Possunt quia posse videntur
They can because they think they can. (19 Squadron Motto)
Duxford’s illustrious history as a fighter base dates back as early as 1918. Today, it is perhaps the best-preserved historic fighter base in Britain, representative of both the First and Second World Wars, with three complete First World War hangars and various technical and domestic buildings — typical of the inter-war expansion periods of the Royal Air Force.
Duxford was first recognised as a suitable landing ground and used for military flying during the Army Manoeuvres of 1912. It wasn’t until mid-1917 however, that Duxford was selected to become a fully-fledged aerodrome for the rapidly expanding Royal Flying Corps. Construction of the aerodrome commenced in October of the same year and it was to be one of sixty-three new Training Depot Stations. Duxford would see R.F.C. aircrew as well as US Air Service ground crews training alongside British engineers before being deployed to France.
The new aerodrome was also used as a mobilisation station for six new R.F.C. Airco DH.9 day-bomber squadrons, but within three months of Duxford opening, the war was over. This resulted in many aerodromes being decommissioned and, in some cases, demolished, which was the fate of Duxford’s sister station Fowlmere in March 1920. Duxford was more fortunate in that it was selected to remain open and home No.2 Flying Training School for the ‘newly’ founded Royal Air Force.
In 1923 the government adopted the recommendations of the Steel-Bartholomew Committee report for the air defence of Great Britain. The decision was made to expand the R.A.F creating a Home Defence force of fifty-two squadrons, including seventeen fighter squadrons “with as little delay as possible.” This would involve the creation of a fifteen-mile deep Air Fighting Zone around South-East London from Duxford to Devizes on the western edge of the Salisbury Plain.
Duxford spent thirty-eight years as a fighter base and during this time, it was notably home to the R.A.F’s prestigious No. 19 Squadron, from 1st April 1923 until 1941 — with the exception of some short operational deployments. No. 19 Squadron was reformed as part of the Home Defence force scheme and developed a reputation as one of the best fighter squadrons that also boasted an outstanding aerobatic team as Flt Sgt G. C. Unwin (later Wing Commander G. C. Unwin D.F.C., D.S.O.) recalls:
‘I joined 19 in August 1936. The squadron was regarded as one of the best fighter squadrons and repeatedly won the Sassoon Trophies for shooting, flight attack and pin pointing. The outstanding feature of those days was the ‘tied together’ aerobatic Team’.
On the 1st June 1923 the squadron was brought up to full strength, initially operating both Sopwith Snipes and Avro 504 aircraft before moving onto Gloster Grebes. Later reequipped with the Armstrong Whitworth Siskins and then the Bristol Bulldogs. In June 1934, five of the Squadron’s Bristol Bulldogs led by Flt Lt H. Broadhurst (later ACM Sir H. Broadhurst G.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O.*, D.F.C.*, A.F.C.) performed various synchronised formation aerobatics with coloured smoke at the Hendon Air Display.
IWM HU 41579 – Harry Broadhurst and his 19 Squadron wingmen
The squadron would make another appearance at Hendon in June 1935, in preparation for King George V’s review of the R.A.F the following month. The review consisted of an inspection of thirty-eight squadrons on the ground at Mildenhall and of these, twenty would take part in a fly-past over Duxford. Flt Lt H. Broadhurst recalls Duxford’s facilities were “polished up” for the Royal visit including the Officers Mess. There was also a lunch buffet in one of the hangars for official guests with tables and chairs surrounding the brand-new Gloster Gladiator prototype, SS.37 (K5200). No.19 Squadron led the flypast of one hundred and eighty-two aeroplanes, the largest fly past the world had ever seen and then returned to Duxford to demonstrate an exhibition of Squadron Drill with nine Gloster Gauntlets led by Broadhurst:
“When the tail went away 19 squadron came back to Duxford and did this air drill, which by then I was the leader and again I was the junior. We did everything, line abreast, line astern, big v, an echelon left, an echelon right. It all had to be done over the airfield. Not too low in case it frightened the King and not too high in case he got dazzled looking up, just placed nicely so he could keep his head level.”
With the threat of another major military conflict returning to Europe, the Air Ministry set about the further expansion of the Royal Air Force and the formation of Fighter Command in 1936. During this time, No.19 Squadron would continue to demonstrate the highest standards of formation flying in their Gloster Gauntlets at air displays across the country — exhibiting the highest capabilities of an R.AF Fighter Squadron. This included performing at the Empire Air Day at Duxford in May 1937, which brought over 350,000 spectators to the airfield.
By 1938, No.19 Squadron had been flying the Gloster Gauntlets for nearly three years, elsewhere the Royal Air Force had been reequipping its squadrons with other, more advanced aircraft. It would soon be No.19 Squadrons turn to reequip with the latest fighter aircraft ordered by the Air Ministry, an all-metal single seat monoplane from the Vickers-Supermarine Works in Southampton. . .
Written by Jack Holt
Title Image by Oli Stevenson
Published 30th April 2023