Training on the new Spitfire continued into 1939 and as the summer of
that year wore on, tension again mounted. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron
of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force arrived early in August for its annual
summer camp, bringing its Spitfires. All 3 squadrons went to half-hour
readiness on 24 August, and personnel away from the Station were recalled.
Perimeter security was stepped up, and on 29 August all reservists were
called up. 1 September, the day Hitler's forces invaded Poland, saw the
general mobilisation of the RAF, and two days later, on Sunday 3 September
1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Duxford records show
that "....Signal A34 received, announcing war has broken out with GERMANY
only." Security became even tighter, and work began on modification
of the barracks and other buildings in readiness for WAAF personnel. Camouflage
paint was applied to the hangars, no civilian clothing was allowed on the
Station and air raids or an invasion, or both, were expected at any minute.
As autumn arrived training and evaluation flights carried on, with 66 Squadron
working on experiments with VHF radio. These proved to be successful, but
it was found that production problems delayed bulk delivery, severely hampering
the RAF's plans to ensure that its pilots had the best equipment available.
19 Squadron tested cannon-firing Spitfires, but the cannons had a tendency
to jam and the trials were deemed unsuccessful. Both squadrons flew daily
patrols from at Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk, from where they patrolled
the North Sea in connection with shipping and fishing fleet protection.
Having found itself mobilised whilst on summer camp, 611 Squadron departed
in October and was replaced by the newly-formed 222 Squadron. 222 Squadron
became operational in December, flying Bristol Blenheim Mk IFs over the
North Sea in the shipping protection role.
|A line-up of twelve 19 Squadron Spitfires on show to the press at Duxford on 4 May 1939. Note the two-blade "Watts" propellers fitted to these early types|
On 11 January 1940, Duxford-based squadrons were involved in their first
action of the war. 66 Squadron, while on duty at Horsham St. Faith, was
scrambled to catch a Heinkel He111 which had attacked a trawler. Three
Spitfires intercepted it, damaging the port engine. The Heinkel was then
lost in cloud and the Spitfires returned to base, but the enemy aircraft
was later reported to have crashed in Denmark. On 7 February, 19 Squadron
welcomed back Douglas Bader. At the outbreak of war, Bader had argued his
way back into the RAF and was now posted to 19 Squadron to fly Spitfires.
19 Squadron were in a spell at Horsham St. Faith and Bader had some problems
getting used to the aircraft, suffering an accident whilst taking off.
The Spitfire cartwheeled and was a write-off, as were Bader's artificial
legs, but he acquired a new pair and carried on flying. In April, 19 Squadron
moved to Horsham St. Faith on a semi-permanent basis and 222 Squadron exchanged
its Blenheims for Spitfires. As in all RAF squadrons, the aircraft were
quickly marked on their fuselages with their new identification codes,
the pre-war codes having been comprehensively revised. Bold block letters
were normally place in front of the roundels, thus QV, LZ and GZ would
distinguish 19, 66 and 611 Spitfire squadrons respectively throughout the
war; 222 Squadron was allocated ZD.
19 Squadron Spitfire MkI being re-armed at Duxford in 1940
The Boulton Paul Defiant was designed and built in Norwich, the only East Anglian "local" aircraft. The prototype flew in August 1937, and it was the first fighter to have a heavy power-driven turret, with four .303 Browning machine-guns, rather than conventional forward firing armament, which of course demanded a two-man crew. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin III engine, the aircraft was capable of just over 300 mph at 17,000ft, and entered service in December 1939 with 264 Squadron. Defiant crews fought valiantly over the Dunkirk beaches with some success, but losses were high. Whilst the squadron operated form Duxford (and Fowlmere) the Defiant was mainly engaged in night patrols; indeed it ultimately became a useful stop-gap night-fighter.
Boulton Paul Defiants of 264 Squadron (left).
|Czechoslovakian pilots of 310 Squadron, the first Czech unit in Fighter Command.|
|310 Squadron's dispersal at Duxford, 1940. Note the flowerbeds arranged as a Czech pilot's flying badge and Czechoslovakia itself.|
August was also a busy month, with constant day light and night time patrols. Duxford was a Sector station in 12 Group, tasked with defending the Midlands, and was called in to help 11 Group at times of maximum effort. 11 Group, defending London and the south-east of England, bore the brunt of the fighting and it was thought that some sort of reserve should exist to help when times were hardest. On 28 August, Sqn. Ldr. McComb led 611 Squadron on the 30 minute flight from Digby to Duxford where the unit thereafter remained at Readiness throughout the day, returning to Digby in the evening (611 Squadron had mobilised at Duxford a year before). This made three squadrons in the Duxford Sector, 19, 310 and 611, available and ready to assist 11 Group if requested. The scale of fighting over Kent and Surrey on 30 August was such that the AOC of 12 Group, Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory, decided that an additional squadron should be on Readiness at Duxford. The task was given to Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Bader, who then brought down his Hurricane squadron, 242, from Coltishall to join 19 and 310 Squadrons on daily standby. Bader had been promoted to take over this somewhat demoralised squadron mainly manned by Canadian airmen, which had suffered heavy losses whilst serving in France. Some time later on the same day (30 August), 242 Squadron led by Bader was ordered to cover North Weald, an 11 Group Sector station about 30 miles south of Duxford. An attacking force of Heinkel He111s and Messerschmitt Me110s appeared from the east and flew towards their target, the north London suburb of Enfield. Unseen by the enemy pilots, 242 Squadron attacked down sun, claiming 12 victories and 3 probables. As a leading proponent of the "Big Wing" concept, Bader was convinced that the most effective fighter tactic was to use several squadrons as one combined strike force (e.g. 19, 601 and 242 Squadrons). Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, strongly supported him, though Leigh-Mallory's counterpart at 11 Group, Air Vice Marshall Keith R Park, did not agree, essentially arguing that too much valuable combat time would be lost in assembling a "Big Wing". The "Big Wing" controversy caused a serious rift between the two commanders.
On August 31 the Luftwaffe made attacks on the Duxford Sector and 19
Squadron's base at Fowlmere was bombed. 19 Squadron intercepted the raiders,
Dornier Do17s escorted by Messerschmitt Me110s. Two enemy aircraft were
destroyed for the loss of two Spitfires, but both of these pilots baled
out to safety. However, 19- year old Pilot Officer Ray Aeberhardt was killed
trying to land his damaged Spitfire back at Fowlmere. While 19 Squadron
was in action, Bader's 242 Squadron was brought from Coltishall to protect
the Duxford Sector but did not see action. 310 Squadron went up from Duxford
but was too late to engage. All three squadrons were still acting under
individual orders and later on the same day 310 Squadron saw its first
action. The squadron attacked a formation of Dornier Do215s escorted by
Messerschmitt Me110s and Bf109s east of Hornchurch, and claimed four Do215s
and one Bf109 destroyed together with two damaged. Two Hurricanes were
lost, one of the pilots being saved. Also on 31 August, 611 Squadron had
again flown down to Duxford from Digby. By the time of it's return to Digby
that evening, the squadron had flown three patrols, including one over
Duxford, but like 242 it made no interception. During the action on 31
August, 19 Squadron had again suffered problems with the experimental Hispano
cannon. Ft. Lt. Brian Lane made representation on behalf of the pilots
to the CO, Sqn. Ldr. Pinkham, and on 1 September Pinkham wrote to the Station
CO, Wg. Cdr. Woodhall, requesting that the cannon Spitfires be replaced
with standard eight .303 Browning machine-guns. Also on 1 September, 611
Squadron's 'A' Flight were moved to North Shropshire, leaving only the
'B' Flight at Digby and 310 Squadron had a possible move to North Weald
cancelled. 242 Squadron patrolled from Duxford and saw no combat.
|242 Squadron pilots, with Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Bader (standing, centre). Bader is flanked by his two flight commanders, Ft. Lt. Stan Turner (Canadian, third from left) and Eric Ball (third from right).|
On 4 September, 242 Squadron continued to operate from Coltishall, and 611 Squadron remained at Digby. In the Duxford Sector, 310 Squadron made two patrols over base without result, whilst Sqn. Ldr. Pinkham led 19 Squadron also on fruitless patrols over Debden, North Weald and Hornchurch. On 5 September, 242 Squadron again flew locally from Coltishall, as did 611 at Digby. Sqn. Ldr. Pinkham led 19 Squadron on patrol over Hornchurch and encountered an enemy force consisting of 40 Dornier Do17s escorted by 40 Messerschmitt Bf109s. Contrary to popular legend, when attacked by fighters enemy bomber formations seldom, if ever, broke up, because of the mutual fire support achieved by retaining a cohesive formation. One such formation shot down Sqn. Ldr. Pinkham, and he was killed baling out too close to the ground. Ft. Lt. Brian Lane was promoted in his place, becoming 19 Squadron's fourth CO in 9 months. During the evening, whilst 19 Squadron mourned the loss of their CO, 310 Squadron patrolled Debden, without incident.
On 6 September, 19 Squadron was ordered to fly in a Wing with 242 and
310 Squadrons, meaning that Bader's "Big Wing" idea would become a reality.
242 Squadron flew down from Coltishall for the first time in four days
to operate from Duxford along with 310 Squadron, whilst 19 Squadron remained
at nearby Fowlmere. The "Duxford Wing" took to the air for the first time
to patrol Hornchuch and North Weald, no enemy aircraft were seen
On Saturday 7 September, the Luftwaffe's first major daylight attack on London was seen and in Britain the codename CROMWELL was broadcast: invasion imminent. 11 Group had all of their 21 Squadrons airborne and were stretched to the limit. Assistance was requested from 12 Group and the Duxford Wing took off under Bader's unofficial "leadership", heading for Debden and North Weald. Fighting was fierce and by the end of the day the Wing's claims were:
|10 destroyed, 2 probables, 3 damaged
5 destroyed, 3 probables, 3 damaged
20 destroyed, 5 probables, 6 damaged
|1 pilot killed, 2 Hurricanes damaged
1 pilot badly burned, Hurricane destroyed, 1 Hurricane damaged
|The Duxford Wing - 242, 310 and 19 Squadrons, with 242 Squadron in the van.|
On 9 September, whilst 611 Squadron patrolled North Weald, the Wing
was again ordered into action. A formation of about 75 Dornier Do215s escorted
by about 150 Messerschmitt Me110s, Bf109s and Heinkel He 112s were sighted
south of the Thames Estuary heading northwest. The attack was delivered
south of London and after the engagement, the Wing's claims were:
3 destroyed, 3 probables, 1 damaged
5 destroyed, 2 shared destroyed, 3 probables, 1 damaged
20 destroyed (& 2 shared), 6 probables, 2 damaged
On 10 September, 242 Squadron remained at Coltishall and Sqn. Ldr. Bader
flew to 12 Group HQ at Hucknall where he and Air Vice Marshal Leigh Mallory
discussed the Wing's progress to date and considered future possibilities.
The enemy largely rested and there were no major raids. 611 Squadron had
again flown down to Fowlmere, where it was joined by 14 Spitfires of 74
Squadron which represented Coltishall's contribution in the absence of
242 Squadron (74 Squadron was led by Sqn. Ldr. A G "Sailor" Malan, one
of the most experienced and exceptional pilots in Fighter Command).
However, no squadrons in the Duxford Sector were called upon.
On 11 September, 242 Squadron again remained at Coltishall and Sqn. Ldr. Malan led 74 Squadron to join the Spitfires of 19 and 611 Squadrons at Fowlmere to cover Duxford Sector. One flight of 266 Squadron, which was operating from 242 Squadron's dispersal at Coltishall, also flew down to the Duxford Sector. Air Vice Marshall Leigh-Mallory's reinforcement policy continued with the arrival at Duxford of 302 Squadron, which was made up of Polish pilots flying Hurricanes. Like the Czechs of 310 Squadron, the Poles had escaped after their homeland had been invaded, and had arrived in the UK after the fall of France. As with the Czechs, the "double-banking" policy of English/Polish personnel was implemented. The Polish CO was Sqn. Ldr. Mieczyslaw Mumler, his British counterpart Sqn. Ldr. W A J Satchell. This put the equivalent of three Spitfire squadrons (19, 266/74 & 611) and two Hurricane Squadrons (302 & 310) at the disposal of Sector Control and now there were some 50-60 fighters dispersed around Duxford and Fowlmere. On the late afternoon of 11 September, Sqn. Ldr. Brian Lane led eight Spitfires of his own 19 Squadron, together with six of 266 Squadron, off from Fowlmere as the lead in an all-Spitfire Wing, the other squadrons being Malan's 74 and McComb's 611. The Wing attacked a large Luftwaffe bomber formation south-east of London and claimed 13 enemy aircraft destroyed with five damaged, for the loss of two Spitfires with one pilot killed. It is not known why neither 302 nor 310 Hurricane Squadrons flew with the Wing formation. 310 Squadron patrolled North Weald, but did not sight the enemy.
|302 (Polish) Squadron at Leconfield, 4 September 1940, prior to its transfer to Duxford.|
On 15 September the reason for the lull during the preceding days became
clear. Now known as Battle of Britain Day, it was on this day that the
battle reached its peak. At 11:30 the Duxford Wing, comprising 19, 242,
302 and 310 Squadrons, was scrambled and it was joined one minute later
by 611 Squadron, which was flying in from Digby. The Wing ran into what
the CO of 19 Squadron, Sqn. Ldr. Brian Lane, later described as "the whole
Luftwaffe" over London. Intense combat followed, from Dungeness in the
east to Kingston-upon-Thames in the west. After the engagement, The Duxford
Wing pilots returned individually, landing at various times from 15:00
onwards. The Wing's claims were high:
|12 destroyed, 2 shared, 4 probables, 1 damaged
12 destroyed, 1 shared, 2 probables
4 destroyed, 1 shared
6 destroyed, 1 shared, 4 probables
45 destroyed, 5 shared, 10 probables, 1 damaged
|2 Spitfires damaged, 1 lost, pilot POW (pilot gave chase
to France and shot down over Calais)
2 Hurricanes damaged, 1 lost, pilot baled out injured
1 Hurricane damaged, 1 lost, 1 pilot killed
2 Hurricanes lost, 1 pilot wounded
1 Spitfire damaged
6 fighters damaged, 5 destroyed, 2 pilots wounded, 1 killed, 1 POW
It is now known the the Wing's claims were often overstated to the degree
of approximately 3:1, but even that would give the Duxford Wing 15 destroyed
against 5 losses. The Station was cock-a-hoop, and Fighter Command had
won the Battle for London, by day at least.
|23-year old Sqn. Ldr. Brian Lane, CO of 19 Squadron, pictured at Fowlmere in September 1940. He did not survive the war.|
The Duxford Wing was back in action on 18 September. After two uneventful
earlier sorties, the Wing, again comprising 19, 242, 302, 310 & 611
Squadrons, took to the air and intercepted two formations of 20-30 enemy
aircraft each, over the Thames at Gravesend. The enemy bombers were unescorted
and the Wing's claims were high:
|5 destroyed, 3 shared, 1 probable
7 destroyed, 2 probables, 1 damaged
24 destroyed, 4 shared, 3 probables, 1 damaged
In total, the enemy lost 8 Junkers Ju88s in this engagement and the
Wing certainly had a hand in the destruction of 6. The overclaiming ratio
was thus approximately 4:1. Nevertheless, this was the last day the Luftwaffe
attempted to raid Britain in large formations and on the following day
611 Squadron's place was taken by 616 Squadron under the command of Sqn.
Ldr. H F Burton. 616 Squadron operated from Kirton, and flew to the Duxford
Sector on a daily basis, as 611 Squadron had done from Digby.
|611 Squadron check the scoreboard in 1940.|
|7 destroyed, 1 possible
4 destroyed, 2 probables, 1 damaged
1 destroyed, 1 probable
13 destroyed, 3 probables, 1 possible, 1 damaged
On 28 September, both 242 and 616 Squadrons returned to the Duxford
Sector, but despite two Wing patrols over the Thames Estuary, the enemy
was not engaged. The weather was so bad the following day that 242 Squadron
remained at Coltishall. Neither 19 nor 310 Squadrons flew at all. At Kirton,
616 Squadron was notified that it was no longer required at Fowlmere. Sqn.
Ldr. Burton's pilots had flown a total of eight Wing sorties but had met
the enemy only once, on 27 September. The Wing now consisted of the original
three squadrons, 19, 242 and 310 and, with day-light raids now dying down,
essentially passed into history.
By the end of October, daylight raids were seldom made, though night time raids persisted. From November, Duxford squadrons flew offensive patrols over France, and shipping protection sorties returned to the daily work-load. The Hurricanes of 258 Squadron from Leconfield were also present at Duxford for a few days at the end of November.
The winter of 1940/1 proved to be a quiet time, at least compared to the hectic action of only two month earlier and Duxford was set to change its role again, becoming the home of some specialist units. The Air Fighting Development Unit (AFDU) had been set up at Northolt to evaluate new aircraft and systems alongside the Air Gun Mounting Unit, which concentrated on armament. Some of the work on the cannon-equipped Mk Ib Spitfires had been carried out by this unit. Both units were starting to move into Duxford in late 1940 and by the spring of 1941 had settled into a varied routine of work. Alongside them was the Naval Air Fighting Development Unit (NAFDU), 787 Squadron, which flew shipboard types such as the Fulmar and Martlet.
242 Squadron left Duxford and went back to Coltishall at the end of November, leaving 19 and 310 Squadrons to carry on with defensive patrols. These included night time patrols by 19 Squadron from Fowlmere, as the flare-path lights there were far enough away from Duxford as to, in effect, act as a decoy. Night raids still occurred, and on the night of 25 February 1941 at about 23:00 eight bombs fell on the Duxford flare-path and one high explosive bomb on 310 Squadron's dispersal. This bomb ignited a fuel bowser and two Czech airmen were killed and five injured. The two Czech airmen are buried in the graveyard of nearby Whittlesford church and constitute the only deaths caused at Duxford by enemy bombing.
16 January 1941 saw Duxford used again for a Royal occasion. King George
VI (who as the Duke of York had attended his father's Silver Jubilee
Review at Duxford 6 years earlier)
and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) held an investiture and
the medals presented included a Distinguished Flying Cross for Sqn. Ldr.
Sasha Hess, CO of the Czech 310 Squadron in recognition of his squadron's
contribution to the success of the Duxford Wing. In
late June 1941, 310 Squadron moved out and was replaced by 56 Squadron,
also flying Hurricanes. 56 Squadron had been fully engaged in the Battle
of Britain, mainly from North Weald, and had been chosen to trial a new
fighter operationally, the Hawker Typhoon, later on in the year. More Hurricanes
arrived in August, flown by 133 Squadron, which stayed until moving to
Fowlmere early in October. 19 Squadron said goodbye to Duxford in August,
although it had been officially based at Fowlmere since February, bringing
an 18-year association with the Station to an end.
19 Squadron was replaced almost immediately by 601 Squadron, which arrived to train on the new and unusual Bell Airacobra. 601 Squadron was the only RAF unit to be equipped with this rare American fighter. It had essentially been designed around a large T-9 cannon, which was located in the hub necessitating its Allison engine to be unusually sited amidships with the prop-shaft between the pilot's legs (!). It also had a tricycle undercarriage, a rarity at the time. The engine caused incessant problems, and although the fighter was fast and heavily armed it was not easy to fly. The Airacobra's were used on a raid on the French coast on 9 October, but the type was taken off operations in December when 601 Squadron began to convert to Spitfires. The squadron left Duxford for Acaster Malbis in Yorkshire in January 1942.
|A Ceirva C30A autogyro of 74 (Signals) Wing, at Duxford in 1941. Built under license in England by Avro, 12 Ceirva C30A autogyros were delivered to the RAF in 1934/5.|
At the beginning of 1942, an interesting collection of aircraft was at Duxford. In addition to the captured enemy aircraft (eg right), the AFDU had the first, and highly secret, De Havilland Mosquito undergoing trials. When they were finished, the declaration that the aircraft was faster than the Spitfire raised a few eyebrows. Also on test was the new North American Mustang MkI, fitted with an Allison engine, the North American Mitchell, the Martin Marauder, Lockheed Ventura, and several Hurricanes modified for a bombing role and later known as "Hurri-bombers". A Vickers Wellington with a huge 40 mm gun in the tail was also part of AFDU's fleet. In May 1942 an Avro Lancaster, piloted by Sqn. Ldr. John Nettleton VC, was evaluated for Bomber Command, which wanted to know how to develop evasive tactics for heavy bombers, as heavy losses had been inflicted during their daylight raids. Another exotic aircraft arrived for 1426 Flight on 5 July 1942, a Focke Wulf Fw190.
One of the AFDU's captured Junkers Ju88 displaying RAF roundels and flying over the Duxford area (right).
|Group Captain (now Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir) John Grandy stands in front of a Hawker Typhoon at Duxford in 1942.|
In just about the last activity of the year, North American Mustangs were based at Duxford from December when 169 Squadron arrived from Clifton and settled down to a programme of shipping reconnaissance and ground-attack missions.