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!