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Posted on May 7, 2007 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Duxford Delights

By Phil Royal

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The Imperial War Museum is well known for its substantial collection of militaria housed in Kennington, London, but it has a number of satellite collections, the most significant of these being Duxford in Cambridgeshire. Besides the large and unique collection of aircraft owned by the museum, the airfield is also actively used by a number of warbird operators and preservation groups, and therefore there is always something new for the regular visitor to see – and if lucky – in the air.

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The site at Duxford was originally built during the First World War. During 1917 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) expanded and Duxford was one of a number of new stations established to train aircrew. After the merger of Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps in April 1918, the Royal Air Force, as it then became known, operated Duxford as a flying school – No. 35 Training Depot Station. After the war ended, three fighter squadrons were eventually formed out of the training activities- Nos. 19, 29 and III – and in 1924 Duxford became a fighter station.

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Bristol Bulldog at Duxford, 1933

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Gloster Gauntlets at Duxford, 1935

By the summer of 1938 Duxford was base to No.19 Squadron’s, whose reputation was such that it became the first RAF squadron to re-equip with the new Supermarine Spitfire. Then came World War two and, with the fall of France, Duxford was placed in a high state of readiness, creating space for additional units. After the Battle of Britain, Duxford several specialist units were based at Duxford, among them the Air Fighting Development Unit. The AFDU’s equipment included captured German aircraft, restored to flying condition for evaluation – an interesting synergy with the preservation work now undertaken at the airfield. Squadrons with newly acquired aircraft were also posted to Duxford for trials, including No.601 Squadron, the only RAF squadron to be equipped with the Bell Airacobra. Duxford also played a major part in developing the Hawker Typhoon into a formidable low-level and ground attack fighter.
 
In April 1943 the airfield was handed over to the United States 8th Air Force, becoming Base 357 and the headquarters of the 78th Fighter Group, flying P-47 Thunderbolts (and from December 1944 P-51 Mustangs).

Duxford was officially handed back to the Royal Air Force on 1 December 1945, and due to runway improvements made by the Americans it was deemed adequate by the RAF for jet aircraft. Subsquently the RAF operated Gloster Meteors, and with a new concrete runway, Gloster Javelins. During this period a type T2 hangar was erected alongside the four First World War hangars. Although the original T2 hangar has now gone, the Museum has since put up another two Second World War T2 hangars on the same site.

At the start of the 1960s, the RAF deemed Duxford to be too far south and too far inland to justify costly improvements to allow operation of supersonic fighters. Subsequently, in July 1961 the last operational RAF flight was made from Duxford but it was not until 1969 that the MOD declared its intention to sell the site – and this was the start of the development of the current museum.

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Duxford in 1945

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Hunters and Javelins at Duxford in 1959

For the occasional visitor, the static exhibits at Duxford offer more than enough to occupy one’s day, but the museum comes into its own when it stages its regular airshows or military vehicle events.

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