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This exhibition commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, in partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and with the support of the Art Fund.

The Battle of Britain was a decisive air campaign fought over England during the summer and autumn of 1940. Flying iconic aircraft including the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane, Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots fought the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) to stop Germany’s fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, from invading the United Kingdom. The RAF also countered the attack with a highly effective network of ground crew, engineers and observation post volunteers. Crucial civil defence support came from across the country, including Rochdale.

Ultimately, the Luftwaffe was defeated. The battle was one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War, also secured by the many pilots from across occupied Europe and the Commonwealth who fought in it.

This show explores how the lives of people in Rochdale changed as a result of a war that was to become the most destructive in history. Particular focus is given to women because of the important role they played. Whether it was by undertaking war work, volunteering or providing childcare, women have a story to tell.

To mark this anniversary, the IWM has worked with partners to proactively lend from its rich art collection for the first time. From August 2020, Battle of Britain artworks have been displayed at three venues; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth, The Harris in Preston, and Touchstones Rochdale, the final venue.

We would like to thank the IWM and the Art Fund for their support, Manchester Art Gallery for their kind loan and the London Transport Museum for their contribution.

We would also like to thank members of our community who have helped to create this exhibition: Mrs Greenwood, Mrs Wilbraham, Mrs Dania and Oulder Hill School.

Join Curator Odile Masiá for a tour of the exhibition:

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Below are some of the exhibition highlights.

Women’s war work

Throughout the Second World War enemy bombs fell on British towns and cities killing more than 60,000 civilians, blurring the boundaries between the Home Front and the front line.

Women played a vital role in supporting the rest of the country in the fight against fascism. In 1941 Britain, unlike any other country, began conscripting women for war work. Thousands of women in Rochdale undertook roles central to the war effort. This included work as ambulance drivers, auxiliary nurses, clerks, air raid wardens, canteen managers and industrial workers.

Female artists were also commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) to create artworks as a record of the Second World War. Artists such as Dame Laura Knight depicted women adapting to wartime work. This theme in her paintings mirrored her own position as a female worker within the constraints of a male-dominated environment. Out of the 400 artists involved in the scheme, only fifty-two were women.

A Supermarine Spitfire aircraft donated by the people of Rochdale, date unknown

In August 1940, the Rochdale Observer set up the Rochdale & District Spitfire Fighter Fund. In less than a week the amount needed to pay for one Supermarine Spitfire was raised. By the end of the three-month campaign, a total of £12,250 (the equivalent of £700,000 in today’s money) was received. Neighbours, workers, students, families and even children all contributed whatever they could and together they funded the cost of two Spitfire fighter planes.

Jan Falkowski, a pilot with Number 315 Polish Fighter Squadron, Royal Air Force, flew one of the Rochdale & District Spitfires. He conducted offensive fighter sweeps over occupied Europe in August 1941. The now declassified combat report reveals that on 21 August his squadron was attacked by twelve enemy aircraft. Falkowski flew his Rochdale Spitfire and managed to destroy one German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. The Polish squadron returned safely to its base with no casualties.

Described by Winston Churchill as one of  ‘The Few’ who saved Britain in 1940, Falkowski was born in Poland in 1912 and trained at the Polish Air Force Academy. After the German invasion, Falkowski escaped with many Polish airmen to Romania, passing through several European countries before arriving in England in 1940. During his career he was shot down twice and forced to jump out of his plane in a parachute. He was also captured by the German forces and taken prisoner but later managed to escape.

Falkowski was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour and Virtuti Militari as well as the British Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
In 1947 he settled in Canada where he set up a farm and became a flying instructor.

To find out more about the Polish pilots that flew in the Battle of Britain, click here 

Squadron Leader Jan Falkowski, the CO of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, presenting a golden watch to Pilot Officer Władysław Śliwiński for shooting down the 200th enemy plane accredited to the squadron. RAF Northolt, 9 September 1943.

© IWM HU 111413
Squadron Leader Jan Falkowski, the CO of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, presenting a golden watch to Pilot Officer Władysław Śliwiński for shooting down the 200th enemy plane accredited to the squadron. RAF Northolt, 9 September 1943.

Rochdale during the Second World War

The intensive bombing on British cities by German forces shaped the day-to-day lives of people like no other conflict. Reminders of air raid precautions and the need to carry a gas mask at all times became a general way of life.

At night, towns including Rochdale went under blackout to stop them being seen from above by bombers. Food, clothes and fuel were rationed. Bicycle sales increased to the extent that stock ran out in some places, with women’s bicycles much more in demand than men’s. Large numbers of children were evacuated into safer areas. Rochdale welcomed 8,000 evacuees from Guernsey and the south of England.

Culture in wartime

During the Second World War many museums and art galleries had to evacuate their collections because of the threat imposed by German air raids. In 1940, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded, ‘Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.’ A year earlier the Ministry of Information had set up the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), which was led by the Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark. The purpose of the WAAC was to document the conflict, raise morale and promote Britain’s liberal cultural values.

The WAAC organised exhibitions that toured across the country, including to Rochdale. These exhibitions were very popular and well attended, especially as some of the host venues were unable to display their own now-hidden collections.

Additional exhibitions were organised by other institutions such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA, later to be known as the Arts Council). There was, indeed, a thirst for culture during this period.

CEMA, 1942

Strand Film Company for the Ministry of Information
Collection of the Imperial War Museum

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