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Battle of Britain

John Milne

We were saddened to hear that John Milne, one of 19 Squadron’s ground crew fitters, died recently.

John arrived at RAF Duxford on 11 March 1940 and served here during the build-up to the Battle of Britain. He was allocated to ‘A’ Flight, which was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Brian Lane, who was later promoted to Squadron Leader and Officer Commanding 19 Squadron. John was serving with ‘A’ Flight when Douglas Bader joined its ranks.

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On the Saturday of The Duxford Air Show, IWM Duxford was treated to a visit from a very special guest. Nancy Stannard, nee Bateman was a WAAF who served at RAF Duxford between 1939 and 1941. She worked in the Operations Room as a teleprinter operator.

I had been in touch with Nancy and her family for a while and we had arranged for her to come back to IWM Duxford, selecting September in the hope that the weather would not be too bad. As it was we were treated to glorious sunshine.

It was a great to be able to host Nancy on a return visit to Duxford. The place looked very different, particularly due to all the air show hustle and bustle, but there were some areas, such as the Operations Room that were still very familiar to Nancy.

Over a well-deserved cup of tea, Nancy told me some of her memories of RAF Duxford, the place she says she remembers best out of all the places she served as a WAAF. Nancy was one of the very first WAAFs to arrive at RAF Duxford and she remembers the station not being quite ready for them. So much so that she and the other women, who had arrived with her, were given airmen’s greatcoats to wear as they didn’t have any made for women!

Nancy also said she vividly remembers going to dances in the hangar, dancing to tunes like In the Mood.

Having had a lovely chat with Nancy and really getting to know what RAF Duxford was like for her during the early years of the Second World War, I asked her if she was happy to be interviewed in the commentary box at the air show. Although slightly nervous, Nancy rose to the challenge and gave a wonderful interview. It was so good in fact, it was replayed on Sunday making Nancy’s audience over 33,000 people.

Having worked her very hard, I finally let her and her family relax and watch the air show. It was a great pleasure to meet Nancy and to hear her tales of RAF Duxford. Every time I interview a veteran, the historic site where I work every day takes on a new little detail. I doubt I shall walk through the Operations Room now without thinking about Nancy and the number of times she would have walked down that very same corridor.

A great day spent with one of Duxford’s people.

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James Coward at Duxford in 1938.

Some sad news to report. James Coward, one of RAF Duxford’s pre-war No. 19 Squadron pilots, died recently, aged 97. He was with No. 19 Squadron when they received the first Spitfires to enter RAF service. He flew in the Battle of Britain, was wounded in combat, and even worked on Churchill’s personal staff.

I spoke to him and his wife two years ago. They met and married while he was stationed at Duxford, and the stories he was able to tell about life here before and during the war will stay with me for a long time.

We were very fortunate that he recorded his memories for his family. This excerpt concerns getting shot down near Duxford in August 1940:

 

“I pulled the ripcord pretty quickly and when my parachute opened I was swinging in a big figure of eight and I had this wonderful view of Cambridgeshire. I was over 20,000 feet and it was a beautiful clear day, I could see about 100 miles in all directions. It was absolutely wonderful and there wasn’t the sight or sound of an aeroplane anywhere, I was alone in the sky, everything had gone, quite extraordinary. I suddenly realised something was happening and I looked down and could see blood spurting out of my leg and falling slowly below me in a big figure eight. I realised I had to do something quickly so I had my helmet on with the cord hanging down so I put that round my thigh and latched it up with a half hitch and tightened it until I stopped the bleeding. I then found that holding my knee hard back under my shoulder I could keep the foot wedged under my bottom, which stopped the foot twisting about which was much more comfortable. I then floated slowly across the sky.”

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No. 19 Squadron at Duxford. James Coward is seated, on the right.

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Richard Jones, taken in 2003.

Some sad news.

We learned yesterday that Richard Jones, who flew with the Duxford Wing in 1940, has died.

Flying first with No. 64 Squadron at Kenley, then with No. 19 Squadron at Fowlmere, he had some incredible experiences. We interviewed Richard in 2003, and his memories of the Battle provided us with a very important insight into the life of a Second World War fighter pilot. It was particularly moving when he recalled how he and his squadron colleagues dealt with losing a friend:

‘You had to develop a mentality where you had to accept it. After a severe casualty or anything else you wouldn’t show terrific remorse, you would go and have a drink in the Mess, on him, to send him on his way.’

Richard Jones, 1940.

He will be greatly missed.

You can read an obituary of Flight Lieutenant Jones here.

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Sergeant F N Robertson in front of Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron on the snow-covered airfield during the harsh winter of 1939-1940. Image by permission of IWM.

Sergeant F N Robertson and Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron at Duxford in the harsh winter of 1939/1940.

As the festive season is upon us, we thought it would be a good time to look back at how Christmas was celebrated at Duxford during the Second World War.

On Christmas Day 1939, Duxford was part of the international radio link-up that preceded the king’s broadcast to Britain and the Empire. For security reasons the station was not named. ‘Squadron Leader George’ described the scene in the airmen’s mess, where ‘…the Commanding Officer himself is also lending a hand at carving the turkeys’. Then, the programme cut to a greeting from the air, as a pilot wished the listening world ‘a very merry Christmas to you all – and happy landings’ from his Spitfire. Only a select few knew that this segment had in fact been pre-recorded, as the weather on 25 December made flying impossible.

By Christmas Day 1940, in common with most of the RAF, the Duxford-based Squadrons had seen some intense fighting. Traditions were maintained, however. The station’s Operations Record Book (ORB) shows that ‘The sergeants were entertained in the Officers’ Mess at 1200 Noon after which the Officers and Sergeants visited the men’s mess and acted as waiters’ – a common RAF custom.

Little is written in the ORBs of Christmas 1941, but it was an extremely busy time for the station, with nine different flying units in residence. Christmas 1942, a time when Duxford was undergoing a change of role, similarly does not merit much attention in the station daily diary.

By December 1943, the United States Army Air Force had settled in, and on Christmas Eve a party was organised at the Guildhall in nearby Cambridge. The 78th Fighter Group’s ‘Thunderbolt’ dance band provided the music, and the whole celebration was broadcast on radio in the United States. On Christmas Day, the 78th hosted a party for local children, a tradition which they continued the following year, the group’s third festive season in succession spent overseas.

But the men of the 78th didn’t lose their Christmas spirit once the decorations came down. As the Duxford diary states, ‘Seven children who had lost one or both parents during the war were ‘adopted’ by Duxford units. The $400 for each child paid for school and two meals a day for four years’.

Merry Christmas from the Duxford team to everyone who follows the Historic Duxford blog!

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Cunningham, Blake and Brinsden at Fowlmere, September 1940. By permission of the Imperial War Museum. IWM CH 001459

Many of you will have seen the sad news that Wallace “Jock” Cunningham passed away recently. Cunningham (on the left in the above photograph) flew with No. 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, and as such features very heavily in our work on Duxford’s history.

Back in 1999 we interviewed “Jock” to find out more about his experiences. Particularly memorable was his description of the relentless nature of the combat operations at the height of the Battle:

You could be up in the air and climbing at a thousand feet above the aerodrome and wondering how the hell you got there, because you’d been asleep, you were up and you did all the right things, and you were up in the air… Complete blank as to how you got there.

He is also frequently mentioned in No. 19 Squadron’s Operations Record Book, including this entry for 15 September – what we now know as Battle of Britain Day:

Another party along with Wing, led by S/ldr. Lane and F/Lt. Clouston . When we arrived the formation had already been broken up by 11 Group. S/Ldr. Lane a probable Me.109, P/O. Cunningham an Me.109, F/Sgt. Unwin two Me.109’s. Sub/Lt. Blake an Me.109 and shared a He.111, F/Lt. Clouston a Do. 17, F/O. Haines an Me.110 and Me.109, P/O. Vokes a probable Me.110. F/Sgt. Steere a Do.17. Sub/Lt. Blake and Sgt. Roden shot down but force landed safely. Sgt. Potter missing.

An obituary of Cunningham can be found here.

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Douglas Bader and Alexander Hess IWM Neg no CH001340

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?

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A B Woodhall, IWM CH 1386

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:

Alexander Hess, IWM CH 001340

“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!'”

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