Where History Comes to Life: A Day at the Duxford Air Festival

On Sunday, I attended day two of Imperial War Museum Duxford’s Air Festival. Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted to go to the Imperial War Museums, especially IWM Duxford. Although I was in Cambridge (where Duxford is located) last summer for a six week long study abroad program, I was unable to visit the museum. When I was planning this research visit to Cambridge, I was excited to see that the Duxford Air Festival fell on my first weekend in England. Unsurprisingly, it was the first event I booked and wrote into my itinerary!

In 1917, the Royal Flying Corps selected the site near the village of Duxford to house a new training aerodrome for No. 2 Training School. Many of the buildings were constructed by German prisoner-of war labor. In the interwar period, three fighter squadrons occupied Duxford, one of which, No. 19 Squadron, gave a special flying demonstration during King George V’s Silver Jubilee Review in 1935. In addition to housing the Cambridge University Air Squadron, Duxford had the prestige of having a squadron to being the first tor receive the new Supermarine Spitfire in 1938. In the early years of the Second World War, Duxford’s squadrons were involved in multiple aspects of aerial defense, including coastal patrol duties and providing specialist units for the Air Fighting Development Unit. During the Battle of Britain, Duxford was a sector station of the RAF Fighter Command and sent out fighter patrols to intercept German bombers and their fighter escorts on their way to London and coastal towns. In 1943 the United States Army Air Forces’ 78th Fighter Group arrived at  Duxford with P-47 Thunderbolts and, by December 1944, P-51 Mustangs in December 1944. The Fighter Group’s primary role was to act as bomber escorts and conduct fighter sweeps, ground strafing and ground attack missions. Although returned to the RAF in December 1945,  the reallocation of RAF fighter bases to northern bases in order to combat Soviet air missions, the aerodrome remained derelict until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it became a key part of the Imperial War Museum. Today,  Duxford remains an active airfield with two runways: one grass runway and one concrete runway.

Since 1973, Duxford has held various different airshows that have become prominent features in British leisure culture and living historical commemorations.  Aside from the Air Festival- which has aerial demonstrations by military aircraft from the First World War to the present day, there is Flying Legends Air Show in July, the Battle of Britain Air Show (held in September), and American Air Day, which is conducted with the Third Air Force (part of United States Air Forces in Europe) based at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall.  The Duxford Air Festival is considered to be a staple event in the British air show and racing circuit that runs from early spring to late summer, approximately late May/April to September.

Before the airshow, I looked around the various hangars and exhibitions at the aerodrome:

  1. AirSpace: focuses on the principles of flight and aeronautical engineering (which, as a history major, was completely beyond my comprehension, but I appreciated it nonetheless)
  2. Flying Aircraft: houses Duxford’s flyable aircraft, including the only flyable B-17 Flying Fortress in Europe, and showcases their maintenance and restoration process
  3. Air and Sea: focuses on naval vessels and aircraft
  4. Battle of Britain exhibition: Duxford’s role as an operational RAF airfield not only during the Battle of Britain, but in the defense of Britain from the First World War through the Cold War
  5. Conservation in Action: houses Duxford’s conservation workshops and allows visitors to see the typical conservation process


Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen’s, the “Red Baron’s”, engine pulled from the wreckage by Australian  forces after his fatal 21 April 1918 crash.


One of the original models used in the briefing rooms before the historic 17 May 1943 Dambusters Raid

  1. American Air Museum: Designed to showcase Duxford’s connection with the American Air Forces and how the Special Relationship also manifests itself between the RAF and respective American Air Services of different conflicts


  1. Land Warfare Hall: Accommodates the Imperial War Museum’s collection of artillery, armoured, and other military vehicles from the First World War to the present day

But what was particularly interesting was the presence of First World War commemorations, as 2018 represents the last year of the commemorations. In the United States, our First World War commemorations have been few and far between, perhaps hindered by the fact America didn’t enter the war until 1917 and troops didn’t arrive in large numbers in Europe until 1918. However, at Duxford, two of the main exhibitions were a First World War flying exhibition and the RAF100 appeal.

2018 represents the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force. Viewed as one of the strongest air services in the modern day, the Royal Air Force had a difficult path to existence. At the start of the First World War, British military aviation was separated into two separate branches: the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Initially created to work as reserves for the other respective branch, the early wartime years of military aviation were a departure from its ideal pre-war creation. With increasing German successes on the Western Front and, by 1915, on the British mainland, British officials recognized that the divided air service system hindered the war effort. As the war progressed, government reports identified the major problems as inter-service rivalry, bureaucratic competition for supplies, and ineffective home defence against German raids on British cities. Although high-ranking officials identified these major problems and proposed solutions early on in the war, it was not until the Smuts Report of August 1917 that the government took steps towards the creation of a unified air service. Under the pressure of successful Gotha raids, the government sought a solution to not only preserve its coalition government seat, but to also create a more efficient wartime economy and regain British air superiority. The result was the creation of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air service.Although the RAF was officially created on 1 April 1918, the centenary commemorations started earlier this year and are to run through the end of 2018. The Duxford Air Festival included Royal Flying Corps and Second World War interpreters to provide information on how the RAF operated at the time and what the life of servicemen would have been like. There were also many stalls for the RAF100 appeal, a joint venture between the RAF and its major charities to raise money for the RAF Family charity- which was set up in 1919 to provide assistance for RAF servicemen/veterans and their families- through fundraising and educating the public about the RAF’s history. The next major events for the RAF100 appeal include more airshows, a baton relay, an aircraft tour, and parade-flypast combination in London in July.

The First World War flying exhibition simulated a dogfight with German Fokker Dr.1s (triplanes in the color schemes of aces Werner Voss and Ernst Udet) and a Fokker Eindecker (monoplane) and British Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, a Sopwith Triplane, a RAF B.E.2., and an Avro 504. What I found interesting was just how much the aircraft from both the World Wars seem to be incorporated into British culture and historic memory. Nearly everyone I talked to at the airshow, from the elderly to schoolchildren, was able to identify key airplanes such as the Sopwith Triplane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Like our image of the Marine Corps and Army in the Pacific and European Theatres of the Second World War, the image of the Royal Air Force is key to British identity and culture. For them, military aviation of the world wars was their “finest hour”.


Note: I really wanted to add in some of the videos I took of the aerial demonstrations, but unfortunately it would’t let me upload them to my post.


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