The aerodrome at Duxford was built during the First World War and was one of the earliest Royal Air Force stations. During 1917 the Royal Flying Corps expanded and Duxford was one of a number of new stations established to train RFC aircrew. In September 1918 RAF Duxford opened as a flying school, and after the war ended the airfield was used as a base for the disbandment of squadrons from the Continent. In 1924, under reorganised Home Defence arrangements, RAF Duxford became a fighter station, a role it was to carry out with distinction for 37 years.
By 1938 the reputation of RAF Duxford’s No.19 Squadron was such that it became the first RAF squadron to re-equip with the new Supermarine Spitfire, and the first Spitfire was flown into RAF Duxford in August 1938.
In June 1940 Belgium, Holland and France fell to German forces and the conquest of Britain was Germany’s next objective. RAF Duxford was placed in a high state of readiness. The period of intense air fighting that followed has become known as the Battle of Britain, and RAF Duxford played a vital role in Britain’s air defence. On 15 September 1940, ‘Battle of Britain Day’, RAF Duxford’s squadrons twice took to the air to repulse Luftwaffe attacks aimed at London. The threat of invasion passed and RAF Duxford's squadrons had played an important part in the victory.
In April 1943 the airfield was fully handed over to the United States 8th Air Force, which had begun to arrive in Britain the previous May. RAF Duxford now became Base 357 and the headquarters of the 78th Fighter Group. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the long-awaited beginning of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, every available 78th Fighter Group Thunderbolt provided air cover to the Allied invasion fleet as it crossed the Channel. RAF Duxford was officially handed back to the Royal Air Force on 1 December 1945.
Following the end of the Second World War, the station entered its last operational phase. The defence needs which had called RAF Duxford into being as a fighter station no longer applied; it was too far south and too far inland, and the costly improvements required for supersonic fighters could not be justified. In July 1961 the last operational flight was made from RAF Duxford, and for some 15 years the future of the airfield remained in the balance.
IWM had been looking for a suitable site for the storage, restoration and eventual display of exhibits too large for its headquarters in London and obtained permission to use the airfield for this purpose. Cambridgeshire County Council joined with IWM and the Duxford Aviation Society, and in 1977 bought the runway to give the abandoned aerodrome a new lease of life.
Today IWM Duxford is established as the European centre of aviation history. The historic site, outstanding collections of exhibits and regular world-renowned Air Shows combine to create a unique museum where history really is in the air.