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Between the wars

Officers of No 19 (Fighter) Squadron at Duxford, 1928.

RAF Duxford’s Operations Record Book entry for 26 March 1928:

26.3.28 Flight Lieut Montgomery Moore to R.A.F. Station, North Weald at 1000 hrs. Returning to Duxford 1600 hrs same date. Duty: Handing over Secret & Confidential Books of No. 29 (F) Squadron.

 

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Officers of No 19 (Fighter) Squadron at Duxford, 1928.

RAF Duxford’s Operations Record Book entries for 20 March 1928:

20.3.1928 R.A.F. Duxford box R.A.F. Shrewsbury in the R.A.F. Boxing Junior Team Championships Semi-final. Result Duxford 12 points. Shrewsbury 6 points. Boxing took place at Duxford.

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RAF Duxford’s Operations Record Book entries for 19 March 1928:

19.3.1928 Flight Lieutenant O.L. Griffin, Accountant Officer, ceases to be attached to H.Q. A.D.G.B, Uxbridge, on posting to H.Q. Wessex Bombing Area, Andover.

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Wreckage of Gloster Grebe Mark II, J7293, which crashed in March 1928 killing the pilot, Sergeant Trillick

As we get closer to opening Historic Duxford to our visitors on Thursday 28 March, we look back to life at RAF Duxford as it was in March 1928, 80 years ago. This snapshot of life is taken from RAF Duxford’s Operations Record Book (ORB), a daily diary which was completed by every squadron and station in the RAF and which lists all of the main events that happened on each day.

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IWM HU 045437

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.”

IWM HU 045437

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

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No. 19 Squadron and Gauntlet. By permission of the Imperial War Museum. IWM HU 027835

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.

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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.

Empire Air Day 1937, IWM neg no. HU048146

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?

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The north side of the site here at Duxford is where people lived, ate, slept and socialised. It is separated from the technical side by the A505.

Now most of the buildings are occupied by museum departments and other companies but the feel of the place is amazing!

Did you know there was a cinema there which is still kitted out with stage, screen and seats (although not the originals)? Like all RAF station cinemas, it is called the ‘Astra Cinema’. This is taken from the RAF motto “Per Ardua ad Astra” which can be translated in different ways, but in relation to the RAF is often reported as: “Through Struggles to the Stars”.

Cinema at Duxford

The building that housed the cinema was also used as a gymnasium and church. It was built in 1940 and extended in 1941. An annexe, to house the projection equipment for the cinema, was added in 1955. In more recent years, many staff remember it as being a rather grand location for meetings and presentations!

the cinema building

If you want to see this intriguing place for yourself then you can book on an ‘Unseen Duxford – North Side tour’. It is well worth a visit and the guides that conduct the visits have some great stories to tell!

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