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First World War

While carrying out more research on RAF Duxford in the First World War, we came across this description of life at the airfield, written by an airman who served here in 1918:

“Sleeping quarters were huts holding about fifty beds, twenty five either side of a partition. Beds were three boards and two trestles, two blankets and a palliasse. The later we filled with straw to our own satisfaction, if an extra two trestles could be found they were used to form a cross at each end, this gave one board flat in the centre with a tilt to the other two forming a concave of supreme comfort — until an officious NCO interfered.

“Uniform not in use had to be folded precisely and placed on shelf above the bed. For kit inspection every item was laid out in uniform order on the bed, any shortages charged for replacement. Blankets folded at head of bed every morning. No sheets or pyjamas, I slept in vest and pants. When I attained the age of manhood, eighteen, my pay was increased to one shilling a day, the normal for all the services. Half a million men died in France for a shilling a day.

“It’s difficult to remember sequence of events at Duxford, the early days seem to have escaped altogether, most of my memories being of later times when I was well established there. Early on I formed a friendship with one of my own age…and similar upbringing. On weekends off we went to Cambridge and enjoyed a plate of bacon and eggs, then a row on the Cam in a sliding-seat skiff. That shilling a day seemed to stretch a long way, but I suppose we saved it all up for those occasions.

“Others spent theirs having a lively time at dances in Sawston (three miles from Duxford) or on the camp, but that was not for us. Goodness knows how we spent our evenings, there was no radio.”

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Members of the WRAF at Duxford. By permission of the Imperial War Museum. IWM Q114860

We’ve been doing some research concerning the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). The WRAF was established in April 1918, at the same time as the the RAF. Women who had been serving within the other services – the Army and Royal Navy – could be transferred across, and it was also opened up to new members. Contained within the ‘Conditions of Service’, we found this list of jobs that were open to its recruits:

Vegetable Woman
By-Product Woman
General Domestic Worker
Acetylene Welder
Camera Repairer
Fitter (Aero engine)
Fitter (General)
Instrument repairer
Magneto repairer
Tinsmith and Sheet Metal Worker
Wireless Mechanic
Wireless Operator
Motor Car Driver
Assistant Armourer
Storewoman (Non-Technical)
Fabric Worker
Motor cyclist
Washer (Motor Car)
Telephone Operator

The First World War dramatically increased the range of jobs that were undertaken by women, beyond the traditional fields such as domestic service (which employed between 11-13% of the female population in England and Wales from 1911-1914). Many of these new jobs were carried out by WRAFs at Duxford, as the photograph below shows.

Members of the WRAF in the Motor Transport yard, Duxford, 1918. By permission of the Imperial War Museum IWM HU 040586

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Duxford from the south east. By permission of the Imperial War Museum, IWM Q 114047

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!

Members of the Royal Air Force and Women's Royal Air Force at Duxford, at the end of the First World War. By permission of the Imperial War Museum. IWM HU 40579

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.

The Duxford band, 1918. By permission of the Imperial War Museum. IWM Q 096087

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.

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Officers and their guests IWM Neg no HU069872

Officers and their guests at the Fowlmere sports day, 1919.

Fowlmere is a village close to Duxford. An airfield was built there during the First World War.

It was closed and demolished in the 1920s, but re-opened again in the Second World War as a satellite airfield, an extra base for aircraft.

Can you spot the different uniforms in this photograph? What do you think is going on in the background?


We are currently reviewing our blog for Historic Duxford. Many of you have already commented on our posts so tell us what you think of the blog as a whole. What works? What would you like to see more of? What can we add to make it better? What more do you want to find out about the project?

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George Unwin and his Alsatian Flash. By permission of the Imperial War Museum,IWM CH 001343

Sarah pointed out some time ago how often dogs appear in photographs of Duxford.  Dogs and other animals were a key part of station life.

There are lots of accounts and photographs of pets and mascots at Duxford: the unnamed First World War donkey (below), the Station Commander’s horse, Flash the Alsatian (above), Rangy the Spaniel and No. 609 Squadron’s famous mascot “William de Goat” to name a few.

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Aerial photograph of Duxford during the First World War, taken from the west. By permission of the Imperial War Museum, IWM Q 114046

We’ve been looking at some of the material related to the construction of Duxford, and trying to work out the costs associated with building a First World War airfield in today’s prices.

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