Station crest

First World War (1914-1918)
The advent of war often heralds great strides in the development of weapons in a very short space of time, and the First World War was no exception. When war broke out in 1914 aviation was a new, exciting challenge that was untested as a method of combat, yet such was its perceived potential that by 1917 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had embarked on an ambitious scheme to expand the service from around 160,000 to nearly 300,000 men. One of a number of new sites chosen to train RFC aircrew was a few miles north-west of the the village of Duxford in Cambridgeshire. The site comprised 223 acres of land on the south side of the Newmarket to Royston road (now the A505) and 15 acres on the other side of the road. Tenders were invited from companies for the construction of the airfield, which would include hangars, service buildings and living quarters for up to 800 personnel.
In the summer of 1917, P & W Anderson, a Scottish civil engineering company, was given the contract to build Duxford airfield, and work began that October, at an estimated cost of £90,000. The buildings on the airfield site were mostly of brick and timber, but those on the domestic site on the north side of the road were mainly timber only. Four permanent timber-trussed hangars were built, consisting of three double-bay and one single-bay Belfast types, with wooden concertina-type doors at each end. (The three double-bay hangars are still in use today, and indeed have been listed as buildings of special architectural and historic interest. The single-bay hangar was destroyed during the making of the film Battle of Britain in 1968).
1917 and Duxford's American Connection

In 1917 the war with Germany was in its third indecisive year. There was stalemate on the Western Front where the opposing forces faced each other across No Man's Land. Bombing raids on London by Zeppelins of the German Air Force had underlined the potential of air combat, so the achievement of air supremacy together with the benefit of the manufacturing resources of the United States, seemed to offer an opportunity to break the deadlock. The RFC's expansion called for a massive flying training programme, and the construction of many new Training Depot Stations of which Duxford was one. There was no less urgent need for ground crews and the US government agreed that up to 15,000 newly recruited air mechanics should serve at the British flying schools. This would release experienced British personnel to the operational squadrons on the continent. As the first batches of American mechanics gained experience they would move to France to join the US pilots as the latter finished their flying training. The mechanics would then be replaced by new waves from the US. 

One of the original double-bay Belfast hangars, viewed in 1998 (right). 
Double-bay Belfast hangar, 1998
The pressures were great and Duxford, although uncompleted, opened in February 1918. The first American mechanics arrived on 15 March when two sections of 159 US Aero Squadron arrived via nearby Whittlesford railway station. Ten days later they were joined by men of 137 Aero Squadron. Nearly 200 men in all, their first task was the construction of eight temporary canvas Bessonneau-type hangars to protect their aircraft while the main hangars were completed. More Americans arrived, in the shape of 151, 256 and 268 Aero Squadrons, and their work was primarily in running the Motor Transport Section and in aircraft assembly, because most of the aircraft arrived by rail in packing cases for assembly on site. The British presence at this time consisted of three squadrons, No's 119, 123 and 129 with their De Havilland DH9 bomber aircraft. On 1 April 1918 the Royal Navy Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were merged and became the Royal Air Force (RAF), the world's first fully independent air force, and in July of the same year 35 Training Depot Station opened at Duxford as part of a new system of RAF pilot training. RAF Duxford was opened officially in September 1918. As the training programme progressed, the fortunes of war were changing. The German land forces were in retreat and by October, as the men of 151 Aero Squadron left for France, Germany was suing for peace. The war ended on 11 November 1918. On 13 November, the closure of all US aviation activity in the British Isles was ordered and the Americans left Duxford, which was then used as a base for the disbandment of squadrons returning from the continent. The building work was more or less complete and although the future of the airfield was questioned, the decision was taken to keep Duxford as a permanent RAF Station, to be used for flying training.
Duxford airfield from the air, 1918 Duxford Airfield from the air in 1918, looking east towards Newmarket. Note the DH9 bombers in front of the eight Bessonneau hangars and the three double-bay and one single-bay Belfast-type permanent hangars. 
Royal Air Force Duxford, 1918 Aerial view from directly overhead, 1918 

(above) Duxford Airfield from the air in 1918, looking directly overhead. DH9 bombers in front of the eight Bessonneau hangars are again visible, note however that one of the double-bay hangars has yet to be completed. 

(left) Royal Air Force Duxford, 1918 

A = Double-bay Belfast hangar 170' x 200' 
B = Single-bay Belfast hangar 170' x 100' 
C = Bessonneau hangars 
D = Motor Transport sheds 
E = Officers' mess 


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  • First World War
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  • Royal Air Force
  • American Period
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  • Battle of Britain
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  • References and acknowledgements 
    *in association with Duxford Aviation Society and Cambridgeshire County Council. The contents of this UNOFFICIAL website does not in any way reflect the opinions or ideas of any owner or operator present or past involved with the location popularly known as Duxford Airfield.