Duxford has a long and distinguished history dating from 1917, when it was established to train Royal Flying Corps aircrews.
It became a fighter station that played a role in Britain’s air defence during the Battle of Britain, the home of the United States Air Force's 78th Fighter Group and was a base for RAF planes during the Cold War during the final years of its operational life.
Now, it is a centre of aviation history and home to IWM Duxford, where visitors can get up close to historic aircraft and walk through the same hangars and buildings as those who served there.
Listen to some of the powerful personal stories of the men and women who have a connection to the remarkable events that have shaped Duxford’s past and present.
Duxford was built during the First World War and was one of the earliest Royal Air Force stations. The Royal Flying Corps expanded in 1917 and Duxford was one of the stations established to train aircrews for flight – and for battle.
Pilot Frank Burslem flew a DH-9 bomber – an example of which is now on display at Duxford - and remembers that it wasn’t always easy to know what exactly had happened during missions.
'I never flew with him again'
“Eventually we got back into formation and went back to our base and landed. And when we were making out our reports, the leader of the formation asked, “Who was on the outside left in the rear of the formation?”, and I said, “I was.” And he said, “Did you see that Hun on your tail?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, there was one, and you would have been cold meat if I hadn’t turned and chased him off.” So, I turned to my observer and said, “What, did you see that Hun?” and he said, “No”, and I said, “Why?” And he said, “I was being sick in my cockpit.” (chuckle) I said, “You report ill.” And I never flew with him again.”
After the war, Duxford opened as a flying school and in 1924, it became a fighter station. But it also gained attention for the aerobatic flights undertaken by No 19 Squadron, which was based on site.
Flight Lieutenant Harry Broadhurst - pictured here with his two wing men Flying Officer J R MacLachlan and Pilot Officer B G Morris – recalled their exploits and the “romantic” nature of flight in 1930s.
'It was not warlike...it was pretty'
“Flying was new and very romantic, it helped recruiting and it was not warlike, it was pretty and, you know, we did it with smoke. The first year at Duxford I had five Bulldogs with smoke, where we did break. We’d tie lover’s knots in the sky and all this sort of thing, and loop with smoke. Horrid it was too, it used to come back in the cockpit and if you had red smoke, you came down absolutely like a Red Indian or blue as if you were about to die or dead white, so it had its disadvantages. But that was the, that must have been 35 we did smoke and 1936 we did tie it together.”
The outbreak of the Second World War would have a profound impact on Duxford and the lives of those who served there.
Gordon Sinclair, pictured standing on the right hand side in the image above, had been stationed there as part of No.19 Squadron since before the war. In 1940, he was called into action to help support Operation Dynamo, the huge rescue mission to evacuate 338,000 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.
'I was younger and less frightened...'
“I was younger and less frightened I think, probably in the Battle of France. It was exhilarating, I’ve got to say that it was. Although I think everybody found that. And flying in and out of the cloud over Dunkirk, you never knew whether you were going to see a Messerschmitt or a Junkers or another Spitfire or a Hurricane or even a Defiant you might have seen.”
Empty seats in the Mess
In 1940, Duxford played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. Flight crews took off from the airfield while staff on the ground directed squadrons based at Duxford and the surrounding area as they flew to face enemy aircraft.
Sylvia Salmon, one of the first members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), worked in the Officers’ Mess during the Battle of Britain. She remembered pilots such as Douglas Bader - pictured centre, standing outside the Officers' Mess - spending time there and the toll the battle took on those involved.
'It was sometimes very sad'
“The squadrons would come back from the battle skies of southern England, and they were battle weary, tired, exhausted. And more often than not there were empty seats in the mess, and we would remember who had occupied them at the previous meal, and it was, it was sometimes very said but life had to go on, we had to carry on.”
WAAFs performed a range of important roles at Duxford during the war – some like Sylvia worked in the Mess, while others played a key role in directing squadrons from the Operations Room.
But sometimes they had to deal with unexpected events on the ground too.
Len Shirling-Rooke, who was born in Duxford Village and served on the base during the war, remembers one occasion when a group of WAAFs got a surprise when they walked past a hanger during a health inspection.
'I don't know whether I'm allowed to say this...'
“Oh, we did have some funny things because. I don’t know whether I’m allowed to say this but when they would line you up for a FFOI ‘Free from an Infection Inspection’, you never knew when you were going to get one of those. And they lined us up along the hangar door on a lovely summer’s day with our trousers down and out shirts up. And the doctors come along with the pencil and looking, lifting and looking and the squadron with a flight of WAAFS came around the corner with the corporal in charge and they just fell about laughing, they were in hysterics to see us all standing there like that, they were in hysterics. And the corporal was shouting trying to get them in line, but it was useless! (chuckling).”
Not kidding around
William de Goat became the mascot of 609 Squadron after being given to one of their pilots as a gift by a pub landlady– and when the squadron was deployed to Duxford, William went too.
Alec Atkinson, a pilot with the squadron, remembers that William rose through the ranks during the war – but occasionally caused a bit of mischief.
'Rings painted on his horns to indicate his rank'
“And we had a goat as a mascot and the goat spent his time eating cigarettes and sometimes eating papers which were regarded as rather more valuable. The goat itself came from a pub near Biggin Hill called The Jail which had a Belgian landlady. I believe that she gave the boat, the goat as a kid, if that’s what you call a young goat, to Alterman, one of the Belgian pilots and that’s where the goat came from. But he was gradually taken over as the squadron mascot and had rings painted on his horns to rank, which needless to say was advanced, I think he eventually became and Air Commodore.”
Rumours and reality
In April 1943, the United States 8th Air Force was handed control of the airfield. It became the headquarters of the 78th Fighter Group, who would play a crucial role in providing air cover for the fleet of ships and troops taking part in the D-Day operation on June 6, 1944.
Pilot Hayden Richards recalls the rumours that circulated ahead of the operation – and how pilots realised that the “big mission” was going ahead.
'Tomorrow's gonna be the big day'
“Well, we suspected the evening before. There was a lot of activity and of course the base was closed, and no one could go anywhere and then the aircraft were being painted with the, what we eventually called the invasion stripes. So, and then there were rumours that tomorrow is going to be the good day. Well, you placed little credence because you thought that it was strictly a rumour and you could hear that, well, people used to ask, “When is, when are we going to fly the big mission?”, and so forth. That was well before D-Day. So, until we saw the striping on the aircraft, we would have dismissed any rumour to that effect.”
Duxford was officially handed back to the RAF in December 1945. The Second World War was over but the base continued to see service as the world entered a different kind of conflict - the Cold War.
As a pilot with 65 Squadron, Gerry Honey flew a Hawker Hunter jet aircraft, which is now on display at Duxford. One day, flying his aircraft back to base, he encountered something unexpected in the clouds.
'I didn't think my guns were loaded'
“I was north of London and there in front of me was a Russian aircraft. And it was the Soviets had taken a bomber and made it into a transport aeroplane with limited capability and it was on a visit which I didn’t know about. But there I was, and I was like, “Christ, World War Three, here we go.” So, I went in a bit closer and did a quarter attack and got some film and then pulled away and went home. You pop out of a cloud and there what you’ve been waiting for all your whole life is just asking to me shot down. I didn’t think my guns were loaded anyway at the time so they wouldn’t have done anything.”
Preserving the past
The last operational flight from RAF Duxford was in July 1961 but the site would find a new lease of life in the 1970s.
The IWM had been looking for a space to store and display some of its large exhibits and secured permission to do this at Duxford. It is now the European centre of aviation history, where visitors can now see a range of aircraft and objects throughout the site.
Among the unique exhibits on display are the caravans from which Field Marshal Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery planned some of his most famous campaigns during the Second World War. He describes how they came to be at the museum and his hopes for how they might be used.
'My three caravans came with me'
“When the war was over and I had arrived back in England and had become CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) at the War Office, my three caravans came with me. It was finally agreed that they were mine during my life. I then said that on my death they would all three be given to the Imperial War Museum and this was agreed. In years to come historians and scholars will learn with interest how the Commander in Chief of the British Army in the field lived during the war against Hitler’s Germany.”
These clips and many more were originally featured as part of DX17, a sound installation at IWM Duxford during Summer 2017.