Today is an important landmark in the fund-raising efforts for Bentley Priory, a unique part of our heritage because of its role as the nerve centre of the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.
The Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust Appeal Charity Auction will take place at Spink, the London auctioneers. The aim of today’s auction is to raise tens of thousands of pounds for the campaign to save the former headquarters of Fighter Command for the nation.
Many influential people, including the Prince of Wales, have now joined the efforts to preserve Bentley Priory, a national symbol of courage situated in Stanmore, Middlesex.
A decision has already been taken to save the historic building, to restore it and to convert it into a museum and education centre. However, there is still much work to be done if the £1.8 million appeal target is to be achieved.
Many people, including myself, are supporting today’s event, which begins at 2pm. The quality and range of the medals, gallantry decorations and related items that have been included in this special auction is quite remarkable.
I have had a life-long fascination with the concept of bravery, in general, and gallantry medals, in particular. Over the past decade, I have done my best to champion the courage of our servicemen, including former and current members of the RAF.
In fact, my fourth book on awards for gallantry will be published on September 13, and is entitled Heroes of the Skies. Having only recently learnt so much more about the gallantry of “The Few”, I am keener than ever that the former headquarters of Fighter Command is restored as quickly as possible.
It is for this reason that I have donated, from my collection, the gallantry and service medals of Sergeant Vernon Marsh to the auction and instructed that all proceeds from the sale should go to the Bentley Priory appeal. Marsh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for his bravery as an air gunner on Blenheim bombers with 105 Squadron, based at RAF Swanton Morley, Norfolk.
On 4 July 1941, Marsh took part in an epic strike against the port of Bremen, led by Wing Commander “Hughie” Edwards, the latter awarded the VC for his courage and leadership on the mission.
Twelve aircraft originally started off on the mission, but three turned back with technical problems. At times, the nine remaining aircraft flew at less than 50 feet and even passed under high-tension cables to cause maximum damage with their bombs. Four aircraft were shot down and the other five were repeatedly hit.
Marsh not only survived this mission but also another one nine days later on the German-occupied city of Rotterdam, when he and his crew had a direct hit on an 8,000-ton ship. The recommendation for Marsh’s DFM praised his “great courage and coolness under fire” during both incidents. He died in 1990, aged seventy.
I have long treasured Marsh’s gallantry and service medals but my sadness at parting with them has been eased by the knowledge that the money raised from their sale is going to such a worthy cause.
Spink, the auctioneers, should be commended for its generosity in donating both the vendors’ and buyers’ premiums from each auctioned item to the appeal. Fund-raisers are also enormously grateful to all those who have either given an auction item to be sold outright or who have decided to donate part of the sale price to the appeal.
I wish the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust every success with today’s auction, as well as for the rest of its fund-raising. The nation should feel relief and pride that the historic building is now in such safe hands and that it is set to become a lasting memorial, not just to the “the bravest of the brave” from the RAF, but also to the triumph of freedom over tyranny.
* Heroes of the Skies by Michael Ashcroft is published in hardback by Headline on 13 September and costs £20 (RRP). It will be available from all good bookshops or visit: www.amazon.co.uk. All author’s royalties are being donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the custodian of the new Bomber Command Memorial. The book is coming out in association with a six-part Channel 5 series of the same name, which begins on September 20.