Having been weaned on tales of Douglas Bader, Stamford Tuck and Guy Gibson, I get quite excited visiting places like Duxford. IWM Duxford is home to most of the Imperial War Museum’s collection of rather large exhibits – mainly aircraft. And, when I say ‘places like Duxford’, to be fair I’m not sure there is anywhere else in the UK, or maybe even in Europe, quite like Duxford – though there are certainly scores of other historic aircraft museums, some of them, notably the RAF Museums, very worthy competitors. Oh – and for the benefit of our very young and overseas readers (both of them), Douglas Bader (1910-82) and Bob Stamford Tuck (1916-87) were WW2 Royal Air Force aces who flew in the Battle of Britain; Bader lost both his legs in a flying accident in 1931, rejoining the RAF on the outbreak of war; Tuck ended up on the Russian Front; both men were inspirational leaders. A replica Hawker Hurricane fighter, painted in Bader’s 242 Squadron markings, greets you at Duxford’s entrance. Guy Gibson (1918-44) led the famous Dambusters raid in 1943, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Anyway – the point is that I wander round aircraft museums like a kid in a chocolate factory (or a middle-aged bloke looking at old aeroplanes), beaming generally and periodically saying things to myself like, “Oh, look at that”. So the long-suffering Mrs Britain agreed to take me to Duxford provided I was very good and didn’t embarrass her too much.
If you’re going to have an aircraft museum, it probably needs to be on an airfield. Even better if the airfield has a bit of history as well. Duxford began life as a training air station toward the end of the Great War and became home to the Cambridge University Air Squadron in 1925. From 1924 to 1961, it was an operational fighter station. In 1938, 19 Squadron, based at Duxford, became the first RAF squadron to be equipped with the new, cutting edge, Supermarine Spitfire aircraft. During the Battle of Britain and until 1943, Duxford was a sector station of 12 Group Fighter Command, protecting the English Midlands, Norfolk and North Wales, and supporting 11 Group, which guarded Britain’s south coast. Three 12 Group Squadrons, Nos 19 (Spitfires), 242 (Canadian, commanded by Bader, flying Hurricanes) and 310 (Czech, also equipped with Hurricanes), formed the first ‘big wing’ of fighters, under Bader’s command, which then expanded to five squadrons known as ‘the Duxford Wing’, and which first flew in September 1940.
In April 1943, RAF Duxford became Base 357 of the US Army Air Force and home to the 82nd, 83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons of the 78th Fighter Group. The P-47 Thunderbolt and, later, the outstanding P-51 Mustang, flew from Duxford, escorting US bombers during daylight raids over Germany and occupied Europe, and taking part in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe.
The Americans left in December 1945 and, until 1961, RAF Duxford was in the front line of the new Cold War with the Soviet Union, flying Gloster Meteor, Javelin and Hawker Hunter jets. However, Duxford’s facilities couldn’t cope with the demands of Britain’s first operational supersonic fighter, the English Electric Lightning, and the station closed. For several years, no one seemed to know what to do with it. The Imperial War Museum got involved, initially using it to store aircraft and, in 1976, Duxford opened to the public for the first time. It has also featured in several movies, notably the 1968 all-star classic ‘Battle of Britain’ in which one of the airfield’s unwanted hangers was spectacularly blown up, and the 1990 film ‘Memphis Belle’. Part of the 2014 film ‘Monuments Men’ was also shot at Duxford.
I had visited Duxford several times before, so knew roughly what to expect when Mrs B and I bowled up one September morning. But, as with most museums, collections evolve and therefore so do the displays. There are several discrete areas or exhibitions to explore at Duxford, which I’ll describe selectively and briefly for you. Polite warning: if you don’t like pictures of aeroplanes, now might be a good time to go and make yourself a cup of tea. Come to think of it, if you don’t like pictures of aeroplanes, why are you even reading this?
All of the historic displays at Duxford are accompanied by useful information boards which not only tell you a bit about the individual aircraft (or whatever) generally, but also the provenance of the particular exhibit. And, scattered throughout are first-hand accounts which illuminate these often quite lovely, albeit equally often quite deadly, machines and bring them to life.
The closest display to the museum entrance is the AirSpace hanger. This is a display of more than 30 military and civil aircraft, including (in no particular order): an Avro Lancaster Mk X; Concorde 101; an Avro Vulcan; an English Electric Lightning; a Short Sunderland flying-boat (this is not a truncated aeroplane; ‘Short’ is the name of the manufacturer); the amazing wooden-framed De Havilland Mosquito; a Westland Lysander (the aircraft employed to land agents into occupied Europe during WW2); a Fairey Swordfish; an Avro Anson; a BAe Harrier; Panavia Tornado; Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIV and, from the First World War, an original DH9 as well as an RE8 that was delivered to the RAF the day the war ended. It is possible to board both the Concorde and the Lancaster – but you need to book, and book early, for the latter. If a reminder is needed of the business of any of these aircraft, by the way, it isn’t that long ago that Duxford’s Harrier saw action in the Falklands War and its Tornado in the Gulf War. In a hanger next door to AirSpace was a lonely Eurofighter Typhoon, billed on its website as “the world’s most powerful and reliable swing-role combat aircraft.” It is currently in service with the RAF, as well as with the air forces of Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Have you ever considered the names given to aircraft? Of course, many are intended to evoke characteristics the manufacturers want to be associated with their products – extreme speed, aggression, or whatever. Some are named after gods, people, or places. The really uninspiring ones are given alpha-numeric labels – presumably, those manufactures cleverly worked out that they’d rapidly run out of appropriately inspirational descriptive handles, but there’s an infinite combination of letters and numbers. Concorde was a good term for a joint venture aircraft. But you don’t see too many cuddly aeroplane names, do you – though the de Havilland Beaver and the Sopwith Pup are two exceptions that sprang to mind as soon as I wrote that. Still, I don’t suppose you’d sell many multi-combat role supersonic armed-to-the-teeth aircraft called something like ‘Wise Owl’, or ‘Little Pink Pussycat’; more’s the pity. No, a warplane needs to be called something ferocious and threatening, like “Bet you never saw that coming, did you?” That suggestion may lack a certain snappiness, so I reckon it’s only a question of time before someone comes up with the supreme assault aircraft: the “O – M – G”.
Anyway, I digress. There are things other than aircraft to see in the AirSpace exhibition, not least the Airborne Assault Museum, which is the museum of the Parachute Regiment and airborne forces; the clue’s in the name. I loved the bit in the compelling series ‘Band of Brothers’, which tells the story of Easy Company of the US 101st Airborne Div, when it’s suggested to the CO that there’s a risk of being surrounded and the CO replies, “We’re paratroopers, Lootennant; we’re supposed to be surrounded.”
One of the things about Duxford is that there’s always something to see outside – and often something going on too. I remember, years ago, gazing awestruck at a B-52 parked on the apron, silhouetted against the evening sky; there is something particularly menacing about this aircraft. Perhaps it’s the sheer size of it; perhaps it’s footage of seemingly endless bombs being voided from its belly over Vietnam. I wish I could find the photographs I took. Anyway, on the last visit, resting gracefully by the runway was a B-17 Flying Fortress, the ‘Sally B’. Dating from 1945, she still flies and has several TV and movie credits to her name, including Memphis Belle. Indeed, the Memphis Belle artwork is on one side of her nose, with Sally B on the other. We watched a stream of smaller aircraft taxi, take off, do a few circuits and land. There were several de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes, an interesting monoplane that I have subsequently identified as a North American Harvard from the 1950s, finished in the colours of the Portuguese Air Force, and another biplane, one I’ve never heard of, a very pretty Boeing Stearman Kaydet. To one side, parked up and looking magical, were a couple of iconic (not a word I use lightly) Spitfires – one converted to take a passenger (I bet RJ Mitchell would have been pleased). Next to them was a P-51 Mustang and – something I have certainly never seen in the flesh (as it were) – a MiG 15. It is possible to book flights in some of these aircraft; flights in the two-seater Spitfire a mere snip starting at £2750 (as of 2019). Flights in a Tiger Moth are even cheaper. Irritatingly, the IWM website says you need to ‘pre-book’. So you can’t simply book – and you certainly can’t post-book.
Lined up opposite some other hangers was a row of civilian aircraft which, I’m afraid to say, didn’t really do much for me. Passenger aeroplanes are the perfect thing for whisking you off to a Greek island, but I can’t get too excited about watching them do nothing; in fact, I’m fidgeting just thinking about it. The one exception might be the VC-10, partly because it is rather elegant – but mostly because I had a (much smaller) battery-operated version as a child, which used to taxi hesitantly across the carpet flashing its lights whilst making a very satisfying whirring noise. The dog hated it.
You can’t really visit Duxford without spending some time in the historic Duxford exhibition, which tells the story of the airfield with the help of audio-visuals and first-hand accounts. You also need to experience the 1940 Operation Room – which neatly demonstrates part of the RAF’s outstanding command and control system of the time – and, of course, pop into the Battle of Britain hanger. You’ll find several photos of this, and an account of the battle, in the article Battle of Britain Day. In some ways, I feel the IWM misses an opportunity with the Battle of Britain exhibition. It is good, but a little clinical. Despite the presence of a really knowledgeable and friendly volunteer, nothing conveyed the sense of danger of the time, the fear of imminent invasion and the ultimate avoidance of that, which enabled the war against one of the most odious, evil, regimes ever, to be continued. It didn’t help that some of the exhibits, including a Soviet MiG 21, courtesy of the Hungarian Air Force, were nothing to do with the Battle of Britain. I guess the museum is short of space – it’s not easy to collect and store such large exhibits; certainly, some of the hangers are rammed full of aircraft, tanks and what-not.
I did like the story of Spitfire N3200, pictured here, though. This is a Mark 1a Spitfire, built at Southampton in 1939 and issued to 19 Squadron at Duxford in April 1940, just in time to help with the evacuation from Dunkirk following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May. Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson, a friend and contemporary of Douglas Bader’s, flew Spitfire N3200 across the Channel to Dunkirk on 26 May, shot down a Ju87 ‘Stuka’, but was then himself shot down, crash-landing on the beach at Sangatte, near Calais. The incident is shown in the 2017 film, ‘Dunkirk’. Stephenson was captured and spent the rest of the war as a PoW. He was killed in 1954, flying a USAF Super Sabre in Florida. Spitfire N3200, after its first and only operational flight and being photographed by gleeful Germans in 1940, gradually sank beneath the French sands, until it was uncovered by strong tides 45 years later. Amazingly, it was salvaged, rebuilt (though I’m not sure how much of it is original) – and here it is, at IWM Duxford. Amazing.
Slightly removed from the more traditional looking hanger-type buildings at Duxford is the award-winning and elegant American Air Museum. Partly, this tells the story of the partnership between this country and the USA through two world wars – particularly the Second World War – and since. The collection is bang up to date and, apparently, is the best collection of American military aircraft on public display outside of North America; I wouldn’t know – but it’s outstanding anyway.
So, here you can see examples of Second World War fighters such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the North American P-51 Mustang, and bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 ‘Mitchell’, B-24 Liberator and B-29 ‘Superfortress’. There’s the workhorse of WW2, the DC-3, or ‘Dakota’, painted in 1944 invasion colours. Dwarfing everything else is that B-52 Stratofortress I had photographed years previously. Among the more modern aircraft on display is the still futuristic looking ‘spy-plane’, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest and highest flying air-breathing manned aircraft, built in secret, capable of cruising at more than three times the speed of sound and flown to the very top of our sky. I was surprised to learn that this aircraft first flew as long ago as 1964. The technology was so advanced in its day; heaven knows what the professional descendants of its makers are up to now, particularly if they’re happy to let a friend show the Blackbird off. The American Air Museum has one of Blackbird’s predecessors, too, the U-2, one of which was shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Gary Powers, captured. Apparently, updated versions of the U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’ still operate.
Outside and lining the entrance to the American Air Museum is a moving memorial, Counting the Cost. The memorial comprises 52 panels of glass, each one engraved with the scaled outlines of aeroplanes – 7,031 in all – representing the aircraft missing in action in operations flown by American air forces from Britain during the Second World War. According to the IWM, over 200 airfields were occupied or newly-built in Britain by the USAAF during the Second World War. Each airfield housed around 2,500 American service personnel. I haven’t been able to discover, yet, how many of these approximately half a million people made it home safely. Almost 9,000 Americans died while based in the UK, or en route to it, during WW2. They are commemorated not far from Duxford, at the Cambridge American Cemetery.
When we came out of the American War Museum, we were thrilled to see a Spitfire taxiing for take-off; a flying Spitfire and the sound of that Merlin engine still sends shivers down my spine. Sadly, my action shots weren’t up to much. There are other large exhibits nearby; concrete gun emplacements and a V1 launch pad.
At the far end of the airfield the IWM has installed its purpose-built Land Warfare exhibition. There are a few items outside it too. I have to say that this exhibition seems bolted on and a little out of place in what is predominantly an air museum. Maybe an alternative approach, or venue, is needed and, ultimately, perhaps that will happen. Anyway, once inside, you walk past the trenches of the Western Front and, if that doesn’t sound risky enough, you can partake of “the Normandy Experience, the sights and sounds of the D-Day landings”, as the IWM playfully puts it. The walk-through mock-ups are well done and home to a multitude of military hardware, including Field Marshal Montgomery’s three command caravans; he was my dad’s boss in North Africa, so I tried to pay attention. There are pros and cons attempting to show exhibits like this in context; you can’t always walk round them, but I guess the alternative is that you end up with a kind of tank and gun park. The Land Warfare Museum is also home to the Royal Anglian Regiment Museum.
Duxford is amazing, if you like that kind of thing. And there is so much more to it than I have covered here; I haven’t yet mentioned the fascinating conservation hanger, for example, or that it is famous for its air shows. Check out the Duxford website. The trouble is, there is almost too much there – certainly too much to take in over a single day. Among the things we didn’t see this time was one of the permanent exhibitions, Air and Sea, where (surprisingly), you will find naval aircraft, helicopters, torpedoes, a one-man mini-submarine – and an account of a British attack on a Bolshevik cruiser in 1919.
Understandably, admission to Duxford is not cheap; so the obvious advice is to get there early, plan what you want to see, and go for it. Wear comfortable shoes, be prepared for weather between buildings, take a picnic, and bottles of water to sip between hangers – especially if you have children with you. The onsite catering is OK, but limited, and generally staffed by the employee model chosen for their studied indifference. I confess I was flagging as closing time loomed, though Mrs Britain, bless her, seemed as fresh as a daisy and even confessed – albeit much later – that she’d really enjoyed her visit. So, not just boys’ toys, then.