We take a tour of the deserted north side of Imperial War Museum Duxford – a fascinating air base with buildings dating to the First World War and Second World Wars
Exploring the North Side of Imperial War Museum Duxford, the best-preserved example of a World War Two-era fighter base in Britain, is at times a ghostly experience. With its picturesque Nissen huts, period concrete accommodation blocks, fortified shelters and redbrick messes it’s a familiar looking ghost town that at times evokes an eerie sense of déjà vu.
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Perhaps it’s this unique quality of ‘time stood still’ that makes the base a favourite of TV and film directors in search of an authentic and evocative location. But today the former base mostly serves as a storage area for Imperial War Museum collections – safely tucked away from the South Side where hangars, halls and historic buildings bristle with a vast collection of military hardware encompassing land, sea and air.
But on the North Side all is quiet. Since it ceased being an operational airbase in the 1960s the doors to the buildings have remained locked and, save for the occasional museum worker slipping out of a doorway, the place sits preserved in aspic.
Unpicking this puzzle of buildings could be a bewildering task, but with the help of Imperial War Museum explainer, Ivor Warne, it is possible to put meaning to these structures and piece together a vivid picture of a once buzzing base that today silently stretches over acres of Cambridgeshire countryside.
Beginning on the south side we walk among the Museum’s administrative buildings, WWI-era workshops and the solid looking Switches and Communications Building with its reinforced concrete roof and double blast doors. It all has that red brick and concrete functionality unmistakeable in wartime military structures.
Ivor points out a “gun butt” where Battle of Britain Spitfires and Hurricanes tested their guns, a Grade II listed wartime petrol tanker shed and an auxiliary yard still used for the restoration of transport.
But even here, within eye and earshot of the Museum, there is a lonely and spectral quality to some of these buildings.
“At twilight here it’s quite atmospheric really,” admits Ivor as he casts his eye over the hangars and workshops. “We have got, although I have not encountered them, a ghost pilot who walks from that hangar to the tower. In hangar 4 there is somebody that comes down the stairs in the office part of the airside but who never gets to the bottom. And some of the museum assistants will not lock up that hangar at night.”
Ascending one of the highest points on the airbase, the ramp that leads across the A505, via a Royal Engineers Bailey Bridge, we cross to a real ghost town – the North Side where service and accommodation buildings extend across 300 acres.
Acquired in World War One as a wooded area known as Temple Farm, the Air Ministry spent £90,000 to clear the land and put the first buildings up: a single storey wooden colonial style bungalow that was the officer’s mess, and a hostel for the women who sewed the fabric of the early bi-planes.
But by the late 1920s a perceived threat from the French saw the expansion of the RAF. The women’s hostel was demolished, and the beginnings of the base that survives today were slowly established.
“This north side of the road is a conservation area,” says Ivor as we enter the heart of the site behind the elegant brick built officers mess. “This is where Bader would have had his rooms – but don’t ask me which one.”
Skirting past the officer’s Squash Court (still used), a myriad of 1930s bunkers and buildings sprawl before us. “It’s all as it was,” says Ivor. “That’s why film companies like it – Battle of Britain, Defence of the Realm, Memphis Belle – they were all filmed here because even the lampposts are period – and working.”
What’s more, these buildings offer up their stories. We pass an unprepossessing structure that once housed the LinkTrainer, which was used to assess the flying skills of the eager Czech pilots of the famous Duxford-based 303 Squadron.
“A Czech pilot was in there with a hood over him and his headphones on when the air raid siren went,” says Ivor. “Everybody did the decent thing … and ran for the shelters.
“The Luftwaffe dropped their bombs and then one came back on a strafing run and the guy was still oblivious. He now holds the dubious honour of being the only man to be shot down flying a flight simulator.”
Earth banks, which look rather like ancient burial mounds, surround some of these structures and signify the presence of air raid shelters with red brick blast walls shielding deep entrances.
One of the largest bunkers is an eerie sight – it is in fact a gas contamination processing centre. Despite the banning of mustard gas, both the Allied and Axis powers manufactured and hoarded the chemical weapon, and precautions against its use were prepared at Duxford.
“There is a preoccupation with gas throughout this site,” says Ivor. “The idea was that as you can’t smell mustard gas, there would be stakes with gas-sensitive plates on them. If the yellow circle went red you knew you had been exposed to mustard gas and you went in there quick.”
Once inside this forbidding chamber a rigorous decontamination process included showering, burning of clothes and scrubbing with bleach paste.
Luckily it never saw action, but the base commander used the threat of practice sessions inside it to prevent staff from “rubber necking” during Luftwaffe raids. “Needless to say, everyone started using the shelters more readily,” adds Ivor.
Deeper into the heart of the base another large building, an accommodation block for the other ranks, survives with its distressed brick walls and metal windows. Next to it is the outline of building 211.
“When the Americans came in 1944 a guy called Putnam flew over in his B-17, Ready Freddy, to see a friend of his at Duxford. Together they took the bomber for a joy ride and decided to buzz the tower.
“They saw Hangar Three but missed the Observation Post and clipped it with the left wing. Having made it across the road they missed the officer’s mess and Building 213 but dumped it right on top of 211.”
The unfortunate pair were killed – together with one unlucky airman asleep inside the building. All that remains of the incident now is an outline and a concrete cover over the underground air raid refuge.
Turning away from this not-so-tranquil scene, across a field that once accommodated bell tents and temporary structures sits a peaceful copse called Dickman’s Grove. Here the base’s World War Two fallback Ops Room hides, still camouflaged in a peaceful fusion of dereliction and undergrowth.
Yet more relics of the past are shielded back in the heart of the base, behind a large motor transport building.
The menagerie of distracting items includes a cannibalised Gloucester Meteor with its peeling RAF roundel and a battered lifeboat of the type that would have been dropped by a Wellington bomber to ditched crews out at sea.
Elsewhere there are steam boilers, fuel tanks and colossal spare tyres, a 17-pounder gun from a Cromwell or Sherman Firefly tank, an 88mm barrel from a Russian T34 and a 3.7 inch gun and mantlet – “from somewhere”.
But it’s the atmospheric buildings that really hold the secrets. An old Sergeant’s Mess, with a cookhouse and Nissen hut extension, reveals 70-odd years of peeling camouflage and bitumen.
Heading to the base grocer’s shop, we pass a tailor’s, a cobbler’s, several boiler buildings, the district heating system and a compressor house which, Ivor informs me, created compressed air for the base’s sewage farm. “It really was a small town,” he says as we round the corner to take in the other ranks’ NAAFI.
Its old-fashioned coaching inn entrance is a reminder that we’re in the middle of the countryside, where in the 1940s the bulk of deliveries were made by horse and cart.
Crossing the once immaculate parade ground, where a confusion of skips contain movie spool canisters, engine spares, a jerry can, old ammo boxes and cases spilling heavy-threaded screws and olive green headlamps, we scan the surrounding brick barrack buildings and wooden huts.
In the latter, the Americans “played hard” between providing fighter support on bombing missions. “As I understand it, when the Americans took over the base, that’s where the card games took place,” says Ivor of another small shack that RAF officers had used as a “quiet room”.
“They also had this temporary structure where we have found evidence of a bar and billiard table.” We look at a shabby old structure that resembles a temporary classroom. “The original lino has six holes in it where the billiard table used to be.”
There’s a peculiar feeling of time suspended as we look across this disused parade ground at old huts where World War Two airmen unwound between perilous missions.
These days the airmen are long gone and the buildings they once occupied appear as idle as a pilot waiting to scramble. But like anyone who flew from this historic Cambridgeshire airfield, they all have stories to tell.
North Side Tours usually take place in the summer months. To find out how to take part, see the Imperial War Museum Duxford website.
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…