The Secret Bunker Challenge
Kitty tells her story about when she worked in the secret WW2 bunker at Kenton, Newcastle as a plotter. Her story combines Kitty’s personal memories with facts about the history of the bunker and it’s role in the war.
“When we were plotting we had to listen very carefully, be quiet and totally focus on what we were doing. It was a bit frightening because every plot you put on the table was someone’s life and if you didn’t do it properly someone could lose their life. I took my job very seriously indeed and was extremely careful”
Did you know there is a secret WW2 underground bunker hidden beneath Newcastle?
My name is Kitty Brightwell and I'm going to tell you all about the secret bunker in Kenton. Then I'm going to give you an exciting Secret Bunker challenge, if you think you're up for it!
First though, about myself.... I was born in Newcastle in 1922. In 1940 when I was just 18, I signed up to the WAAF, that's the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Here I am as proud as punch in my uniform. I trained to be a plotter (more about that later!) and I
worked in an underground bunker in London and then at Kenton bunker in Newcastle.
This is the entrance to the secret bunker in Kenton. It might look quite small but it's very big inside- that’s because most of it is under ground! It was definitely a top-secret place in World War 2 but even now it is a bit of a secret and you're not allowed to go inside. So let me show you inside and tell you why Kenton Bunker was built.
You can see how deep underground the bunker goes from this picture. When you get to the bottom of all these steps there's two floors and lots of rooms. So what was the bunker used for? I'll tell you.
During WW2 Hitler planned to attack Britain from the air and in order to stop the enemy planes from bombing our towns and cities, Britain needed to defend itself in the sky.
Now at that time, a chap called Hugh Dowding, who was Commander of Britain’s Royal Air Force, created a very clever way to defend Britain and this became known as the Dowding System. First he split Britain into four Fighter Command areas.
You can see from this map, the four areas that Britain was divided into. Each area had a Headquarters.
Now this is where Kenton Bunker comes in- this was a very important location because it was the headquarters for the Number 13 Fighter Group. It was from here that air defence was coordinated for the North of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. That's a huge area as you can see from this map.
The Dowding System involved lots of different organisations passing information about enemy aircraft movements through to each Headquarters. From here, it was the Commanding Officer's job to decide what to do when there was a Nazi attack in his area and work out which aeroplanes to send into the air.
Here's Air Vice Marshall Saul, he was the Commanding Officer at Kenton Bunker. He was the man in charge of everyone who worked in the bunker and of all of the airfields and pilots in his area.
One very important source of information for No. 13 Fighter Command was radar.
The radar receivers could detect the number of enemy planes, their distance and the direction they were flying in.
No. 13 Fighter Command also received information from the Observer Corps- these were men and women who looked for enemy planes in the sky using binoculars. This was tricky work because it was hard to tell at a distance whether a plane was hostile or friendly.
Most of the information that was passed to the Number 13 Group Fighter Command Headquarters came through by telephone. The information was then filtered- that means it was double-checked with other sources to make sure it was correct. It was then passed to the Operations Room staff.
Here is a lovely painting of the Operations Room at Kenton Bunker. This was the nerve centre of the bunker.
The man with the peaked cap on in the left hand corner is Air Vice Marshall Saul. You can see him looking down at a huge map of his area of command. Surrounding the map are many women - they are called plotters. This is the job I did! We were given information about the sightings of enemy planes on our headsets and we'd use long rakes to move plotting blocks around the map to show where the planes were.
Then Air Vice Marshall Saul would work out how to respond to an enemy attack. He'd have to quickly decide which airfields were nearest and then he gave them clear instructions about how many planes to ‘scramble’ into the air. We say ‘scramble’ because all this had to be done as quickly as possible to stop the enemy before they could drop any bombs.
As plotters we were then given information about where the British planes were located and we'd plot these on the map too. Then the Commanding Officer could work out what to do next. When we were plotting we had to listen very carefully, be quiet and totally focus on what we were doing. It was a bit frightening because every plot you put on the table was someone's life and if you didn't do it properly someone could lose their life. I took my job very seriously indeed and was extremely careful. Some people panicked and they had to leave.
I’m sure you will have heard about the Battle of Britain. This happened in the summer of 1940 when Hitler decided to invade Britain. His plan was to bomb all of the RAF airfields before he invaded Britain. This air attack became known as the Battle of Britain and was fought between July- September 1940.
15th August 1940 is a very important date in the history of the North East . On this day, at about midday, more than 80 German planes were spotted on British radar- they were headed for the North of England with the intention of destroying RAF airfields.
However the men and women at No.13 Group at Kenton Bunker responded very quickly and 5 squadrons, approximately 60 planes, were immediately scrambled into the sky to intercept the German planes. An intensive battle over the North Sea began.
The majority of people living in the North East did not really know much about the events of the day but some along the coast will have heard the roar of planes and gun-fire and seen occasional glimpses of aircraft.
German bombs were dropped on Tynemouth, Sunderland and along the Northumberland and County Durham coast. There were British casualties and some civilians died. But many enemy aircraft were either shot down or returned home. The German attack on the east coast met with such heavy opposition and the enemy suffered so many serious casualties that they never attempted such a large scale air attack on the North again.
The North was not the only place in Britain to be attacked that day – hundreds of enemy aircraft attacked the British Isles on 15 Aug 1940. Some people have called this the ‘Greatest Day’ in the Battle of Britain. On the ‘Greatest Day’ the German Luftwaffe lost 75 of their own aircraft. Of these, 40 were brought down by No. 13 Fighter Command Group, coordinated from Kenton Bunker.
The Luftwaffe continued trying to attack RAF airfields but then in mid September Hitler changed his tactics and decided to bomb towns and cities instead. Germany had lost the Battle of Britain. This was to prove a turning point in the history of WW2 and ultimately led to victory for Britain and her allies when the war ended in 1945.
Nowadays, Kenton Bunker is a listed building and stands as a local monument to the North East's contribution to the Battle of Britain and World War Two.
I hope you will get the chance to see it one day but for now I'd like you to imagine you are down in the Operations Room, working hard to defend your country against enemy attack.
Do you have what it takes to complete the Secret Bunker Challenge?
You'll need to focus, follow instructions and work well with your team!
The Secret Bunker
The story of Kenton’s secret bunker and its role in World War II is recorded with the help of one of the people who worked in it.