Today I was truly privileged to take part in the RAF Battle of Britain Heritage Walk from St Clement Danes Church on the edge of the City of London, along the Embankment via the RAF Memorial and the new Battle of Britain Monument, and culminating with a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill museum under the Treasury.
St Clement Danes church is the Central Church of the RAF. A church has existed on the site for over 1,000 years and an earlier building is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is believed that the church was founded and used by the seafaring Danes in the 9th Century and it is named after St Clement, patron saint of mariners. It was rebuilt in its current form by Sir Christopher Wren from 1680-82 but was almost completely destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing on 10 May 1941. After WW2 an appeal raised the funds to restore the church to Wren’s glory and it was re-dedicated in 1958 as the Central Church of the RAF.
It is a beautiful building full of RAF station and squadron crests, and memorial books to those who have lost their lives whilst under RAF command. It also includes many Commonwealth Air Force crests and items donated towards the use of the restored church.
As well as its RAF connections it is also famous as the church from the song “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements”. Others may claim this accolade but this is the real ‘St Clements’. If you are in the vicinity of the Strand I strongly recommend dropping in for a look.
The Royal Air Force Memorial sits on Victoria Embankment surmounted by a gilded eagle looking across the Thames. It was completed in 1923 and it is rumoured that the monument was planned for opposite Buckingham Palace but the Army and Navy senior staffs didn’t think that the new “upstart” Royal Air Force deserved such an honour, so it was transferred to the Embankment. The RAF had the last laugh though, as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was later built immediately behind the monument leaving it in a prominent position in front of Britain’s defence headquarters.
After looking at a number of bronze statues of historical greats in front of the MoD, such as Lords Portal and Trenchard, we carried on along the Embankment to the new Battle of Britain Monument. This is an amazing sculpture in bronze by Paul Day and was unveiled as recently as September 2005. It commemorates the 2,974 aircrew who saved this country through their efforts in the Battle of Britain in 1940. This is well worth a visit if you are in Central London.
A further walk along the Embankment took us to Parliament Square where we inspected the imposing statue of Sir Winston Churchill, before entering the Cabinet War Rooms. These are truly amazing. As an organised group we were able to enter the rooms where Churchill sat and worked and the Top Secret map room. To leaf through hand written books listing bombing totals and known enemy movements was a real privilege. We finished the visit with a tour of the Churchill Museum which is linked to the War Rooms. It is a very interactive experience including touch sensitive screens and a lot of audio visual material as well as the more usual static displays of artefacts and uniforms from his life. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the life of the great man and history of the period.
All in all it was a very informative day. Despite having worked in central London, I learned a lot of new facts and have a renewed interest in the life and achievements of one of the 20th Century’s greatest world leaders.