“You might be having your last conversation with your best friend. The next morning he was gone. And that happened over and over”John Watters, B-17 bombardier, Second World War, IWM Duxford
Located in the heart of the Cambridgeshire countryside, the Imperial War Museum Duxford is an annex to the main IWM museum in London and part of the groups UK based locations outside the capital. Its lineage and history as Duxford Aerodrome date back to its use and role as a critical part of the UK’s air defences in the first half of the 20th century, operated by the Royal Air Force during the First World War before serving a prominent role in support of the Battle of Britain and as a support facility for American bombers during daylight operations. An historical function and purpose that is reflected today with a modern facility and addition to the site showcasing a number of historical American military aircraft and vehicles honoring the role provided by the US historically and the enduring relationship between these two nations. As with HMS Belfast, the site was deemed surplus to requirements by the military and transferred to the guardianship of the Imperial War Museum in 1976 and today serves to house a substantial proportion of the institutes aircraft exhibits outside the select offering on show in the main London museum.
Celebrating its centenary in recent years, as with Belfast, the appeal of Duxford is certainly it’s authenticity and lineage, the use of the vast expansive preserved hangers home to a variety of exhibits and vehicles of different types and purpose. It’s history as the base to the No 19 squadron that supported 11 group during the Battle of Britain is observed and highlighted through out the experience with a number of restored Spitfires on show. It served a critical role during that period in deterring the Luftwaffe from their objective of humbling the UK into submission and giving support to a bombarded capital city a relatively short distance away. Whilst the active military nature of the site has faded into history, in contrast to the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton which still serves in some capacity, it still remains an operational airfield with civilian flying companies and airshows regularly taking place and one of the highlights on visiting watching planes take to the air. There aren’t many places to visit today where you can idly walk along and watch a Spitfire streak across the sky ahead of you, a real treat and privilege to watch one of these fantastic machines.
As with all exhibits and museums the Imperial War Museum was forced to close in March as a result of the Pandemic and lost a substantial source of revenue. In recent days its larger and more open plan attractions have opened once more, though notably and understandably Belfast given its size and original state remains closed unable to provision safely for visitors at this time. Duxford, with its expansive open facilities and design seemed best suited to cater for the aspects of social distancing and cleanliness required of any modern attraction at the moment and on the 1st August welcomes grateful visitors and members back who returned to show appreciation not only for the historical content and lineage of the attraction but also on a personal level to show appreciation for the work of its staff and members that has gone in to reopening for our enjoyment. It’s a different experience, and the slight feeling of trepidation and wariness is ever present as you avoid close proximity to those around you, certain exhibits closed, others heavily restricted but it’s open, its allowing this institution to survive and operate in this extraordinary circumstance and that can only be a positive.
“I look upon the US-English relationship…We’re like cousins. A bit different, maybe, but we are related in a lot of ways. I will go back any time”Rusty O’Brien, F-111 air crew, Gulf War, IWM Duxford
From The Skies To The Ground
The museum in Duxford is divided into eight principle hangers to visit with a number of tertiary buildings and structures as part of the airfields operations scattered around to see. As a consequence of the current pandemic there have been some alterations to the layout and directions within though largely minimal and not detracting from the exhibits on show. The fourth hanger containing the Battle of Britain planes and weaponry is closed for refurbishment at present. Given the locations historic links to the events of this conflict, it was a little disappointing to not be able to see this section of the museum but a necessary function to undertake essential works to preserve it for prosperity sake. With the hanger due to reopen in September it’s a short lived inconvenience. In addition, the Historic Duxford building restored to a period condition with uniforms and maps indicative of its use during this conflict remains closed given the confined space and close proximity of visitors to this area. Given HMS Belfast remains closed for the foreseeable future until it is safe to operate and be amongst other people once more, you can appreciate the fact only this one specific area at Duxford is closed to ensure the wellbeing of its guests with all 7 other hangers open to visit and explore at will.
Towards the end of the airfield is the Land Warfare museum which showcases a number of tanks and artillery units in addition to military support vehicles. In the absence of a dedicated Tank Museum in or around the capital it is one of few facilities close to London that is readily available to visit and tour. Home to a variety of tanks, on occasion there are demonstrations that take place towards the rear of the building in the Military Vehicles Running Days as well as a dedicated exhibit of the Normandy beach landings with a mock landing craft leading to a seperate area focused on this chapter in the Second World War. There may be a question on cross pollination of themes with the land warfare exhibits at odds with the air warfare nature of the site but given its size you do understand this museum serving as a means for the Imperial War Museum to showcase its exhibits in their entirety. Certainly neither HMS Belfast or the Churchill War Rooms can serve this function, with a wide expansive estate available to them there is a logic to its presence. There is a long walk from the main entrance to this section of the museum but a shuttle bus operates between hangers if you so wish, this does of course mean you may miss the passing aircraft flying overhead which is a real treat to witness.
One of the recent additions to the museum is the American Air Museum opened in 1997 and designed by famed British architect Norman Foster. It is home to one of the largest collection of retired American military aircraft outside the US on permanent display for visitors to see with notable exhibits including the B-52D Stratofortress and the iconic SR-71 Blackbird. Having been fortunate to visit the Air and Space Museum in Washington on previous occasion, there is a prestige and obvious pride in the hardware used by the military, to be able to see these exhibits outside of the US a short distance from London speaks to the relationship between the countries that they are on display here. Nothing is eulogised or engradised, notable quotes on the impact and horror of war on display throughout this museum, the personal accounts of the pilots who fought in various conflicts, the civilians who assisted in the construction, the press who served amongst the troops, everything has been curated from an American perspective given the nature of the Museum but in itself a fascinating and modern section of Duxford to walk around and discover its history. From there a short walk away the conservation hangers home to the private aircraft in the process of being restored and brought back to life and the operations room recreated to show how it appeared during the Battle of Britain air raids.
Towards the entrance centre you can visit the Air and Sea hanger which show a number of historical naval aircraft and boats, similar to the exhibits at the Fleet Air Arm Museum which is dedicated entirely to this area of interest. The main building of Duxford, the AirSpace exhibit is home to its most famous and well known additions to its collection including the Vulcan and Lancaster bombers and Concorde amongst others. Previously a number of these planes were accessible at times to enter though this has been curtailed at present with only the historic Concorde allowing limited access due to the size and confined nature of the aircraft. It feels a little chaotic in its design and layout, similar to the American Air Museum with the larger prominent aircraft the main focus and the smaller and historic jets interspersed where space permits. That said part of the enjoyment is the exploration and discovering the various collection of aircraft on show, an opportunity to walk at ground level or higher up with a circling walk way that gives a great vantage point to see the collection in its entirety. With a dedicated area to the Airborne infantry and its prestigious history as well as a technical area devoted to breaking down a variety of the mechanics of flight, this is quite rightly the showcase of the museum affording the opportunity to see a number of iconic and unique aircraft in this natural environment.
“Only a person who has no sense of the scale of damage these weapons can cause to our planet could make a decision to use them. There will be no winner in nuclear war. All are going to lose”Nikolai Zaitsev, Soviet armed forces, IWM Duxford
Visiting In The New Normal
As with all attractions in the UK, the Imperial War Museum as an institution and specifically Duxford closed in line with Government guidance, reopening in August having transformed and adapted to make it a safe and welcoming environment for its visitors and staff. Given its size and set up, both inside the hangers and externally there is a great deal of space to utilise that allows you to navigate around and obey social distancing guidelines. Everything feels a little different, on its opening day the reserved entrance for members allowing you to bypass the main queue had been closed off with the welcome desks partitioned inside for the safety of its staff resulting in a wait trailing back towards the back of the car park. Entrance is on a timed basis, thankfully the queues moved quickly enough and you emerged onto the airfield behind. Where necessary certain hangers and buildings have been adapted to require you to follow a single direction around the interior, other larger structures having enough space inside to grant enough freedom to explore as you will. It can feel a little restrictive and authoritarian at times dictating you movements but a necessary evil at the moment.
One of the notable differences in contrast to previous visits has been the necessity to close or massively restrict the ability to board and explore the interior of the planes in the collection. Notably this had previously been on a timed basis historically with windows of opportunity when you could go inside and view the interiors, now with the requirement to maintain a safe distance there isn’t the ability with the reduced space in the cabins and a great many of the planes have been closed off. The one exception is the Concorde situated in the first hanger though this is now on a ticketed time basis with a restricted number of people able to go inside at any one time. I’ve been fortunate to go inside on prior ocassions both here and the model based at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, it is a very narrow enclosure for those of a taller frame but is a fascinating experience to see for those who were never fortunate to fly aboard this iconic plane when it was in operation. It’s difficult to see how this approach can be sustainable for a prolonged period as certainly there was some visible consternation from visitors unable to go inside, it feels they are finding a working approach that allows some access in a safe and practical manner.
The hangers themselves had some restrictions in place, notably certain areas and paths roped off to guide and direct crowds in set directions and avoid overcrowding where possible. Previously, Duxford had always been a little more open to its aircraft with the exception of the set displays that had decommissioned ordinance positioned around them, in contrast there were a great deal more restrictions at the Royal Air Force museum in London prior to this pandemic so this approach doesn’t feel as intrusive or curtailing your experience in any appreciable manner. This may change in due course as the museum responds to the manner and behaviour of its guests but it ‘felt’ subjectively you could explore in much the same manner as on previous occasions with only slight restrictions in place where necessary. For instance the design of the American gallery had certain entrance and pinch points roped off requiring you to follow a set path to avoid the congregation of visitors around certain popular exhibits. Equally in the tank museum towards the end of the airfield, visitors directed left on entering the building and following a largely clockwise direction with the upper gallery seemingly closed off. Every change felt necessary for this moment in time and didn’t infringe on your enjoyment of the experience.
The general amenities are slowly being opened and adapted to the current circumstance, the cafe at the entrance and main restaurant in the middle of the airfield are closed off for internal seating though thankfully there are a number of benches and seating for people to enjoy whatever provisions they’ve brought themselves. With guidelines being relaxed throughout the UK in part responding to fluid circumstances, there is perhaps provision to open up internal seating but on the opening day this hadn’t been put into place. The facilities are all open and available to use, this is a welcome move as it didn’t lead to people congregating around the only toilet or restroom on site and generally makes for a more congenial and relaxed atmosphere. The water fountains have been closed due to the potential for passing a transmissible disease, equally purchases restricted to cards for the potential spread through handling and transacting with cash. Every effort it seems has been made to adapt and change to the current circumstance, it’s different to what you may have experienced before but equally the tangible impact on what you can see and do is minimal and there are enough amenities to cater for visitors and guests.
The current circumstance has had a profound impact on a number of venues and attractions in the hospitality and leisure sector, museums reliant on the income generated through ticket sales some of the worst impacted sectors of this industry amongst others. The Imperial War Museum as a charity does derive some income through Government Funding however does rely on the money generated through sales and merchandise and will have been impacted by the closure especially in the Easter break and early months of the summer. With parts of the group unable to open, specifically HMS Belfast due to the historic nature of the ship and the current guidance restricting contact with others in confined spaces it becomes more crucial to support these institutions and charities wherever possible. One of the really amazing and incredible offers is the reduced IWM Membership for £35 for a years fee. This gives unlimited access over twelve months to the paid museums of the group including the War Rooms, Duxford and when it reopens HMS Belfast. Personally it was astonishing value for money given it will have paid for itself in short order and encourages you to return and visit these really amazing attractions.
There is some repetition to the exhibits on display, with a number of aircraft available to see in the free to enter Royal Air Force Museum in London and the paid entry Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton though both fall outside this specific organization and work in part to complement each other serving and highlighting different aspects of the Armed Services. Certainly one of the highlights of this particular site in Duxford was the American Air Museum with its display of truly impressive aircraft not ordinarily seen or on show outside of the US, especially the SR-71 Blackbird which for a long period of time was not officially confirmed to be in operation by the military. Today, everyone has the opportunity to see this supersonic foreign military aircraft that served a less publicised role in contrast to Concorde but still acted as a deterrent and option in the American arsenal. With the addition of the Land Warfare portion of the museum showcasing the collection of ground based vehicles in the charities collection, there is a variety of subject matters to see and given it still operates as a functional landing field with aircraft experiences available to purchase, it certainly has the atmosphere and presence of one of the countries best aviation museums.
I’ll humbly and readily concede my utmost respect for anyone that joins the services in whatever guise and makes the personal decision to serve their country, their history and legacy deservedly championed by museums and organizations such as the Imperial War Museum. There is perhaps less emphasis on these personal narratives in contrast to the main site in London, serving very much as a pantheon of hardware and equipment in its vast collection. That said it would be disingenuous to suggest you come away devoid of the gravitas of the moment and the impact of what is on show. It speaks perhaps to a Western History of military conflict, at a time when a broader picture is being pursued and discussed, that takes nothing away however from the sacrifice and bravery of the Air Force personnel and wider armed services. In its own right and as part of the Imperial War Museum it’s an extremely informative attraction with a great deal to see that tells a broad narrative of conflict in the last century, as important now than at any other time in our recent past to remember the lessons from history.
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