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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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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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