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Visiting Imperial War Museum Duxford (IWM Duxford)

by Marina Fiorenti
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Old airplaine at IWM Duxford

The Duxford location of the Imperial War Museum is about 6 miles outside Cambridge. It absolutely worth the trip from the city. A former RAF airfield, Duxford played an important role in the defense of Britain during the Battle of Britain.
Today the hangars, some of them dated back to WWII, house one of the world’s most important aviation museums. In fact IWM Duxford showcases almost everything, from biplanes used in WWI to the modern Concorde and Tornado.

IWM Duxford: a bit of history

When the WWI showed the importance of the aviation in the war effort, the War Office opened new training sites for pilots. The small village of Duxford was chosen to create an airfield where new pilots could be trained. By the end of the war, 850 people were already working at this camp, and 126 men trained here joined the RAF.

In the years between the two world wars, Duxford remained the base of the 19th and 66th squadrons, the first to be assigned Supermarine Spitfires single-seat fighters in 1938. In 1943 Duxford became Station 357 of the 8th US Air Force. Unfortunately 113 American pilots lost their lives flying from this base.

On the fateful date of June 6, 1944, P-47 Thunderbolts departed from here in support of the Normandy landings. When the war ended, Duxford returned to RAF ownership and slowly fell into disrepair in the 1960s until the IWM proposed the idea of turning it into a museum, which opened in 1976.

A Lancaster airplaine displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxford
A Lancaster airplaine displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

What to see at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford

If the Imperial War Museum in London is already amazing, the one in Duxford is even more so. The place is really huge. Even having spent a day there, I was not able to see everything on display. Let’s see what the main pavilions offer.


The huge modern hangar located to the left of the visitor center is dedicated to the history of British civil and military aviation and the Commonwealth. The Royal Flying Corps, established in 1912 as part of the British Army, was the UK’s first air force. In 1918 it turned into the RAF, the world’s first military aviation, independent from other armed forces.

At the beginning of WWI, Britain owned fewer than 150 aircraft, eventually 22,000. Here you can see exhibited also a de Havilland DH9, among the first planes to take off from Duxford and one of the oldest pieces of the museum.

During WWII more than 130,000 aircraft were built in the UK and Commonwealth, including the Avro Lancasters that were vital to victory. For this reason, the Lancaster aircraft has a special tour to discover its history and technical features.

The Lancaster on display at the IWM Duxford was built in Canada in December 1944 and was damaged during a training flight. Back in Canada it did rescue and maritime control duty for years. Saved from scrapping, it was purchased by a private individual and transported back to the UK in 1986, where it was sold to the museum.

But AirSpace area certainly does not end with the Lancaster. Next door stands a specimen of the legendary Concorde, also open for tours. This model was only used for flight and endurance tests. You’ll be surprise to discover how small it is, the interior is only 6 feet tall.

You can also climb aboard a BOAC airplane from the 1950s to check how flights were comfy in the past, before the advent of low-cost airlines and narrow seats. Upstairs, in the AirSpace area, there is a large interactive space where you can find out how airplanes are made and why they fly. Just visiting this huge pavilion could take hours.


Outside, the Imperial War Museum Duxford hosts also an airfield where you can watch planes from the past taking off or landing. In fact here you can also experience the thrill of flying in a Spitfire or a Harvard.

A Spitfire airplane displayed on the airfield of the Imperial War Museum Duxford
A Spitfire airplane displayed on the airfield of the Imperial War Museum Duxford

Battle of Britain

This hangar, one of the original 1940s ones explain what happened during the famous Battle of Britain. After the perilous evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, Hitler occupied France and began to prepare for the invasion of Britain by heavily bombing southern England. On July 10, 1941, the Luftwaffe began hitting British convoys in the English Channel, and during August it bombed RAF airfields and then came the raids that reduced large parts of London to rubble.

Britain was able to withstand enemy attacks thanks to the excellent warning system that allowed early warning of incoming German aircraft. Duxford also contributed to the defense of the capital and in this hangar you can discover in detail the whole story of this period of WWII. Among the fittings in this area of the IWM Duxford, you can see an observation post, a small family air raid shelter, and a Messerschmitt that crashed in a field in Essex.

1940 Operations Room

At the IWM Duxford the Operation Room has been reconstructed in detail, complete with audio reporting communications between the base and the pilots. You can almost relive all the tension that must have been there during the missions.

American Air Museum

The Norman Foster-designed pavilion seems to emerge from the surrounding lawn and houses the richest collection of U.S. aviation outside the United States. The U.S. contribution was essential to the Allied victory-just think that some 500,000 men were sent to Britain.

Externally, part of the pavilion is surrounded by 52 glass panels with silhouettes of planes engraved on them, exactly 7,031 as many as there were U.S. planes that left the United Kingdom and were lost in action with a total of about 30,000 men killed. A B-17, the famous Flying Fortress, can be seen here.

Land Warfare

This pavilion, placed furthest away, is perhaps the largest and richest in exhibits: land vehicles such as trucks, tanks, jeeps, and artillery pieces ranging from WWI to the present are displayed here. There is a section that brings to life the experience of the Normandy landings and another dedicated to the forgotten war in the Far East.

In the section about General Montgomery, you can see the three caravans used by the Field Marshal as a bedroom, office and map room, so that he could be close to the battle line at all times, but separate from the rest of the headquarters, allowing him the solitude he needed to plan the war campaign.

An old tank exhibited at the Imperial War Museum Duxford
An old tank exhibited at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

Imperial War Museum Duxford: worth a visit?

This article is just an overview of the Imperial War Museum Duxford. if you are wondering whether it is worth visiting, IWM Duxford isn’t just a huge exhibits of pieces, but also a collection of the personal stories of the people who lived this part of history.

? Imperial War Museum Duxford
IWM Duxford Airfield
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