Two Duxford-based Battle of Britain pilots, Douglas Bader and Alexander Hess. Bader lost his legs in a flying accident in 1931, but became famous as the pilot with ‘tin legs’. ‘Sacha’ Hess was a Czechoslovakian pilot who, like many others carried on fighting after his country was invaded by Germany. His family was murdered by the Nazis while he was away.
What do you think drove men like Bader and Hess to fly and fight in the Battle of Britain?
No. 19 Squadron pilots in front of one of their Gloster Gauntlets at Duxford, 1938. The Gauntlet first entered service at Duxford in 1935. Before the introduction of camouflage, No. 19 Squadron aircraft were bright silver with Cambridge blue and white chequer decoration.
As the situation in Europe in September 1938 deteriorated during the Munich crisis, the ground crews were told to paint the bright silver aeroplanes with a dull wartime camouflage scheme.
This photograph of Duxford was taken from the east, near where the M11 motorway is now. It shows the airfield soon after it was built. Many of these buildings survive today.
Duxford was built to a standard layout. Buildings were planned within two main groups: the technical group, and the domestic group. At Duxford these sets of buildings were separated by the Royston to Newmarket road.
The domestic buildings were on the north side of the road. They provided accommodation for some 850 men and women. Buildings included a hostel for the airwomen of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), and messes and quarters for officers, sergeants and airmen. The photograph below shows a mix of the different sorts of personnel stationed here!
The technical group of buildings was on the south of the road. These structures housed all of the services needed to keep the station running, the repair shops, aircraft sheds (hangars) and training buildings. Below, you can Duxford band in 1918, posing in front of one of the hangar doors.
Several temporary hangars, made of wood and canvas, were also constructed in 1918. They were known as Bessonneau, or Type H hangars. They housed many of the aircraft based here.
Tune: My Bonnie lies over the ocean
A poor aviator lay dying
At the end of a bright summer’s day
His comrades had gathered about him
To carry his fragments away
The airplane was piled on his wishbone
His Hotchkiss was wrapped round his head
He wore a spark-plug on each elbow
‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead
He spit out a valve and a gasket
And stirred in the sump where he lay
And then to his wondering comrades
These brave parting words he did say
“Take the magneto out of my stomach,
And the butterfly valve off my neck
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
There are lots of good parts in this wreck”
“Take the manifold out of my larynx,
And the cylinders out of my brain,
Take the piston rods out of my kidneys,
And assemble the engine again.”
Pull the longeron out of my backbone,
The turnbuckle out of my ear (my ear).
From the small of my back take the rudder-
There’s all of your aeroplane here.
I’ll be riding a cloud in the morning,
With no rotary before me to cuss (to cuss).
Take the lead from your feet and get busy,
Here’s another lad needing the bus!
There are various versions of this folk song, some with additional verses to the ones here. As in many communities, singing songs was a way people came together, particularly at a time before television and even radio. It was also a way of commenting on the experiences they shared, as is the case with this song.