Karl Warner of Imperial War Museum Duxford explains his love of Hangar 4, an historic structure that survived two world wars and the filming of a Hollywood Blockbuster
Nothing sums up Imperial War Museum Duxford to me more than the building I work in, Building 79, or to give its familiar Duxford title, Hangar 4.
I often find that structures tend to get forgotten here at Duxford because we have some amazing objects and aircraft. I think also because this is the hangar that houses the story of the Battle of Britain, people sometimes overlook the fabric of the building.
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It is however acknowledged as a very important building and one of the grade II* listed buildings on site. It represents quite a span of history. This hangar was the first home of the Spitfire – when they first entered service, this is where they came.
Entering it, it’s quite cavernous – because it’s a hangar – and although there is an emotional resonance about the place I think that comes from the stories that we know about it rather than any “aura” or anything like that.
It’s a First World War hangar built in 1917 and it is pretty well documented in photographs – we have photographs of all stages of the history of the airfield and you can’t fail to notice this hangar.
The construction of the Belfast Truss roof is very aesthetically pleasing – real craftsmanship – and each bay in the building has a high level window, which along with the continuous skylight along the centre line, floods the hangar with natural light.
The concertina doors are also amazing, but the reason I like it so much is that the building offers clues to what happened here. 70 years after the building was in service there is still evidence of what it was used for. The most famous and visible of these is the Gauntlet sign: “GAUNTLET ENDURANCE AT NORMAL CRUISING SPEED 2 HOURS 30 MINUTES”.
The story goes that after one particular sortie in their Gauntlets, during which it got really foggy, the pilots put their aircraft down in fields in the locale and had to trudge back. The C.O. was at pains to stress that these aircraft had greater endurance than the old Bulldogs and he painted the capabilities of the Gauntlet in large letters on the hangar wall.
If you look closely at the wall you can also see evidence of where the building’s use changed. During the first three years of the Second World War Duxford was the administrative HQ of various RAF units and this hangar was still where aircraft were serviced and maintained and there are various descriptions of fitters and riggers taking aircraft out and servicing them. You can see where doorways have been filled in; you can see where it says “riggers”, and also “fitters”.
It was a very functional and adaptable building and in 1935 it was modified and extended, to add the offices and briefing room that now form Museum offices and exhibition spaces on both the north and south sides of the hangar.
There was a pilot’s briefing room; next door you had a briefing room used by the Americans. We have photographs of 19 Squadron hanging out by the windows here smoking, we have also have photos of Americans walking out of the doorway. You can’t look at these without being impressed.
The hangar survived the war undamaged; in fact the main amount of damage at Duxford occurred in 1968 during the filming of the Battle of Britain. There used to be a building like this one next door and they blew it up. The filmmakers actually did more damage to Duxford than the Luftwaffe.
But I like what we’ve done with Hangar 4, I like the fact that we have the Battle of Britain exhibition in it – and the fact the aircraft in it range the full span of its life – from the Bristol fighter to a Javelin and Hunter because Duxford carried on being a fighter station until the 1960s.
Perhaps more than its architectural significance, the building is an extremely poignant link with the young men who flew from Duxford during two world wars.
All I have to do is look up from the desk in my office and see the etched swastikas on the wall and I have a constant and poignant reminder of why I’m here doing what I do. Painted by American ground crew from the 78th Fighter Group, each etched swastika represents an enemy aircraft shot down – and probably a life lost.
IWM Duxford is Europe’s largest air museum with over 300 aircraft and objects on display. Get up close to Spitfires and Hurricanes; see a portion of the original Wright Brother plane; walk through Concorde, feel dwarfed by the size of a B-52 and stand in awe of Europe’s only SR-71…