‘Patrolled base for some time but E/A did not return.’
This seems a fitting last entry for what is regarded as the final day of the Battle. Of course, war is not as straightforward as that. The fight continued with equal ferocity for the next four years, all over the world. But Britain never again faced the same threat of invasion that seemed so very real and terrifying in 1940. The Battle was won, and that success was due to many factors. These included the sophisticated command and control system set up by the RAF; the use of early-warning radar; the success of the British programme of aircraft production and the way the RAF’s commanders managed their resources. And of course the incredible courage of the pilots and aircrews involved.
RAF Duxford in the Battle of Britain
RAF Duxford was not at the centre of the Battle of Britain. It was on the margins, supporting the fierce fighting that was going on in Keith Park’s 11 Group. This in no way detracts from the bravery and heroism of those aviators who flew and fought from here 70 years ago. Between 10 July and 31 October, 15 airmen lost their lives flying from Duxford or with the Duxford Wing.
Although these entries have been focused on the station and the exploits of No. 19 Squadron, we mustn’t forget the other units that were based here or at Fowlmere and flew in the Battle - including the Poles of No. 302, the Czechs of No. 310 and the Canadians of No. 242 - who faced the same odds with great courage.
While it may not have been as busy at Duxford as it was at Biggin Hill, Tangmere, Manston, Kenley, Hornchurch and the other airfields of 11 Group, it was certainly at the centre of a controversy. Douglas Bader’s ‘Big Wing’ would prove to be a divisive idea within Fighter Command and the RAF more generally.
The Duxford ‘Big Wing’ controversy began at the height of the Battle, and you can see a squadron and station’s eye view of the unfolding events in the preceding blog entries. Frustrated with what was essentially a supporting role, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the commander of No. 12 Group, thought that the very best way to win the Battle would be to use his aircraft in large numbers. Some of his pilots felt the same way, including Douglas Bader. So a Wing of several squadrons was formed at Duxford, the idea being that they would descend on the German aircraft attacking the South East in large numbers, and hopefully deliver a series of knockout blows.
Keith Park had already experimented with this idea, and indeed used groups of two and three squadrons together when appropriate. But he found that grouping aircraft into big formations took a long time. The Germans could have dropped their bombs before the defending aircraft were ready. He preferred to attack the enemy formations as quickly as possible. This was also more suitable for his airfields as they were much closer to the action.
Sometimes the Duxford ‘Big Wing’ met with success, but sometimes they failed to support 11 Group in time, leaving its airfields open to attack. Even at the height of the Battle, this caused tension between Leigh-Mallory and Park, who was supported by Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command. The controversy continued after the Battle when Dowding was replaced and Leigh-Mallory took over Park’s job.
RAF Duxford after the Battle
As Britain moved over to the offensive, and the threat of invasion faded, Duxford switched its role from fighter defence airfield to home of experimental and test units. The Hawker Typhoon entered service here, and a wing was formed which operated these aircraft in combat. The base was handed over to the United States Army Air Forces in 1943, and from then until the end of the war it was home to the Americans of the 78thFighter Group, who flew their aircraft (first P-47 Thunderbolts, then P-51 Mustangs) on fighter escort missions deep into enemy territory. The station was handed back to the RAF in 1945, and it became a jet fighter base, home to Meteors, Hunters and Javelins, before closure in the 1960s, and its eventual re-opening as a branch of the Imperial War Museum.
We hope you have found it interesting to follow the exploits of Duxford and No. 19 Squadron in ‘real time’ 70 years on.