• Aviation
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)

Did you know IWM Duxford was the first place to have the famous Spitfire fighter plane?

Join IWM expert Craig as he shares real life stories about brave pilots and the aircraft that flew from IWM Duxford. He’ll tell us about a pilot who succeeded against the odds and share stories of his furry co-pilot.

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Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.


Hi all, hope you're all keeping safe and doing well at home and while you're there, finding lots of interesting things to do.  Today I'm going to talk to you about somebody who had a very interesting life and did many amazing things and had a very cool dog.  

Anyway, who am I? My name is Craig and I'm a curator at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. Before Duxford was a museum, it used to be a Royal Air Force airfield where over the years, a whole load of different airplanes have been based and many interesting things have happened. I said I'm a curator. Now, curator is a funny word really, isn't it? I mean what does it mean? Well, curate means to gather together information and to look after objects and mainly what I do is to gather the information about people's stories. I mean as part of my job I get to look at all of the interesting and unique stories of people who lived at Duxford and who were involved in wars and a number of other things. So, it's a really, really exciting thing to be able to do. But on that, generally I would be - if I was talking about these things to you usually, I'd be here at Imperial War Museum, Duxford. But, as you can see, I'm not.   

I'm actually in my kitchen which, although not as exciting, does have tea and cake which I think we can all agree is not so bad and it's pretty neat. But the Imperial War Museum has asked me to talk about some of the great stories from our collections and when I might say collections, I mean things like the objects like the aeroplanes, documents, films, photographs - all those kinds of things that help us tell you the stories of war and conflict.  

Now at Duxford, we have a load of interesting stories and things and here's an interesting fact about Duxford - it was the first place to have the new Spitfire fighter. Some of you might know what that is but here's a photograph of it just in case you don't. Now that's only one of the really interesting things about Duxford but while we're on the subject of the Spitfires, I'm going to talk to you today about a man who actually flew these from Duxford and his name was George 'Grumpy' Unwin. Now George was a man with a passion, and he wouldn't let things get in the way of him doing it and through hard work, determination, never giving up, he got doing what he wanted to do, and he made some great friends along the way.  

Now, Grumpy - that's a pretty interesting nickname, isn't it? Later on, I'm going to tell you how George got that nickname and who gave it to him but in the meantime let's learn a little bit more about how George achieved his dream of being a Spitfire pilot. George was born in a small village in South Yorkshire called Bolton Upon Dearne which was known mainly for coal mining, as a lot of places were in that area. Now, George's dad was a coal miner and generally what happened in those days was you tended to follow your father into the same kind of job. However, George decided fairly early on he wasn't going to be a coal miner. In 1929, when he was 16 years of age, he left school and joined the Royal Air Force.  

You're thinking “yes, this was George's chance now to become a pilot, great”.  

George worked in an office. You see there are whole lot of jobs in the Royal Air Force that don't involve flying aeroplanes - in fact, probably most of them don't. So, he's in the RAF, so George sticks this out for a little while but his dream is to be a pilot, so he decides he's going to apply to be one.  

Now at this time, most people who are pilots or who apply to be pilots have come from a better off background, they've gone to expensive schools and gone on to university. Now, going to university wasn't so common in those days, when children often had to leave school quite early to earn money and to help their own families as well. So, what you tended to find was most people that applied to be pilots tended to be officers, tended to have come from this better off background. Now, what's an officer I hear you ask? An officer’s just a fancy name for a manager – basically you're in charge of a number of people. So, pilots as we've seen were officers. However, the RAF decided to change the rules which allowed people like George who weren't officers to apply to become the pilots they wanted to be.  

“Yes”, you're thinking “finally George gets to become a pilot”. 

No, unfortunately for George it was not going to be that easy. You see the problem was the people who interviewed pilots tended to come from the same kind of well of backgrounds, good schools, universities and they tended to look for people who are like them. Now, some of the questions they used to ask used to revolve around things like “what sports and hobbies do you do?” And often the people who came from the same background as them would say “well, we like horse riding and shooting and hunting” - expensive hobbies basically.  

Now, George didn't do these things. George liked football - he talked about football. He loved football. You may love football too, but he was enthusiastic about it. Unfortunately for George this is not the answer that the people interviewing for pilots wanted to hear - they wanted to hear about hunting and shooting and things. So poor George was rejected from pilot training on a number of occasions, but that didn't stop him, he did not give up. He was decided he was going to do this and then he didn't care how long it took, he would do it. So, he did a little bit of research and did something a little bit sneaky here. He found out the kind of answers that the people wanted to hear about horses and things, so the next time he was home in Yorkshire, he met up with a local farmer he knew, and he found out everything from him about horses, what kind of horses were, how tall they were and even got taught how to ride a horse.  

So, the next time he went back to the interview, and they asked him the question about hobbies and sports, George talked at length and great enthusiasm about horses and guess what? Yes, George is accepted for pilot training. Now George completed his flying training in 1936 and then he went to RAF Duxford where he joined 19 squadron, who were one of the RAF's most famous and best squadrons. Now what's a squadron I hear you ask? Well, a squadron is a bit like a team in sport except this time it involved twelve aeroplanes, and these aeroplanes and pilots will fly off and one group of twelve or sometimes into smaller groups, but the main thing is you had to rely on everyone else, teamwork and you had to know what everybody else was doing, trust that they were doing it right.  

Now, you remember back at the beginning that I said Duxford was the first place to have the Spitfire? Well, 19 squadron were the first ones to get those Spitfires because being one of the best squadrons, they always got the newest aeroplanes first and do you know who one of the first pilots to fly it was? I think we can guess, can't we? It was George.  

Now, George had a lot to learn as a fighter pilot and interestingly before the war in 1939, the RAF didn't teach fighter pilots how to do aerial combat as part of a course - that means fighting with other airplanes in the air. However, George's commanding officer - that's his boss basically - decided that this was a pretty important skill, so he taught all the pilots this so by the time the Second World War did break out in 1939, George was a very experienced fighter pilot. And he had one favourite Spitfire that he used to fly, and it had the code on the side, QVH.  

Now, “what's the code?” you ask. It's those big letters that are on the side and it helps you identify the aircraft. Interesting as well, George loved this airplane so much he actually had a little bit of what was known as a nose art painted on it, you can see that in the photograph. It's basically a cartoon character called Popeye who is very popular at the time. Now, as I said not many pilots had this, so it shows George's individuality and doing things his way. Now for all this training, it doesn't really prepare you for real war.  

Now George's first experience of aerial combat, that is fighting in the sky with other aeroplanes, came over a place in France called Dunkirk in 1940. In this first time he'd been up flying against enemy aeroplanes. A German aeroplane attacked him, and he was so amazed by the whole experience he just froze up and watched what was going on. That was until the guns of enemy aircraft hit his aeroplane. George then just snapped out of his daze and used all the skills he'd learned to escape from the enemy.  

Fortunately for George, he never froze up in combat ever again. George turned out to be so good at his job he became known as an ace.  An ace is a pilot who has shot down at least five enemy aircraft. Now by the end of 1940, during the Second World War, George had shot down fourteen enemy aircraft and that made him RAF Duxford's leading fighter ace. And he won a number of medals for his bravery and valour.  Now, do you think that means George was still flying Spitfires and shooting then enemy airplanes up until 1945 when war ended? Well, no. By 1941 George was teaching not just because he was a great pilot but in 1941 George was 27 years old and for the RAF, 27 was too old to be a fighter pilot. I mean 27 too old to do a job? I mean that makes me feel ancient. I mean I'm a little bit older than 27, but wow. But remember, we also said also said with he made some great friends along the way.  

Well, one of those friends was a dog called Flash. Here's the pair of them here in a photograph. George had had Flash from a puppy at RAF Duxford, so Flash was pretty used to the sound of small aeroplanes like George's Spitfire flying off - the engines don't bother them at all. However, in 1940 the Germans bombed Duxford. 

Now, fortunately nobody was hurt at all but however, poor Flash was so scared he ran off across the airfield. Now, it took George an absolute age to find him again. So, after that point anytime Flash heard any bigger aeroplanes going over the airfield, which sometimes they did, sometimes they were RAF, sometimes, occasionally they were Germans, he just ran and hid. He just hated the sound of them but then dogs do tend to have great ears.  

Right, anyway, remember back in the beginning we talked about George's nickname. Grumpy. Well, the thing is that at the time, lots of pilots had nicknames. In fact, you might have a nickname, your friends might have a nickname. It's generally based on the things you do, things you say, how you look. But what often happens is someone gives you it and then you're stuck with it basically everybody calls you it. You don't really have a choice. You might well have seen in films how American pilots have these really cool callsigns like Maverick and things like that. Well, the callsign actually has a use. It basically means you know who's talking to you so if somebody's got the same name, you're not confused who is speaking to you. Now I once spoke to an American pilot and I asked him, “well, how do you get these names?” He said “well basically, they're given to you by other pilots and are never usually a good thing.” He once told me there was one pilot whose callsign was Vader, as in Darth Vader. You might think “wow, doesn't get any better than that does it?” Apparently, it was given to him because he had a very bad cold one day and he was breathing through his nose, and it made him sound a bit like the Star Wars character.  

But anyway, let me tell you about how George got this nickname he got. George used to fly with a very famous Duxford pilot called Douglas Bader. He was also an ace, and he was famous basically because he was still flying even though he had prosthetic legs. Before the war he had been in a flying accident he was lucky to survive but he still got back into being a pilot - another great story of defying the odds and following your dreams.  

Now, George was kept awake at night with Douglas because at night, Douglas would often have to adjust these artificial, his prosthetic legs to make sure they fitted comfortably in the morning for flying and it often involved a lot of tinkling with spanners and things. And the next day, George complained about this to other pilots that he'd be kept awake by Douglas fixing his legs and the other pilots just laughed and went: “Be quiet, Grumpy!” And from that point on the nickname stuck.  

Well, I hope you've enjoyed hearing about George, his amazing life. So, here's a few things I want you to go away and do for yourself. Firstly, why don't you think of a nickname for yourself if you were a pilot and you might even already have one. The next thing you do is you draw a picture of a Spitfire or some other aeroplane you like. The next thing you could do, I mean if you go to IWM's website there are loads of pictures you can copy there and when you're there why don't you draw a bit of nose art into your drawing and also put the nickname on there, the way George had with his nose art. Final thing you can do is, you remember Flash, George's dog? Well, if you were a pilot and had a sidekick which kind of animal would you have and what would it be called?  

OK, that's great, that's me done for now so if you've got any questions about any of the things we've talked about, about George, about Duxford, put them on Facebook or on Twitter and also subscribe to the IWM's YouTube channel so you don't miss any more of the Adventures in History Films. Now I want you to join us again next week when my friend Clare, who also works at IWM, will be talking about animals at war. But until then, thanks for being here, stay safe. 

I'll see you soon. Now I'm going to eat my cake now. 

Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS2 - A significant turning point in British history: the Battle of Britain.                                                                        

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, 1901-present day.           

  • To develop knowledge of the lives of pilots and the advances in aviation during the Second World War.

Paper Plane Challenge

Hi everyone! I'm Ben shires and I'm a TV presenter and normally I'd be filming this in a TV studio. But instead, just like many of you, I'm self-isolating at home at the moment which means I can't go and visit some of my favourite places just like Imperial War Museum Duxford site which houses some absolutely incredible aircrafts. But just because we can't visit places like that doesn't mean that we can't still do things and learn things just like marvelling at the incredible nature of flight and we're going to do that with this week's IWM family mission Paper Plane Challenge!  

Yep, that's right. Your mission this week is to build your very own Vulcan and Spitfire aircrafts. Now, I know you're thinking: Ben how can I possibly build two of the most iconic aircrafts in British aviation history from the comfort of my own home? Well, cool your jets, put down your spanner. These are paper planes, they're not full-scale replicas. Oh, and luckily for us, the clever people over at Imperial War Museums have created a template for these Vulcan and Spitfire paper planes. 

So, if you check out the link below, you'll be able to download and print off that template and it'll help you to build your plane. And don't worry if you don't have access to a printer, you can always use that template as a guide to draw your own and then well you can see how you get on with them. Maybe you could split into teams in your families and fly the planes against each other - see how much floor you can cover. Or you could build both of the aircrafts and see which one flies the best in your own little game. Whatever it is, you just need to have fun doing it.  

And I'm going to show you exactly how you build them. Print it. Cut it. Fold it. Finish it! So, there you have it. That is my Vulcan paper plane. It looks great, but does it fly great? Not really, not at all in fact. I'm sure yours has worked out a lot better than mine. So, please do tell us all about it in the comments or the thread below. You can post a photo or even better a video of your paper plane in action - we would love to see that.  

Please do keep in touch with us and, in the meantime, to inspire you here's some actual footage of a Spitfire flying past at the IWM Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show in 2018. It's magnificent and believe me time flies when you're having fun. See you! 

Are you Team Vulcan or Team Spitfire? Put these two iconic aircrafts to the test in our paper plane challenge!

CBBC Presenter Ben Shires, sets your challenge.

Watch the mission briefing

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