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On the Saturday of The Duxford Air Show, IWM Duxford was treated to a visit from a very special guest. Nancy Stannard, nee Bateman was a WAAF who served at RAF Duxford between 1939 and 1941. She worked in the Operations Room as a teleprinter operator.

I had been in touch with Nancy and her family for a while and we had arranged for her to come back to IWM Duxford, selecting September in the hope that the weather would not be too bad. As it was we were treated to glorious sunshine.

It was a great to be able to host Nancy on a return visit to Duxford. The place looked very different, particularly due to all the air show hustle and bustle, but there were some areas, such as the Operations Room that were still very familiar to Nancy.

Over a well-deserved cup of tea, Nancy told me some of her memories of RAF Duxford, the place she says she remembers best out of all the places she served as a WAAF. Nancy was one of the very first WAAFs to arrive at RAF Duxford and she remembers the station not being quite ready for them. So much so that she and the other women, who had arrived with her, were given airmen’s greatcoats to wear as they didn’t have any made for women!

Nancy also said she vividly remembers going to dances in the hangar, dancing to tunes like In the Mood.

Having had a lovely chat with Nancy and really getting to know what RAF Duxford was like for her during the early years of the Second World War, I asked her if she was happy to be interviewed in the commentary box at the air show. Although slightly nervous, Nancy rose to the challenge and gave a wonderful interview. It was so good in fact, it was replayed on Sunday making Nancy’s audience over 33,000 people.

Having worked her very hard, I finally let her and her family relax and watch the air show. It was a great pleasure to meet Nancy and to hear her tales of RAF Duxford. Every time I interview a veteran, the historic site where I work every day takes on a new little detail. I doubt I shall walk through the Operations Room now without thinking about Nancy and the number of times she would have walked down that very same corridor.

A great day spent with one of Duxford’s people.

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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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John and Hilda met at RAF Duxford during the 1950s. They had their first ‘date’ at the cinema here on the domestic site. They have now been married for 54 years.

Over the last month or so Carl, Steve and I have been travelling the East of England and interviewing some of Duxford’s Cold War veterans.

We have been really lucky to have had the help of the Old Dux Association. They spread the word and helped us find our interviewees.

I have particularly enjoyed interviewing our Duxford couples. Everyone loves a good “so…how did you meet?” story but the fact that people got together at Duxford, the place I work every day, is even better!

One of the interesting things that really came out in the interviews concerned the fact that when a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force got married, she had to leave the services. Some of our interviewees evidently found this hard to take as they loved their jobs and the life that went with it. Life as a military wife took some getting used to.

Another thing that became clear during this interview process was that lasting friendships were made at Duxford. Indeed many of our Cold War veterans are still in touch with the friends they made here. This is particularly evident at meetings of the Old Dux Association when the veterans get together. The friendly rivalry between two of Duxford’s Cold War squadrons – No. 64 and 65 – is as strong as ever!

We still have a lot of people we want to interview and if you, or anyone you know, served at Duxford between 1945 and 1961 then please get in touch with us – and the Old Dux Association too. It is so important for us to capture the memories and stories of the people who lived and worked at Duxford. Their interviews will help bring our Historic Duxford exhibition to life.

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As most of you guessed, we haven’t really become convinced of an ancient Egyptian connection to IWM Duxford. We took advantage of April Fools’ Day to highlight a little piece of IWM Duxford’s hidden history. There really is a scarab beetle etched into the ground in front of Hangar 2: Flying Aircraft, but it didn’t originate in Africa 2,000 years ago.

The hangar that used to stand here belonged to No. 64 Squadron, and their badge features a scarab beetle. This is because the squadron spent some time in Egypt in the 1930s. They were based here from 1951 to 1961, flying Gloster Meteors, then Javelins.

The beetle was placed here by squadron personnel to show just whose territory this was!

I included a few clues in the previous post – did you spot them? It’s not really ‘64’ feet from the scarab to the hangar entrance, and the reason I included the phrase ‘firm of purpose’ is because this is a translation of the squadron motto – “Tenax propositi”.

However, it is possible to argue that the scarab is here because of a meteor – a Gloster Meteor, to be precise…

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Scarab beetle etching.IWM Duxford has been visited by a wide range of people from a diverse set of countries over its 90-year history. It has recently come to our attention, however, that the first foreign visit to our little piece of South Cambridgeshire countryside may have been much earlier than we previously suspected.

Archaeological work undertaken on site in the last few weeks has revealed a remarkable man-made carving, only 64 feet from the entrance to Hangar 2: Flying Aircraft. As shown in the photograph, the carving depicts a scarab beetle, or scarabee. It is etched into what appears to be some form of conglomerate rock or breccia.

We know how important the scarab beetle was in ancient Egypt. It represented rebirth, and as a symbol is found in many places throughout the ancient world. The striking resemblance to similar carvings in North Africa allows us to date this piece to circa 1300 BCE.

Whoever completed this carving must have been extraordinarily firm of purpose, and very skilful. It has survived for what could be as much as 3,000 years – many of these surely in its present location.

If you have any information that could help us find out how this incredible artefact came to be here, we’d love to hear from you. We’ve already had some rather outlandish explanations as to how it arrived – including via a meteor!

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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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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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