Air shows have been happening at Duxford since the 1920s. This photo is of Empire Air Day, 1937. Thousands of people flocked to Duxford, just as they do for our air shows now.
On Empire Air Day visitors were taken on tours of the site. They were also treated to flying displays of the latest RAF aircraft. These included aerobatic training displays, an air fight and even a blind flying demonstration. In the photo you can see Avro Tutors parked on the flight walk, just as you see the aircraft lined up at an air show today. Also open for inspection by the public were the station sick quarters, workshops, canteen and games room, dining room and kitchen.
Today, the air shows still hold the same fascination and excitement for visitors, as they did for visitors over 80 years ago. The aircraft though, can be a little different! The development of faster and more advanced aircraft such as the Hurricane and Spitfire and then the later jet aircraft all feature in the shows now held at Duxford. I think visitors to the 1937 Empire Air Day would be astonished at the range, speed and capabilities of the aircraft on show today.
This photo is also great if you like “people watching”. Have a really close look at some on the individuals on the ground. What are they doing? What are they looking at? What things do you like to do and see when you go to an air show?
A B ‘Woody’ Woodhall (above) was Duxford’s Commanding Officer at arguably the most well-known period in its history: The Battle of Britain. His autobiography, Soldier, Sailor, Airman Too is a fascinating account of his career, including his later work controlling fighters over Malta. Of great interest to us is the chapter called ‘Duxford and the Big Wing’, which contains this fascinating and poignant story about the Commanding Officer of No. 310 Czech Squadron, Alexander Hess (below). He was born in 1899, and was therefore one of the oldest pilots who flew in the Battle:
“The Czechs were fine men and most had suffered terrific hardships in their escape from Czechoslovakia after the German invasion. As one instance, Sasha Hess’ wife and daughter had been taken to a concentration camp and he had been informed they were dead. He could only hope that they died quickly, but he vowed that he would never show any mercy to any German and would never take any prisoners.
“On the first occasion the Czechs got into action…Hess had disabled a Dornier …he followed it down with the intention of making certain that no one got out of it alive. He saw three Germans climb out, who held up their hands when they saw Sasha diving on them. To quote his own words: ‘I hesitate, then it was too late, so I go round again to make sure I kill them – they wave something white, again I did not shoot…’ (disgustedly) ‘I think it is no use, I am becoming too b****y British!'”
Well, all that hard work paid off. Over the last few months we have spoken to hundreds of you to find out what you want to see in the final exhibition and it was worth it.
We have had some great conversations with visitors, disabled groups, local communities and veterans. All of you have expressed a keen interest in what we are doing and hopefully most of you will be lined up to see the new exhibition when it opens in about 18 months time.
So what did you have to say?
Well, a lot of you felt that to tell the human side of Duxford’s story was really important. The experiences of the men and women who lived and worked here came out as one of the most important things you thought we should cover. That is why we have been reviewing our archive of interviews with veterans. Carl has already posted a fantastic video that features clips from several interviews and there are many more. We have also been adding a few to the collection too. Not only will these be useful for the exhibition but they will add to an extremely important archive that documents, first hand, the memories of the those individuals who served at Duxford.
You also thought that objects were really important to see in the exhibition (hooray!) Many of you felt that they help bring to life the history that you see in a museum and provide a fantastic link to the past. So we’ve continued digging around in the museum collections to find everything we can that relates to Duxford. This is where the expertise of the curators comes in. They know their collections inside out and so can help us find any hidden gems. I will keep you up to date of the things we find. You can also have a look for yourself by visiting our online collections database.