There’s no better place to explore the Battle of Britain’s legacy than at the Imperial War Museum’s historic airfield.
More than any other air attraction in Britain, the Imperial War Museum Duxford evokes the spirit of “the Few,” the small group of young men who saved the United Kingdom from the Luftwaffe onslaught 70 years ago. Set in the green hills of Cambridgeshire, the museum is the crown jewel among Britain’s historic RAF bases.
Duxford boasts a world-class collection, with more than 200 aircraft ranging from impeccably restored World War I biplanes to the SR-71 spy plane. It also houses a treasure trove of historic photographs, documents, films and uniforms, as well as a facility where aircraft conservation work is carried out daily in vintage hangars.
Perhaps even more revered than Duxford’s airplanes and artifacts is the museum’s setting, whose historic significance dates from well before the Battle of Britain. “Yes, we were involved in the battle, but we began long before that,” says resident historian Peter Murton. Duxford was established in 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps built a training aerodrome at the site. A community of 850 or so men and women, including members of the U.S. Army Air Service, worked here. Three of the original double-bay hangars are still standing, housing many key aircraft, including Battle of Britain combatants such as the Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Me-109.
When Great Britain’s air defense was reorganized in 1924, the aerodrome was transformed into a full-fledged RAF fighter station. In 1938, as war clouds gathered across the Channel, the base’s squadrons (Nos. 19 and 66) were the first to be reequipped with the now-legendary Supermarine Spitfire. That development foreshadowed the significant role RAF Duxford would play in the coming conflict.
In the summer of 1940, as Adolf Hitler made plans to invade Britain, he knew he had to break the country’s will to fight and gain control of its skies. He dispatched the full might of the Luftwaffe to knock out Britain’s defenses and bomb its cities. That summer saw the first of the legendary duels between the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes and Germany’s Me-109Es. Between July 10 and October 31, 1940—the battle’s official beginning and end dates—RAF squadrons were scrambled from Duxford and dozens of other bases to meet the German attackers. The crackle of aerial gunfire and the whine of crippled planes plunging toward the earth filled the skies over southern England.
It was desperate going at first. German fighters significantly outnumbered the British. Duxford became the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, and home of the “Big Wing” of up to five crack squadrons led by storied ace Douglas Bader. Among the squadrons that flew with the wing were exiled Poles and Czechs eager to help Britain strike a blow against Hitler. As weeks of ferocious aerial combat wore on, the outnumbered RAF pilots began to turn the tide, learning from their mistakes and beating back the Germans.
By October 1940, Hitler recognized that the RAF—and more important Britain’s will to fight—could not be defeated by the Luftwaffe, and scrapped his invasion plans. The relatively small band of pilots who participated in the battle (only 2,927 were awarded the Battle of Britain clasp) was enshrined in the national memory as “the Few” after Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s moving tribute, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
In addition to fighter squadrons, Duxford became the home to various specialist groups as the war progressed, among them a topsecret radio maintenance unit whose task was to calibrate the radar stations that would be so vital to victory.“Without them,” notes Carl Warner, Duxford’s research and information manager, “it might have been a very different game.” Also based there were units tasked with studying captured enemy aircraft, creating more effective aerial combat techniques and engineering better aircraft armament.
In April 1943, Duxford became a base of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, and would eventually house 1,500 American airmen. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts of Duxford’s 78th Fighter Group provided cover for the Allied fleet as it crossed the Channel. Six months after that another legendary fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang, took up residence on Duxford’s grass landing strip. P-51s would provide long-range escorts for bombers targeting the Third Reich’s industrial capacity.
Five months after V-E Day, the Americans left and Duxford was returned to RAF control. The base remained in service during the Cold War, with more structures and runways constructed in the 1950s. By the 1970s, however, the base was deemed no longer necessary. After it was decommissioned, plans were made to demolish it to make way for the M11 motorway. Fortunately the British government, recognizing Duxford’s historic role, turned it over to the Imperial War Museum in 1976. Its runways and squadron rooms would forever be protected.
Today IWM Duxford is Britain’s premier aviation museum, with airshows that draw tens of thousands of spectators every year. Essentially a series of museums situated within one massive complex, the sprawling facility includes displays of maritime craft and land vehicles, a civil aviation collection, the American Air Museum and more than 30 historic buildings. Duxford has also become home to several private aviation companies that offer restoration services, pleasure flights and aircraft for film and television projects.
On the complex’s eastern end is the Air Space Museum, which tells the story of the British and Commonwealth’s contribution to aviation. A separate area of the museum houses the Airborne Assault exhibit. Next-door is the collection of flight-worthy aircraft, which has its own active airfield. Many of the planes used in Duxford’s airshows have found a home here, including World War I triplanes, Hurricanes and Spitfires.
The historic core of IWM Duxford encompasses the control tower and several buildings dating to early in the base’s life. Together they comprise the finest surviving example of a pre-1945 fighter station. The Battle of Britain hangar contains a Spitfire, Hurricane, German V-1 flying bomb and an Me-109. In Hangar 5, one of the original WWI-era Belfast hangars, visitors can watch conservation experts at work restoring aircraft.
The Battle of Britain Operations Room, within the old Operations Block, served as the base’s nerve center in the course of the fight. During German raids the room would buzz with activity as intelligence was received from radar stations, enemy positions were charted and pilots were scrambled to their Spitfires. Today it is equipped to look exactly as it did during the battle, offering a rare view of a state-of-the-art situation room circa September 1940.
The American Air Museum, one of Duxford’s newer structures, opened in 1987 and was rededicated in 2002 by Prince Charles and former president George H.W. Bush. This enormous building houses 20 historic U.S. aircraft, including the SR-71, a B-17 Flying Fortress and a U-2 spy plane.
Duxford’s airshows have regularly drawn huge crowds since the program was started in 1973. The famous Flying Legends show that takes place in early July features mostly WWII-vintage aircraft from The Fighter Collection. Also well attended is American Air Day, held in conjunction with units of the U.S. Third Air Force.
The annual September display is always one of Duxford’s most impressive events. This year’s September 4-5 show commemorated the Battle of Britain’s 70th anniversary, with appearances by the RAF’s Red Arrows as well as the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Strolling along the runway during a recent visit to the storied air base, I tried to envision the complex as it had looked so long ago— just a hangar and a few biplanes set amid lush green hills. As this history-steeped site moves into its tenth decade, its 21st-century raison d’être seems clear. What was once a simple grass airstrip has been transformed into a center of learning, a first-class repository for important relics of the past. Its modern-day mission: to connect people to a vibrant piece of their history.
James Ullrich is a freelance writer and historian who lives in Seattle, Wash. For more information, visit duxford.iwm.org.uk.
This feature was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.