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Second World War

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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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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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.

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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:

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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…

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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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Bob Hope and Frances Langford. By permission of the Imperial War Museum, IWM HU57979

One of the photos in our Historic Duxford ‘taster’ display in AirSpace is of Bob Hope and Frances Langford visiting the American 78th Fighter Group at Duxford. The photo appears to be a morale boosting shot, but actually Bob Hope and Frances Langford visited in July 1943 only a few days after the Commanding Officer, Colonel Arman ‘Pete’ Peterson had been lost on a mission. According to the Duxford Diary, Bob Hope admitted he had had trouble getting the audience at Duxford to laugh. Not surprising when they had lost such a respected leader. I think it adds a whole new dimension to the photograph. What do you think?

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Gordon Sinclair's crashed Spitfire. By permission of the Imperial War Museum, IWM HU 58240

Hi, I’m Sarah and I am the Exhibitions Officer here at Duxford. Unlike Carl, I am new to the place so a lot of the things you will be learning about Historic Duxford, here on the blog, I am learning too!

This photograph amazed me when I saw it! It is such a still and quiet image yet to get a Spitfire turned over like that must have involved serious drama. I have since found out that this is quite a well-known photo at Duxford and that the pilot Gordon Sinclair was actually recorded talking about the event that led to his aircraft ending up upside-down on the airfield.

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