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:
General Domestic Worker
Fitter (Aero engine)
Tinsmith and Sheet Metal Worker
Motor Car Driver
Washer (Motor Car)
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.
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.
Two Duxford-based Battle of Britain pilots, Douglas Bader and Alexander Hess. Bader lost his legs in a flying accident in 1931, but became famous as the pilot with ‘tin legs’. ‘Sacha’ Hess was a Czechoslovakian pilot who, like many others carried on fighting after his country was invaded by Germany. His family was murdered by the Nazis while he was away.
What do you think drove men like Bader and Hess to fly and fight in the Battle of Britain?
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.
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!
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.
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.
Tune: My Bonnie lies over the ocean
A poor aviator lay dying
At the end of a bright summer’s day
His comrades had gathered about him
To carry his fragments away
The airplane was piled on his wishbone
His Hotchkiss was wrapped round his head
He wore a spark-plug on each elbow
‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead
He spit out a valve and a gasket
And stirred in the sump where he lay
And then to his wondering comrades
These brave parting words he did say
“Take the magneto out of my stomach,
And the butterfly valve off my neck
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
There are lots of good parts in this wreck”
“Take the manifold out of my larynx,
And the cylinders out of my brain,
Take the piston rods out of my kidneys,
And assemble the engine again.”
Pull the longeron out of my backbone,
The turnbuckle out of my ear (my ear).
From the small of my back take the rudder-
There’s all of your aeroplane here.
I’ll be riding a cloud in the morning,
With no rotary before me to cuss (to cuss).
Take the lead from your feet and get busy,
Here’s another lad needing the bus!
There are various versions of this folk song, some with additional verses to the ones here. As in many communities, singing songs was a way people came together, particularly at a time before television and even radio. It was also a way of commenting on the experiences they shared, as is the case with this song.
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?
Duxford is very lucky to have an active veterans association. The ‘Old Dux’ are ex-Duxford personnel of all ranks and trades. They meet twice a year, here at Duxford, and communicate regularly via a newsletter.
I am very pleased to say that the Old Dux have given us permission to put some of their stories here on our blog for everyone to see. Many of them have been included in the newsletter over the years and I have really enjoyed going through them and picking out some extracts to share. The stories of the men and women who served here are vitally important to Historic Duxford and so it’s only fair they feature on the blog too!
I thought this poem was a good way to start:
Go pin your medals on; be proud they’re yours to wear,
Pull your shoulders back a bit and let the youngsters stare.
They are yours by right of war; by service to the crown.
They are symbols that you did not let your side down.
Wear them proudly on your chest and let all who will deride.
They are yours by right of war, so carry them with pride.
It is not known who wrote this poem but it reminded me how behind every set of medals worn by a veteran is a wealth of stories and experiences. Duxford’s veterans are no exception.
Do you know anyone who served or still serves in the armed forces? What are their war and peacetime stories?