, who didn't just... really wasn't capable of rule, that he surrounded himself by unpopular nobles, that there was a debate in his weakness about who would actually rule substantially in his place.
But let's fast forward through the Wars of the Roses to this endpoint where we've got Richard III, thought by some to be a usurper of the throne who has put the princes in the tower, if you remember that story. But he is a great warrior, he is in command of great troops and he's coming up against Henry Tudor, who's a rank outsider who has a very limited claim to the throne and who has appeared marching from Milford Haven in Wales with about 4,000 men, including French mercenaries and gathering troops along the way. So, when he turns up to the battlefield he's got about 5,000 and the king has got many, many more and so the chances of Henry Tudor winning this battle were very, very small. But a crucial moment in terms of betrayal and intrigue, what happened? How did it play out?
The battle swayed first one way and then the other and Richard appears to have decided to bring the encounter, he thought, to a swift end by leading a charge aimed directly at Henry. But once Henry's in danger, Lord Stanley comes in to support him. We know, I think, that there are two fatal wounds which would have ended Richard's life, one to the back of the skull and the other seems to have been a sword having been thrust through his brain and, as he was killed in battle, he did get his wish to die as King of England but he also became the last monarch in English history to die in combat, which is a very interesting thing.
I mean, for me, I'm a story junkie. This battle has left us with so much. Lots of British schoolchildren, when they're learning the spectrum, Richard of York gave battle in vain, and of course Shakespeare immortalised that marsh: "my horse, my horse, a kingdom for my horse" and, actually, one of the most interesting... one of the most surprising things that's happened in my career in heritage has been watching the way that the finding of Richard's body totally lit people up.
It caused a surge of energy and a wave of creativity, it's really done amazing things for Leicester, you know, and this is in very recent times. Also, as you say, the children in the tower, there are so many stories attached, so many questions that we're only starting to piece together now. But this man's still firing people's imaginations 500 years on, with a bit of help from Shakespeare.
With a bit of help from Shakespeare but in... you know, in reaction to Shakespeare, actually, I mean, the Ricardians, I don't know if you've come across them...
There's a great society of supporters of Richard III and it was they, of course, who funded the dig. I mean, people mocked them before it happened but there we have the dig under that carpark to discover his body in 2012 and it's been fascinating because in a bit of own goal they found that he did actually have scoliosis. He did have a curved spine, although not the hunchback that Shakespeare portrayed him with. But it also told us all sorts of things about how he was treated, how he died, as you said, and the fact that actually after he died he was probably thrust naked over a horse and they stuck something into his right buttock because we can see a scar on his bones there.
Absolutely, and you actually heard people wailing and grieving on the streets of Leicester when his body was returned. Yes, proper grief for a man who died 500 years ago, those passionate Ricardians.
It's great that history can, of course, excite us so much but especially as the repercussions of this victory were huge! We get the Tudor dynasty and we get Henry VIII, we get, you know, the unmarried virgin queen. Like them or loathe them, that's been quite an important part of the story.
Well, let's move on from this literal field of conflict to another 100 miles south and 450 years later in time for our next location.
As the Second World War raged across Europe, the Nazi power and supposed invincibility displayed through the Blitz suddenly met a wall of resistance in the shape of the RAF. By September 1940 Britain had become the first nation in history to retain its freedom and independence through air power and that's largely due to David Olusoga's eighth choice of location, the No 11 Fighter Group Operations Room. Housed in what is now known as the Battle of Britain bunker on the former site of the RAF Uxbridge in London, No 11 Fighter Group was responsible for planning and coordinating the air defence of London and the southeast of England during the Second World War.
Today the room is shown exactly as it was on the 15th of September 1940, the day on which Winston Churchill, Prime Minister, visited and witnessed the conduct of the most significant day in what's known as the Battle of Britain. So, we headed into the bunker to find out what life was like in the midst of a conflict playing out overhead.
My name is Daniel Stirland. I'm the Senior Curator for Museums and Archives at the London borough of Hillingdon. So, this is the entryway which still has the original security caging. The staff that were coming in would have had to show their passes to the guard but we'll head straight on in and down the 76 steps to the bottom.
We're 60 feet below ground. During the war at least it was bombproof. There was no bomb of the period that could penetrate this deep. Today, of course, it probably wouldn't be secure but back then it was as deep as they needed it to be.
The bunker was built very quickly. So, construction actually was only from February to August 1939. They dug a huge hole, built the big concrete structure in it and then filled the hole back in over the top of the concrete again. So, we're now in the viewing gallery above the operations room and this is often known as the controller's cabin. The man in charge who made the decisions during the war sat up here, looked down through the curved glass into the operations room below and the purpose of the operations room was to provide him with as much information as possible so that he could then scramble our fighter squadrons to go and intercept the enemy as they approached.
So, the first thing most people notice when they enter the operations room is the map table. The map is the original map. And upon that map were displayed lots of little blocks that represented formations of aircraft. There are two types down there. One has a code prefixed with the letter H and that stands for hostile; they're the enemy aircraft formations. And then there are other blocks that have a little stork sticking up from the top with a squadron number on and they're our own fighter squadron.
So, the controller sitting up here looking down on the map through the glass had a clear picture of what was happening in the sky over southeast England in near real time. The information about the enemy is coming from two main sources. It's coming from radar and then the observer corps who were literally men with binoculars. There are 50 radar stations and there are hundreds of observer corps stations across the country. So, there's a lot of information coming in and then, similarly, about our own squadrons, there's information coming from each of the fighter airfields but, again, also coming in from the observer corps.
So, from radar first detecting enemy aircraft as they approached our coastline, it gave him about 20 minutes' notice. But it takes three or four minutes for the information to reach this room and to be displayed. So, he's already lost three or four minutes out of that 20 and it takes a squadron, takes one of our fighter squadrons on average about 15 minutes to reach 20,000 feet as well. So, really he's got zero to 60 seconds to make his decisions. And he knows that if he gets a decision wrong, people die and that if he gets enough decisions wrong, we lose the battle, and if we'd lost the Battle of Britain, that was the end of the war.
So, Churchill visited on three occasions during the Battle of Britain and probably numerous more occasions later on as well. We believe that on those occasions he stood up here where we are now, in the controller's cabin, because this is the best view of the operations room, and also this is where the decisions are made, so obviously the Prime Minister wants to be close to where the decisions are made. So, we're now in the Operations Room, having looked down on it from above previously.
So, at the height of the Battle of Britain, you would have had probably 30 people in this room. That would be 20, mostly women, around the map table who were responsible for putting the blocks on the table and moving them around. They were known as plotters and they were members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. But also you've got behind the table a raised wooden dais upon which sat 10 or 12 liaison officers and that's a really key point about the system. It's often referred to by air force historians as the world's first integrated air defence system. This system brought everybody together for the first time.
So, at the peak of any battle taking place in the sky it would have been very busy in here, very noisy, lots of cluttering of sticks and blocks on the table, lots of people speaking into their telephones and speaking into their microphone sets and that's why the controller is separate, behind glass, so that he has got a quiet environment in which to make his decisions. So, yes, loud, busy, warm, probably quite unpleasant. So, the controller used the information displayed in the room to decide which of our squadrons to scramble and where to send them to intercept the enemy.
So, the controller telephones his decision through to a counterpart at the airfield. So, for example, if he's got enemy aircraft headed towards the south coast, towards Southampton, let's say, he might call Tangmere and instruct the controller at Tangmere to scramble 607 Squadron to go and patrol over Southampton. So, that literally is the job of this operations room at Uxbridge and its controller, to decide what to do. It's the job of the people working at the airfields to then put those decisions into action.
It's a very exciting place. You get a sense from that clip that being in there must have felt like being at the head of something very powerful. But it must have also been a pretty high pressure environment. So, what was going on in there? How did the fighter group control the skies from the bunker?
This is where the system of communication called the Dowding system, the world's first ground-controlled interception network, using telephone systems to share information from radar stations and Royal Observer Corps, was put into practice. And this allowed decisions to be taken and resources deployed in a coordinated way for the first time. Connectivity is something that we just take so for granted these days but this site is so important because this was a revolution in terms of organising conflict and organising the resources of the Royal Air Force across the whole of the country to protect the country from the Luftwaffe, which was a really serious threat.
The bunker was built in just seven months and the system was devised by Hugh Dowding who saw the advantage of funnelling all the information about incoming attacks to a network of regional operation rooms. Group 11 were controlling the skies over the south of England and London, so this was a really critical place in relation to RAF Bentley Priory where the information would arrive at Hugh Dowding's office. It was then sent out to the command rooms and No 11 Fighter Group was the principal one of those for the southeast.
So, how did it work? I mean, what's the communication system? You spotted a German plane. What happened next?
There were four groups across the country controlling fighter squadrons but the No 11 Group, which operated out of this famous room, shot down more than 1,300 of the 1,733 German aircraft eventually destroyed in the conflict. Nearly 50 radar stations worked to detect enemy aircraft positions and report them to fighter command headquarters and this information was gathered, it was then passed to plotters in the bunkers who were responsible for tracking the location of each individual aeroplane, both German and RAF forces.
Many of these plotters were famously women, members of the Womens' Auxiliary Air Force and, you know, again, only in recent years are a lot of these stories coming to light, much like the coders at Bletchley Park. So, we're really starting to find out now, you know, more of the intricate details of how the war was won. And they placed wooden blocks, each had an assigned code, they represented the formation strength and number, and they put these on the map at the squadron's location and basically it sounds to me like an incredibly complex logistical thing that took an awful lot of very precise human brains to be able to understand how it worked. It must have been quite visually arresting. The atmosphere must have been very tense and, yeah, I mean, going to stand there, again, it's one of those places where extraordinary things happened and you can get that real... I can only describe it as a funny feeling.
That tingle down the spine.
That tingle down the spine.
Well, let's talk about the Battle of Britain itself then. What was the lead up to the battle? How did it play out?
It was a battle for air supremacy from the German attempts to knock out the RAF. RAF Uxbridge was at the front line of the Battle of Britain. The bunker enabled a coordinated response. What's really special about that place is how remarkably intact it is. It's really the only one of these group of fighter command bunkers which survives in any way, still representing how it looked during the Second World War. So, it's not just the operations room and the plotting room, the control cabins which overlook those rooms, it's the little details. Like they have curved glass so that dust couldn't settle on the glass to stop the controllers seeing what was happening below.
And everything is intact there. You have the original air filtration system, the electrical generating equipment. They have an air compression system for ejecting sewage from the bunker. They even have the GPO room with the telecommunications plant and the original speaking tubes so that they could communicate. Everything is there and it's a visitor attraction. You can visit and when you go down the stairs you really get this feeling of how important a place it is and how much fear the people that were working there must have had and the importance of what they were doing as well.
It's been said that Dowding controlled the battle from day to day, that Air Vice Marshall Keith Park controlled it from hour to hour and that the 11 Group sector controlled it from minute to minute. I think that's really fascinating.
That's wonderful, isn't it? And we have actually Churchill himself who wrote about this. He said, all the ascendancy of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centres and telegraph cables. It was so vital that on emerging from the control room on the 16th of August 1940, Churchill spoke the now famous words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." He said the phrase as he got in the car close to the bunker's entrance and then repeated it in the House of Commons on the 20th of August.
So, that's the third of our podcasts looking at the category of Power, Protest and Progress. Thank you to our guests Celia Richardson and Billy Reading, and of course our judge for this category, David Olusoga. Next time we'll reveal two more locations in the final chapter of England's story of Power, Protest & Progress and to finish this category and the series we'll be looking specifically at the theme of progress. So, stay tuned.
If you want to tell us about an important place on your doorstep, you can always get in touch using the hashtag 100 Places. That's the number 100. Don't forget to hit subscribe so you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. Thank you for listening and I hope you'll join me next time.
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