War museums are, by my estimation, one of the greatest inventions humankind has ever come up with. I love the fact that one can immerse oneself in military history just by walking through a building- and I am so fascinated by military history that not only intricate dioramas but also lengthy write-ups on battles and vehicles enthrall me.
Over the course of my life, I have been fortunate enough to visit many such museums. When I was younger, before I became interested in military history, it was torturous to wander through a war museum; but now, war museums are always at the top of my list of priorities. And one of the best I’ve seen is definitely IWM Duxford.
Located in the grounds of a former RAF base, the museum at Duxford is a part of the Imperial War Museum’s empire, and it exhibits both a dazzling array of aircraft and some beautifully diverse army vehicles. IWM Duxford’s massive collection is spread throughout several hangars and buildings, and merits a day at least of enjoyment! I visited the museum in the spring of 2011, and spent many happy hours there.
The first hangar holds some fabulous airplanes, including a Handley Page Victor and Eurofighter Typhoon trainer. The Eurofighter is the RAF’s main modern fighter jet, developed for use by several European nations including Spain, Germany, and the UK. It is a beautiful plane, with delta wings and canards, and is easily able to compete with other modern jets such as the Chengdu J-10 and F-22 Raptor.
Two-seater trainer variant of the Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighter
Duxford also has lots of exhibits outside, from WWII-era fixtures to airworthy planes.
Bloodhound Surface to Air Missile (SAM)
de Havilland Dragon Rapide, used as a passenger aircraft in the ’30s and as a communications plane in WWII
“Sally B” B-17 Flying Fortress; Europe’s last airworthy example
Huge WWII-era gun emplacement
Radar dish of the Wurzburg radar system; a crucial part of Nazi Germany’s war machine
V-1 flying bomb on its launch rail
IWM Duxford is also home to a great deal of very commendable restoration and conservation work; one hangar was full of aircraft that were being restored and repaired. This is something very close to my heart, since I want nothing more than to see legendary machines from WWI, WWII, and all eras since flying well into the 21st century and beyond. It really bothers me that so many retired aircraft are mothballed, scrapped, or simply forgotten about- Arizona’s Boneyard is a symbol of great sorrow for me- so I loved seeing the huge care and attention that Duxford gives its aircraft.
MiG-21 Fishbed, an aviation workhorse- despite being introduced in 1959, the MiG-21 is still used by many nations today
East German Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship, one of my all-time favourite Soviet aircraft
One of the most awe-inspiring parts of Duxford was the American Air Museum, which houses dozens of American aircraft and artifacts. In 2011 I was just becoming familiar with the planes of the USAF, thanks mainly to the influence of Call of Duty: Black Ops and my brother’s enthusiastic tutelage. So I greatly enjoyed this massive building, which is literally stuffed full of USAF aircraft from the Vietnam era to present day.
The imposing, bunker-like structure of the American Air Museum building
The A-10 Warthog, the USAF’s infamous and nearly invincible “tankbuster”
U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane; no, not the Irish band
Front view of the amazing SR-71 Blackbird, a recon aircraft that is the world’s fastest manned air-breathing aircraft
View of the Pratt & Whitney engines that allow the SR-71 to achieve 2,200 miles per hour and outrun threats such as missiles and other aircraft
The SR-71 was one of Duxford’s highlights for me- after all, this is essentially the fastest aircraft ever made. Plus, its appearance is so strange and outlandish that it is instantly recognizable. And I will always remember the peculiar feeling of the SR-71’s skin- corrugated to withstand the high temperatures created during flight, it felt like very fine sandpaper. Very strange, since one expects an airplane to be made of slippery, shiny metal!
Section of the Berlin Wall, beside a B-52 Stratofortress
Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey and a common sight in the skies of Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s
Nose of a B-52 Stratofortress, the USAF’s long-lived heavy bomber
F-111 Aardvark, a strategic bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft
The last building we toured at Duxford was the Land Warfare building. I was excited about this one, because of my fascination with the Soviet T-34 tank. I knew that Duxford had a T-34, and I couldn’t wait to see it! The Land Warfare building exceeded my expectations and even got me excited about vehicles other than the T-34, because all its vehicles were featured in wonderfully authentic settings.
The building was organized from latest to earliest, so it was really like walking backwards through time. Beginning with the modern British Challenger II main battle tank and the Soviet T-72 of the 1970s, we saw important vehicles from many countries and every era. The Land Warfare building really was very well done, and had interactive elements as well- like a replica of a D-Day landing craft that visitors could walk onto, and American weapons that visitors could pick up and examine!
My brother and I were deeply interested in the weapons, and we pored over the M1 Garand rifle, Thompson submachine gun, and hand grenades that were on display. I was surprised by how heavy the Tommy gun was, and it was thrilling to imagine soldiers carrying these weapons in the field 70 years earlier.
German halftrack in the centre of the WWII section
Nebelwerfer launcher; a sort of multi-barrelled mortar that was intended for firing gas or explosive shells
The gorgeous T-34/85, facing off against a Tiger I in the Land Warfare Hall
Side view of the T-34/85, with the surrounding ruins visible
I’ve had to restrain myself with this post- I’d love to include twenty photos and five hundred words on the T-34, but I want to save that for another day. I plan to do a post solely on the T-34 sometime! Suffice to say that at Duxford, I spent about twenty minutes photographing and examining every inch of this stunning T-34. It is the later /85 variant (I prefer the original /76 version), but it’s still a T-34 and I was definitely starstruck.
Tiger I bursting through a wall to meet the T-34… incredible diorama!
Leaving the street-fighting of the WWII tank dioramas, we moved into the depressing mud of WWI. The WWI exhibits featured vehicles and artillery, all mired in a setting of mud, rickety boardwalks, and general chaos. Again, the dioramas were beautifully executed. Upon leaving the WWI section and coming to the exit of the building, I noticed an extraordinarily poignant touch. There, growing up through the mud and bordered with barbed wire, was a poppy.
This was a very touching feature, and although it might be easily missed, I noticed it and was affected by this small symbol of sacrifice and remembrance.
IWM Duxford made for an epic day in England, and my only reservation is that I couldn’t have spent more time there. The culinary facilities were good and easily accessible, and the gift shop was one of the best I’ve browsed at any museum. But most of all, the exhibits are extensive and meticulously maintained. IWM Duxford made it easy to enjoy vehicles I already knew about and to learn about those I was not familiar with.
If you find yourself in Cambridgeshire, don’t miss Duxford! I know that it will be the first place I visit next time I’m in eastern England!
I am spending this St. George’s Day seated at my Union Flag-clad computer, listening to “Land of Hope and Glory” and “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, with a cup of English Breakfast tea at my side. Although I already completed one post today, I really feel compelled to make another one in the patriotic, celebratory spirit of St. George’s Day.
So here is a simple collection of photos I’ve taken on my trips to England- celebrating just some of what is wonderful about this beautiful and illustrious country.
Picturesque English fields bathed in the morning sun, seen from the air
The London Eye, one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the world
Famous Tower Bridge, on a sunny day
Twinings shop on the Strand- because what is more English than tea?
Pigeons live in locales other than just England, but in my mind, pigeons and England are forever linked
Foggy London skyline, with St. Paul’s just visible. England is beautiful even when it rains, and I hate rain; so that’s saying a lot!
Block of flats in Clapham where my dad was born- I am deeply proud of my English heritage
England has an unparalleled motor racing history; attested to by the Silverstone Formula One circuit and the high concentration of F1 team headquarters in nearby Milton Keynes
The war memorial in Ironbridge. War memorials, military bases, and evidence of World War II fortifications are everywhere in England
Ruined wall at Wroxeter Roman City- the amount of history that remains in England today is staggering
England is one of the best places to find architecture like this. Pictured is Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, built largely in the 16th century
Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, built by the Romans almost two millennia ago
Aptly-named Northumberland, England’s northernmost county, has some of the most striking landscapes I’ve ever seen
The Green Dragon pub in Exelby, Yorkshire, where I had my first glorious taste of English beer
Ceiling of Ely Cathedral- it’s incredible that in England, churches like this are still open for regular worship.
Happy St. George’s Day!
Day four was a Sunday, and Sundays in London mean that the Mall (which is the long road leading to Buckingham Palace) is closed to traffic and open to pedestrians. We could not resist this prospect, so although we planned to go to church that morning, we hurried off to the Mall first. Upon arriving, we noticed that there was some sort of ceremony going on at Horse Guards Parade.
One line of troops at the Horse Guards Parade; the closest horse seemed to be enjoying fidgeting quite a lot!
Second line of troops
I was so impressed with the horses here; they were all absolutely beautiful and well-behaved. We didn’t stay long, but this was an interesting spectacle and it was nice that we arrived in time to see it. From the Horse Guards Parade, we strolled through St. James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace; passing the War Memorial near which I ate my first meal in London eight years ago. Wherever I go, I like to take photographs of every war memorial I see, and this one is one of my favourites.
The stately and simple war memorial at edge of St. James’s Park
After St. James’s Park, we walked up the Mall until we reached Buckingham Palace. I love walking along the Mall, getting closer and closer to the glory of the Palace with every second. It really has an amazing atmosphere, especially in the summertime when there are hundreds of other people milling about.
View of Buckingham Palace from the Mall
The Victoria Memorial at the front of Buckingham Palace
Canada Gate is one of my favourite features of the Buckingham Palace area; it’s interesting because I live in Canada, and because it is so fabulously ornate. Beyond Canada Gate is Green Park, which I have been through many times. And past Green Park is Piccadilly, the street that is home to such storied and extravagant establishments as Fortnum and Mason and the Ritz Hotel.
Canada Gate, which leads to Green Park
Buckingham Palace, as seen from beside Canada Gate
A short trek through Green Park took us to Green Park Station, and we took the Tube to the City and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Upon coming above ground in the City, we could hear the bells of St. Paul’s tolling and calling us to the imminent church service. It really was a beautiful moment, and I was brimming with anticipation. Prior to this trip, I had only seen the exterior of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent cathedral, and the interior through a glimpse from the door.
Aerial view of the Cathedral. Image from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Mark Fosh and Nanonic
Although there is an admission fee for tours of the Cathedral, one can attend services there for free. I would definitely recommend doing this if you want to have an incredibly unique and memorable experience; I have been to services at St. Paul’s, Temple Church, and Westminster Abbey, and all have been amazing and poignant experiences. The service at St. Paul’s was a good one, and was fairly well-attended. The church-goers were all seated directly beneath the dome, which made for an impressive setting. I spent a lot of time marvelling at the mind-blowing detail and ornamentation that was all around me- the baroque decoration is really over the top.
But despite the magnificence of this building, the unrestrained show of its design keeps it from being my favourite place of worship. I feel that it is a little too ostentatious, and I prefer the simple, soaring arches of Westminster Abbey and other Gothic churches. For me, St. Paul’s (although beautiful and amazing) feels distractingly flamboyant. A place like Westminster Abbey or Ely Cathedral makes me feel much more pensive and comfortable.
The extravagance of St. Paul’s, and the view that I faced almost directly during the service. Image from http://flickr.com/photos/90933305@N00/2410780 via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Peter Morgan
By the time church was over, we were all hungry and craving pub grub- my aunt was set on having a good steak and kidney pie while we were in London. Walking up Fleet Street, we checked the menu of every pub we came across for S&K, but were sadly disappointed. I thought it almost a blasphemous shame that modern pubs have strayed from the classic combination of steak and kidney! But finally, we found The Old Bell Tavern, which was the perfect place for our meal.
The old-fashioned exterior of The Old Bell on Fleet Street. Image courtesy of Colleen Jacobs
The Old Bell was, incredibly, built by Sir Christopher Wren to house the workers who were building St. Paul’s! So it is very old, and has lost none of its charm. It had such a warm, cosy atmosphere, and was all decked out for Christmas. The floors were uneven and creaky, and behind my seat was a carved wooden cupboard from the 1600s. We all really, really loved this pub. Plus, the food was delicious- I had some gorgeous fish and chips and a calming pint of Guinness; and my aunt got her S&K!
The view from our table at The Old Bell. Image courtesy of Colleen Jacobs
Me at The Old Bell, about to enjoy a pint of Guinness. Image courtesy of Colleen Jacobs
That afternoon, nourished by our lovely pub lunch, we headed to Brompton Road to visit Harrods. Unfortunately, this was one of my least favourite parts of the trip. Harrods was absolutely teeming with shoppers and tourists (although mostly tourists) which made almost every corner of the shop impossible to navigate and as hot as July in the Sahara, but that wasn’t what bothered me most.
As we approached Harrods, pushed along by the crush of Christmas shoppers, we passed a homeless man and his dog. They were sitting against the wet wall of a building, and were being utterly ignored by every single privileged person who was walking by. It struck me as impossibly cruel and disgusting that hundreds of people were rushing to Harrods to buy £1000 Christmas presents, yet no one was prepared to help this man. I couldn’t take it, so I gave him some money before continuing on (reluctantly, and in a sickened mood) to Harrods.
I have seen lots of impoverished and homeless people in London, and I always feel compelled to do something for them. Most of them have dogs, probably for company and warmth, and that only makes me want to help them more. I really love dogs, and feel drawn to fellow dog-owners and dog-lovers. In this particular instance, I was really saddened and angered that- especially near Christmastime- no passers-by were giving of themselves to someone who had nothing. This still bothers me when I think about it, and I hope that this man and his dog had as happy a Christmas as was possible.
The overwhelming bustle of Harrods; seen from the escalators in the Egyptian section. Image courtesy of Colleen Jacobs
All in all, this was another enjoyable day in London. Although I’m not so sure I like visiting Harrods anymore, it does offer quite a spectacle, especially to first-time visitors to London. And St. Paul’s and the environs of Buckingham Palace are a must-see for everyone in the capital! Sadly, Day Four in London was also the second-last day there, and I went to bed half-excited and half-dreading Day Five!
It is time, I think, to take a look at some of the most influential and fantastic aircraft fielded by the Soviet Union in World War II. Allied aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, and Lancaster are almost household names, yet I doubt that as many people are familiar with MiG-3s or Yak-1s. Although the first few weeks of Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union) all but decimated the VVS, as the Soviet Air Forces were known, some aircraft still remained and the VVS was rebuilt to be a great strength. This post outlines my favourite WWII-era planes of the resilient nation that is Russia, and the powerful and fearsome air force that was the VVS.
Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik
The Il-2 Sturmovik was a fabled ground attack aircraft, fitted with four to five guns and capable of carrying additional bombs or rockets. Although it suffered heavy losses in the first days of the war (largely due to its original lack of a rear gunner), it became prolific in the later years and was feared by German forces.
Attacking Sturmoviks, with guns blazing. Attributed to RIA Novosti archive, image #225/F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to F. Levshin.
Some 36,000 examples of the Sturmovik were made from 1941 to 1945, with Josef Stalin famously remarking in the gloomy days of 1941 that “the Red Army needs Il-2s like the air it breathes, and the bread it eats”. However, despite these massive production numbers, only one airworthy Sturmovik remains today; a sad reminder of what was such a formidable and abundant aircraft on the Eastern Front.
Image of Il-2 in flight: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
Introduced in 1934, the I-16 Ishak, or Donkey, was a rather temperamental fighter- although one that did see great success in the Spanish Civil War, as well as against the manoeuvrable Bf-109 in WWII. The I-16 was quite slow compared to German fighters, but it did have wonderful agility in the hands of a good pilot. Conversely, if an inexperienced pilot was at the controls, the I-16 was difficult to control and its controls were quite sensitive. Any abrupt manoeuvre would send the plane into a spin, so pilots soon learned to be careful with this aircraft. The Donkey is unique because it was the first monoplane with a retractable undercarriage, and this feature began a trend in aircraft design that was soon taken up by the whole world.
Image of Spanish I-16: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Alvaro.
Line drawing of Po-2, showing its seemingly archaic design. From Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Kaboldy.
The Po-2 is one of my favourite planes of all time, because of its unassuming and surprising efficiency. A veritable relic first used in 1928, the Po-2 was a small biplane constructed from wood and fabric- hardly different from the planes of the First World War. Its top speed was a blistering 93 miles per hour, and although it was meant to be a training plane, the Po-2 was used to great effect as a night bomber.
Some of the most successful pilots to fly these planes belonged to the Night Witches squadron- a squadron made up entirely of female aviators. Of course, this was incredibly unusual by Western standards, but throughout the war the Soviet Union allowed women to fight as pilots, snipers, tank commanders, and more. This squadron formed in 1942, and by the end of the war, its members had flown over 23,000 sorties. An incredible 23 of its members were made Heroes of the Soviet Union- their nation’s highest military award.
Dmitry Medvedev with Nadezhda Popova, a captain of the Night Witches. She flew over 800 sorties over three years as a pilot of the Po-2. From http://www.kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
The tactics of Po-2 pilots were just as unusual as the plane itself- flying over German positions only in the dead of night, the pilot would fly mere feet above the ground before pulling up, switching off the engine, and gliding in for a bombing run. These tactics caused the Germans much anxiety and pain; forcing them to stay alert at night and listen for the strange choppy engine noise of the Po-2. Because of this peculiar noise, Wehrmacht soldiers called the Po-2 a “sewing-machine”.
Image of Soviet Po-2 in German museum: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Jan Rehschuh.
I imagine that German soldiers on the Eastern Front must have had nightmares about the noises accompanying a Po-2 bombing run- with only the wind rushing through the airplane’s struts betraying its presence. Luftwaffe fighters had trouble with the Po-2, because even the stall speeds of Bf-109s and Fw-190s were hugely faster than the top speed of the Po-2. Moreover, Soviet pilots flew at treetop level and were difficult to spot and engage. What a fabulous legacy this simple little biplane has- really quite amazing!
A captured Po-2 in the Ukraine. Note its small scale and antiquated appearance. From Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0112/ CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
I must admit, the LaGG-3 was not loved by its pilots. They found it to be sluggish in manoeuvres, slow to climb, and heavy with an underpowered engine. But I find it fascinating nonetheless- it is quite beautiful to look at, and its construction was unique. It was made almost completely of wood-laminate which was unusual for a newly-developed fighter. And fortunately, its legacy is not all negative, because its design gave rise to the later and immeasurably more successful Lavochkin La-5.
Image of camouflaged LaGG-3 in Moscow: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Mike1979Russia.
The La-5, designed by Semyon Lavochkin, shared some of the unfortunate LaGG-3’s positive attributes; such as its lightweight wooden airframe. However, it was a completely new plane, with a 1,330 horsepower engine, better cockpit visibility, and better armament. The La-5 had two 20-mm cannons plus underwing racks which could accommodate 400 pounds of bombs, giving it superior firepower to standard Bf-109s.
Image of La-5 fighters on airfield: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
Despite incurring high losses, the La-5 was one of the best fighters the VVS had in WWII, and was the plane Ivan Kozhedub used for most of his 62 kills. Kozhedub was the highest-scoring Allied air ace of the war, and was the ideal role model and propaganda tool in the eyes of Soviet leadership; he was young, talented, patriotic, and a Communist Party member. During his career in the VVS, Kozhedub was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal on three separate occasions, and he was one of the few to ever shoot down a jet-powered Me-262.
Image of Ivan Kozhedub in front of his La-5: from http://airaces.narod.ru/all1/kojedub2.jpg via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
Another impressively successful Soviet fighter, the Yak-1 was superior to several Lavochkin designs and that of the MiG-3. It earned its designer, Alexander Yakovlev, numerous awards and distinctions, and was well-equipped in all categories. Armament on the Yak-1 was good, speed was swift, and manoeuvrability was staggering. This made it a worthy adversary to the Bf-109Es and Fs of the day, and subsequent improvements on the design (like the Yak-3, -7, and -9) made the Yak-1 even better.
Image of Yak-1s lined up and awaiting combat: from http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/6312755899 via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Unique because it was the Soviet Union’s only four-engine bomber built during WWII, the Pe-8 was a capable bomber despite suffering nagging engine problems throughout its career. It was mainly used for sorties against airfields and railyards in Germany, and later, transportation centres in occupied territory. In size, the Pe-8 was actually slightly bigger than the well-known Avro Lancaster; with a wingspan of 128 feet compared to 102, and an empty weight of 40,000 pounds compared to 36,000.
Image of Pe-8: from heavybomber.narod.ru via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
Despite its many successful sorties, the Pe-8 fleet incurred substantial losses, and by mid-1944 was being replaced by Lend-Lease B-25 Mitchells. It seems that Luftwaffe fighter pilots felt compelled to target the Pe-8, because the Soviet Union had used this aircraft’s sorties into Germany as a high-profile morale booster for the Soviet people.
Image of postage stamp featuring the Pe-8: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Vizu.
As this post has perhaps demonstrated, the Soviet Union fielded a great number of quality aircraft throughout WWII. Although aircraft designers may have been intimidated and oppressed, they were still able to come up with amazing designs that rivalled the best that German precision could muster.
I myself have unfortunately not seen any of these beautiful airplanes in person. I believe I did see a MiG-3 somewhere in the UK, but I’m still eagerly awaiting a sight of my ultimate favourites- the Po-2 and Il-2 Sturmovik. This has been a fun post for me, combining as it did two of my greatest interests! I really am extremely enthusiastic about the Eastern Front and Soviet aircraft. The aircraft of the VVS during WWII really mirrored the spirit of the Soviet people in the same war; disadvantaged and against all odds, yet resilient, capable, and triumphant at the end, and that might be why I am so intrigued by this subject.
(2014, April 8). Ilyushin Il-2. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilyushin_Il-2.
Jackson, R. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft. Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing.
Morgan, H. (1997). Soviet Aces of World War 2. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing.