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.”
No. 19 Squadron at Duxford. James Coward is seated, on the right.
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.’
He will be greatly missed.
You can read an obituary of Flight Lieutenant Jones here.
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.
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.
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!’”
On 4 May 1939 the press were invited to Duxford to see the new Spitfire. It was the latest fighter aircraft to be introduced in the RAF and went on to become one of the most iconic aeroplanes of the Second World War.
Nos. 19 and 66 squadrons were present on the day, but the press were asked not to release these details by the Air Ministry for security reasons. Twelve Spitfires from 19 squadron performed an air drill and Squadron Leader Cozens gave an individual demonstration.
To really give the press an idea of the capabilities of the Spitfire in the air, journalists were taken up in five Blenheims to be the target in a mock attack! Flight magazine reported that the Spitfire was ‘truly a poem of speed and precision’.
On 4 May 2011, the scene in this photo was almost recreated. The press came and took photos of two Spitfires that had been brought out of the hangar to mark the occasion. School children and visitors were able to get up close to the aircraft and photograph them, just as the press had done 72 years before.
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire also covered this anniversary and interviewed our very own Carl Warner. Have a listen to the breakfast show for 5 May. The interview features after about 1 hour 23 minutes.
Just a quick update to post some links to some good online videos. First, Captain Burt Newmark’s presentation to an American school group. Burt flew with the 78th Fighter Group from Duxford, and has got an amazing story to tell.
Second, here’s a clip telling the story of a German raid on Duxford’s satellite station, Fowlmere, during the Battle of Britain. It’s from our Duxford: The Second World War Years DVD:
Third, here’s a link to a piece filmed by the Museum for the recent Battle of Britain anniversary, showing our very own Steve Woolford, Project Director for the Historic Duxford project. Over to you, Steve…
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.