Duxford’s ‘dark side’!
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford is well known to many, but its north side, on the other side of the A505 main road, has a history unexplored by most visitors. key.aero was invited along on one of the first ‘Unseen Duxford’ tours.
‘Unseen Duxford’ is a 90-minute tour of the historic buildings on the airfield’s ‘north side’ of the A505, many of which were constructed before World War Two. Duxford’s history begins in the First World War when farmland was requisitioned by the government for the construction of a Royal Flying Corps airfield in 1917. It began its operational life as a mobilisation station in March 1918, with both service personnel and aircraft housed in tents across the site.
During 1919, permanent buildings were constructed and Duxford began to look more like the airfield it is today with Officers’ Quarters, Officers’ Mess and the Women’s Hostel built on the north side of the Royston road. But by then the location had two large flying stations and little use for them – nearby Fowlmere had also been built to the same standard, and one of them had to go. Duxford was retained because it had a larger domestic site and better links to Cambridge, being close to Whittlesford railway station. RAF Fowlmere was demolished in the mid-twenties.
Ivor Warne, guide for the morning. Key - Gary ParsonsThe ‘Unseen’ tour begins on the Bailey bridge that joins the north and south sides of the camp – a good view of the Officers’ Mess is offered. Our guide, Ivor Warne, tells more: “There was a perceived threat in the 1920s from the French, not the Germans, so the government decided to strengthen the Royal Air Force and match French air power. As a result Duxford was expanded with many original buildings demolished, but before the plan was completed the Second World War started, which is why we have a mix of First World War hangars and Second World War structures.”
From the bridge, Ivor points to where the original Women’s Hostel was located, now replaced with housing. As Duxford’s service history continued into the 1950s and 60s, the site underwent significant socio-demographic changes – married quarters were built, which have since been sold for private use. Archive photographs show that buildings during the First World War were mostly timber-built, one-storey bungalows. The hostel housed seamstresses responsible for sewing the fabric that covered early aircraft. On the other side of the bridge is the impressive Officers’ Mess, a familiar sight on any 1930s ‘Expansion period’ aerodrome of the RAF. “As part of Duxford’s expansion, the original Officers’ Mess had to go,” says Ivor. “This one was built in 1933 behind the old Mess, so that the officers weren’t inconvenienced. It had officers’ accommodation at either end – the premise was that if it was hit, not everyone would be killed at once.” The Mess is currently unused, but served as a conference centre until AirSpace was constructed.
We move down from the bridge to behind the Mess building and past the single squash court building. “This is now a conservation area,” says Ivor, “so there are limited things that can be done to the buildings. Duxford is the best-preserved Second World War fighter station.” Next is a building used to house the ‘Link Trainer’, as there wasn’t room on the south side of the airfield site at the time of need. “It was designed by American Edwin Albert Link,” adds Ivor, “who was a piano tuner. He designed it to teach himself how to fly, as he couldn’t afford flying for real. It is an early flying simulator using bellows and wires, mechanisms he was familiar with.”
The decontamination centre shrouded by blast walls. Key - Gary ParsonsAround the corner is a concrete building surrounded by an earth mound. Ivor continues: “This sinister looking building is the decontamination centre, built in 1938. This was for people that had been exposed to gas but not injured; they’d go through the air locked doors, strip off and through the showers. Mustard gas has the faint smell of garlic – if exposed to the skin, it had to be removed within 20 minutes with a bleach paste, as it affected the lungs, eyes and internal organs.” Despite signing up to the Geneva Convention in 1925, Britain fully expected to experience the effects of mustard gas and tear gas, having experienced its terrible effects in the First World War.
De Havilland's original Stag Lane Aerodrome office building. Key - Gary ParsonsTurning around, we head north, deeper into the camp. We pass the Astra Cinema, which also housed a gymnasium, chancel and, at various times, a dance hall and auditorium. On our left, opposite a typical ‘H’ barrack block airmen’s accommodation block is a wooden hut, similar to something Baden-Powell’s scouts might use. “This is a bit of a ‘foreigner’,” quips Ivor; “it was de Havilland’s original office at Stag Lane aerodrome at Edgware in North London. It was taken apart and re-erected here about ten years ago and is now used by de Havilland Support company, which flies the Dragon Rapides out of Duxford.” Stag Lane was the main base for the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited from 1920 until 1934, when the company moved to Hatfield.
Key - Gary ParsonsTurning to the barrack block, Ivor says “You can see there used to be another block to the side of this one, the two connected by a central spine. It’s a steel-framed structure; the first floor is a concrete slab and under the stairs there’s a refuge, which leads to an airlock and a shelter. There’s also an escape tunnel leading away from the building.
Original 1944 press cutting of the B-17 crash on the Airmen's barrack block.“On July 19, 1944, a B-17 pilot from the 412th Bomb Squadron, 95th Bomb Group based at Horham brought his aircraft, ‘Ready Freddie’, to visit an Eighth Air Force colleague at Duxford. They got chatting and decided to take some friends for a flight – it started off sedately, but with 13 on board the next thing was ‘Let’s buzz the tower’. They missed the tower and Hangar 3, but the left wing struck a beacon on the corner of the hangar. The B-17 cleared the Officers’ Mess, but hit the second barrack block – all 13 on board were killed, plus a serviceman who was the only one in the barracks that afternoon. That’s why there’s a big gap here. All that’s left is the entrance to the refuge.”
Ivor now points to a small wooded area to the north-east corner of the field. “A wireless transmitter and receiver station was put there,” he says. “It was also the back-up operations room. However, again in 1944 a Halifax bomber, with a full bomb load, got into difficulties over Cambridge – everyone baled out and the aircraft crashed on the building and exploded. As it was towards the end of the war, nothing was done to repair it.”
One of several original Nissen huts dotted about the camp. Key - Gary ParsonsWe walk past a large shed with hangar-like doors. “This is the MT shed, and is now used for storage by the Aeroplane Restoration Company and one or two of the other private operators,” mentions Ivor as we continue. No chance of a look-around, much to the disappointment of the aircraft enthusiasts in the group.
The infrastructure of the north side of Duxford is like that of a small town – there was a boiler house that heated the whole site; a sewage system with its own treatment works and two bore holes that provided running water. Many of the buildings around the water tower were to do with servicing the comfort of Duxford’s personnel, but are now used by the film archive department of the IWM. “There was a grocery store, tailor, cobbler and a barber shop. Nobody had their own transport to get to Cambridge like we have today,” says Ivor.
The parade square hasn't heard the sound of marching boots for nearly 50 years. Key - Gary ParsonsWe stop by a large ornate brick building. “This is the Airman’s Mess,” says Ivor. “On the first floor is a flat for the NAAFI staff, as they’d work around the clock. This archway was for deliveries – you can see it’s from a bygone age, designed for horse and cart. Back in 1933 this was a rural area and nearly everything would be delivered by horse.”
We’re now at the parade ground, surrounded by Airmen barrack blocks. Huts used to occupy the site of the parade ground during World War One, and their foundations can still be seen on aerial mapping. On the south side of the parade ground, next to the A505, is the station hospital, which also has a decontamination centre, but for wounded personnel only. “If you’d been wounded and contaminated, apart from being very unlucky, you’d be brought here and showered, soaped, and so on. Today it’s used by our photography section,” says Ivor.
The hospital, now used by the IWM photographic section. Key - Gary ParsonsOur tour ends back at the decontamination centre opposite the Guard Room entrance. The north side also has an entrance here, which would have been manned during the camp’s service days. It has been an interesting hour or so, but would have been all the better for a glimpse inside one or two of the buildings – unfortunately the risk assessments and health and safety paperwork probably mean it’s too much trouble in these cotton-wool protected days. Good job we didn’t fall into any of those air raid shelters dotted about!
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