Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Battle of Britain in SL -- a "grass roots" commemoration

The Avro Lancaster at Biggin Hill

Seventy years ago this month, Germany's air campaign over England, popularly known as the “Battle of Britain,” took a major turn. The Germans, suffering significant losses, changed their strategy and it became clear that Hitler was abandoning any ideas he had of invading the United Kingdom with his ground forces.

With that in mind, I was pleased to discover in one of my periodic searches of SL places--using key words such as “history” and “authentic”--that there is “The Battle of Britain Airfield” in Second Life at Gurla (53, 239, 64). So I put on my Betty Page hair and a vintage-inspired outfit from Ingenue, and headed over to take a look.

This is an interesting concept: it has been assembled as a “living museum” that incorporates your usual SL vendor area with an immersion environment based upon the actual historic RAF airfield at Biggin Hill, displays of recreated aircraft and vehicles by a number of different builders, and a role-playing group that seeks to honor the men and women of the RAF by recreating a British “unit” from the RAF, much in the same way that military reenactors recreate various organizations from various time periods in real life. It’s just that this living history unit is operating in virtual space.

Inside the control tower--nice detail!

Let’s talk first about the environment: it includes are some great structures that are based upon actual buildings (many of which are still standing) at the Biggin Hill field. These were crafted by a number of different content makers, including Synge Michalak, Punky Pugilist, and sim owner Gaius Luminos, among others. There are quonset huts, shanty-like barracks, hangars of multiple types, and blast bays for the aircraft, as well as a control tower and the dispersal hut (complete with details like the “scramble bell” by the door, and a mish-mash of furniture out front) where the pilots waited for their orders to take off. There are some “off-the-shelf” hangars as well, mostly containing the vendors, but the plan seems to be to eventually replace these with custom historical builds.

There are also a few historical compromises--but the only one that really made me cringe was that the field’s anti-aircraft gun emplacements have German 88 flak guns instead of Allied models such as the British 3.7 inch AA gun or the ubiquitous 40MM Bofors. The 88’s are extremely well-made examples by Rael Ellison, but they are German, after all. But hey, I’m probably one of only a very small number of people who gets her knickers in a twist over such things.

Yeah. It's an 88. It shouldn't have been there. Did that stop me from being a good little Flakhilferin and getting on it to take a few test shots? No, of course not. Don't be silly. And the thing is very well made. Shoots beautifully too.

The only other issue I had was that in a few certain areas the build felt just a smidge crowded. They really need more space to do the environment justice, but then I fully understand that people have financial realities to deal with. One really good decision that the builders made was to place the larger part of the non-period signage, displays and historical interpretation elements inside closed hangars, so they would not detract from the environment. I think they could actually take this a bit further and get almost all of the non-1940s bits and bobs out of the primary historical immersion environment. For example, there is a lovely memorial with pictures and a ring of candles, but it is outside next to the Lancaster bomber. Some of the recreated buildings are actually empty--perhaps the memorial could be moved inside one of them? Just a thought.

The memorial at the Biggin Hill build.

Oh speaking of that Lanc--by god it is perhaps the most spectacular recreation of an historic airplane I have ever set eyes on in SL. Built by Bancos Milestone, it is complete inside and out. There is even ordnance in the bomb bay. There are other fine looking aircraft as well, including flyable Spitfires and a Mosquito by Shana Carpool, and a beautiful static model of a MK I Spit by Julianna Holmer.

To learn more about the build, I contacted the owner and manager of the sim, Gaius Luminos, who very kindly agreed to answer my questions:

Diogenes Kuhr: Your Biggin Hill project is very nice I like the theme...what made you decide to do it?

Gaius Luminos: Thank you very much-it’s 85% historically accurate build of the RL Biggin Hill RAF Station in 1940. I built it as a 'Living Museum' to commemorate the participants of The Battle of Britain...both those in The Royal Air Force, and the Citizens of London who were there during The Blitz, from June thru September 1940, which would include my own family.

Diogenes Kuhr: So members of your family went through the Blitz?

Gaius Luminos: Yes, my Grandparents had the roof of their house blown off, and my Mum was attacked by a Luftwaffe fighter pilot on the ground, whilst she and a group of kids were playing in a Children’s Playground in was a very intense time...and a very historically significant time.

Diogenes Kuhr: You call your build 85% accurate--it looks like a lot of the structures are based on buildings that are still there or pictures--am I correct that a lot of research went into this?

Gaius Luminos: Yes definitely, we were lucky in that we had a staff member of Biggin Hil RL as a design consultant, he is a recently retired Aircraft Mechanic, so was present on the station for years, and obviously has it all he was a big help. And yes, although Biggin Hill is now a commercial airfield, most of the original site is unchanged from its RAF period. The RAF's nickname for Biggin is 'The Strongest Link'..being close to London, it was pivotal during the battle, and was in fact attacked 16 times during 1940.

Diogenes Kuhr: Ah, very cool! So most of the structures in your build are custom, with just a few off-the-shelf bits and pieces?

Gaius Luminos: Yes, everything is custom, with the exception of the aircraft and gear vendor hangers...which we will also shortly be replacing with period custom built ones. There is a historical expo installation on the Sim, which visitors can view, basically a 5 to 8 minute tour of the Battle of includes an aerial photo recon map of Biggin in 1940, so visitors can compare for themselves.

Historicial interpretive exhibit situated inside one of the hangars so as to not distract from the immersion environment.

Diogenes Kuhr: I think it's helpful that you have historical information like that but you don't beat people over the head with it

Gaius Luminos: I totally agree...and that was a big part of the decision to recreate Biggin Hill- yes its an archival source, but it also has a completely active Squadron, that flies Operations in the combat theatre, and functions according to the ethos, protocols and command structure of The Royal Air Force it is history, yes, but history 'come to life' in a sense, rather than being presented like the dry pages of a textbook in a class.

Diogenes Kuhr: I noticed the planes are from a number of different builders...that Lanc that Bancos Milestone did is downright extraordinary--do you have a favorite?

The interior of Bancos Milesotne's amazing Lancaster heavy bomber, looking aft from the cockpit.

Gaius Luminos: I love Milestone’s in RL, it is the centerpiece, which it will also be when we do our in-world memorial fly-bys for the 70th anniversary....but, as far as having a favourite, I can't say that I do. They are all excellent builds, and in fact have many of the in-flight characteristics of their RL counterparts. The Spitfire is an iconic plane of course, and I am as enamoured by that as anyone else, but they're all symbolic of machines that helped prevent Europe, and by default The United States, from becoming an extension of The Nazi Empire, in the Summer of 1940.

Diogenes Kuhr: Are you the owner of the sim as well as the project leader? And when did you open up the build to visitors?

Gaius Luminos: Yes I own the Sim also. It opened approximately 5 months ago. To be honest, i started it as personal project more or less, but we started getting inundated with visitors and group-joins, so it 'took off' (no pun intended) in a way that I hadn't originally envisioned. It seems that there are a lot of people in SL, for whom this subject is close to their hearts....Which has been very gratifying, if unexpected.

Diogenes Kuhr: I think it is interesting that the sim feels alive, not just in the sense that you have the group flying from here, but that also you seem to be continually improving it--adding things, fixing things and making them more accurate over time...what kinds of things do you hope to do in the near future to make it better beside replacing the off-the-shelf buildings?

Gaius Luminos: Well, that's a pretty big laundry list....besides continuing to dial in the build toward a 100% accuracy figure, our mission is to also continue to sync procedures of our in-world group RP to be as close as is possible to those of The RAF in RL, which would include as I mentioned, also conducting the same schedule of Commemorative and other events in SL, that The RAF is doing currently in RL....That and to continue as best we are able, to keep the memory of what was accomplished, and the gift of freedom, that 'The Few' gave to us at their own sacrifice, in 1940.

Diogenes Kuhr: And you are doing this on your own, just as interested individuals--there is no connection with any museum or historical organization, right?

Gaius Luminos: Not at’s all happened quite fast as I mentioned. However, yes, the idea has been broached, and its an excellent idea, to reach out to such organizations in RL, notably The Battle of Britain Society, and some others.

Diogenes Kuhr: do you feel like you learned a lot doing this?

Gaius Luminos: has been and is an amazing learning experience for me personally, both in terms of how to effectively lead in context of a Military Hierarchy, both day to day and Combat Operations, both of which are responsibilities i take very seriously, and externally, from the great font of knowledge we are privileged to have here, from RL Air Force Veterans, Combat Pilots from different Conflicts, who generously give their time and considerable expertise to keeping the Biggin Hill Project as faithful a representation of what it is here to honor, as we possibly can.

Diogenes Kuhr: One last one of the things you're going to have done replacing the 88's with british 3.7 inch AA guns and/or 40MM Bofors?

Gaius Luminos: Yes..we are having some built...when we first started, there was a JG (Luftwaffe Base next door to us, so there was an immediate need for an effective defense here: which the 88's definitely provided. However now that Base is defunct, so yes, are now in position to have them replaced with period Allied builds, which we are having made.

Diogenes Kuhr: Cool--yeah they're well made, and I assumed it was just no one was making the 3.7 inch when you started...

Gaius Luminos: No there aren’t as far as I we're having customs made.

Diogenes Kuhr: 88’s do kind of look like a 3.7 in. gun...sort of...

Gaius Luminos: “Sort of” doesn't cut it around here lol...but yes they worked in a situation where we needed something with throw, right away

Diogenes Kuhr: heheh...So...I'm not the only person who has mentioned it, am I?

Gaius Luminos: you are the second!

Gaius Luminos: Also of course, Biggin obviously didn't have a Pub..but we do. However, inside, it has been redecorated as a photo tribute to the aircrew who were in Biggin in 1939..their pictures are all on the walls. I figured that since they no longer have a home to go to in RL (Biggin is no longer an RAF-owned property), that they could feel at home in SL, in the Village Pub...

I encourage you to go see what these folks have put together, for a couple of reasons. The big one, of course, is that whole thing about doing our best to remember and take inspiration from the folks--our parents and grandparents--who fucking saved civilization.

But I think you might also want to go see this build for what it represents in terms of an experiment involving a combination of living history ideas and the work of people who are embracing the sheer joy of building cool shit, mixed into an immersion-style “museum” exhibit...but done by interested individuals rather than meatspace institutions. You don’t have to be the Imperial War Museum or the University of East Dogfart to create an innovative museum experience in a virtual world. Anyone who cares passionately about something can run with it, and often times, have a livelier and more interesting and effective outcome than the institutions seem to.

Holy crap, there are people making gorgeous stuff in SL these days! Look at the texturing on this static model of a MkI Spit by Julianna Holmer.


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