Duxford - Hangar 4 - Battle of Britain

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HANGAR 4 is one of Duxford's historic hangars, and now houses an exhibition exploring Duxford's history as an operational RAF airfield from the First World War to the Cold War.

Britain's air defence during the Second World War is particularly emphasised, with exhibits representing the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Notable aircraft include a Messerschmitt Bf-109E which was flown during the Battle of Britain until forced down in Sussex due to engine failure. It is displayed as part of a tableau showing the crashed aircraft under guard (see below).

The aircraft shown above is a Hawker 'Hurricane'. In the right of the picture is the barrage balloon winch described below.


A barrage balloon is a large balloon tethered with metal cables, used to defend against low-level aircraft attack by damaging the aircraft on collision with the cables, or at least making the attacker's approach more difficult. Some versions carried small explosive charges that would be pulled up against the aircraft to ensure its destruction. Barrage balloons were only employed against low-flying aircraft; the weight of the longer cable made them impractical for higher altitudes.

RAF Cardington, near Bedford, started life as a private venture when Short Brothers bought land there to build airships for the Admiralty. They constructed a 700-foot-long (210 m) Airship hangar (the No. 1 Shed) in 1915 to enable them to build two rigid airships, the R-31 and the R-32. Shorts also built a housing estate, opposite the site, which they named Shortstown.

In preparation for the R101 airship project the No 1 shed was extended between October 1924 and March 1926; its roof was raised by 35 feet and its length increased to 812 feet. The No. 2 shed (Southern shed), which had originally been located at RNAS Pulham, Norfolk, was dismantled in 1928 and re-erected at Cardington.

After the crash of the R101, in October 1930, all work stopped in Britain on airships. Cardington then became a storage station.

In 1936/1937 Cardington started building barrage balloons; and it became the No 1 RAF Balloon Training Unit responsible for the storage and training of balloon operators and drivers (as pictured below with a winch built on a Fordson Sussex chassis of pre-war American design).

In 1943 until 1967 it was home to the RAF Meteorological research balloons-training unit, undertaking development and storage.


The Fordson Type WOT 1 winch is not a fully authentic vehicle having been rebuilt with some parts from other vehicles.

It has a war-time made chassis with the usual 'utility' appearance, mudguards over the rear wheels, a squarish shaped radiator and a bumper bar across its front.

The cab is of a square shape with two windows at the rear.

Originally it was mounted on a chassis that was longer than the usual chassis used in wartime and so, to restore the vehicle to its wartime look, the winch was removed and the chassis cut down and rebuilt. It was then sprayed in wartime camouflage and returned to be put on show. The vehicle was eventually acquired by the Imperial War Museum. For a full story of this and a similar vehicle at the RAF Museum, Hendon please go to David Wintle's website by clicking here.

It is acknowledged that the (edited) information above has been obtained from David's site.


                                         ROYAL OBSERVER CORPS

In 1925, following a Defence Committee initiative undertaken the previous year, the formation of an RAF command concerning the Air Defence of Great Britain led to the provision of a Raid Reporting System, itself delegated to a sub-committee consisting of representatives from the Air Ministry, Home Office and the General Post Office.

This Raid Reporting System was to provide for the visual detection, identification, tracking and reporting of aircraft over Great Britain, and was eventually to become known as the Observer Corps. During the Second World War, the ROC complemented and at times replaced the Chain Home defensive radar system by undertaking an inland aircraft tracking and reporting function, while Chain Home provided a predominantly coastal, long-range tracking and reporting system.

The British Chain Home radar defence system was able to warn of enemy aircraft approaching the British coast, but once having crossed the coastline the Observer Corps provided the only means of tracking their position. During the period from July to October 1940, the Observer Corps was at full stretch operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, plotting enemy aircraft and passing this essential information to RAF Fighter Command Groups and Sector Controls.

The Battle of Britain also saw the introduction of the Blitz campaign and the shift of German bombing from airfields to cities. Again, the Observer Corps provided vital information which enabled timely air-raid warnings to be issued, thereby saving countless lives.

The Blitz itself continued until early in the summer of 1941 and bombing continued, albeit on a reduced scale, until March 1945. The Observer Corps formed the cornerstone of Air Marshal Hugh Dowding's air defence system, who stated in a despatch following the Battle of Britain that :

"It is important to note that at this time they (the Observer Corps) constituted the whole means of tracking enemy raids once they had crossed the coastline. Their work throughout was quite invaluable. Without it the air-raid warning systems could not have been operated and inland interceptions would rarely have been made."

As a result of their role during the Battle of Britain, in April 1941 the Observer Corps was granted the title 'Royal' by King George VI, and the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) became a uniformed civil defence organisation administered by RAF Fighter Command


Significant AA (Anti Aircraft) warfare started with the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. 3.7-inch HAA (Heavy Anti Aircraft) guns were to provide the backbone of the groundbased AA defences, although initially significant numbers of 3-inch 20-cwt were also used.

The Army's Anti-aircraft command, which was under command of the Air Defence UK organisation, grew to 12 AA divisions in 3 AA corps.

Later, 40-mm Bofors guns entered service in increasing numbers. In addition the RAF regiment was formed in 1941 with responsibility for airfield air defence, eventually with Bofors 40mm as their main armament. Fixed AA defences, using HAA and LAA, were established by the Army in key overseas places, notably Malta, Suez Canal and Singapore.

AN ARP WARDEN (Air Raid Precautions Warden) advertises 'blackout' times (right).

During World War II, the Air Ministry had forecast that Britain would suffer night air bombing attacks causing large numbers of civilian casualties and mass destruction. It was widely agreed that navigation and targeting would be more difficult if man-made lights on the ground could be extinguished.

Blackout regulations were imposed on 1 September 1939. These required that all windows and doors should be covered at night with suitable material such as heavy curtains, cardboard or paint, to prevent the escape of any glimmer of light that might aid enemy aircraft.

External lights such as street lights were switched off, or dimmed and shielded to deflect light downward. Essential lights such as traffic lights and vehicle headlights were fitted with slotted covers to deflect their beams downwards to the ground

Factories with large areas of glass roofing found it impossible to install temporary blackout panels and permanent methods (such as paint) lost natural light during daylight. Shops had to install double "airlock" doors to avoid lights showing as customers arrived and departed.

The blackout was enforced by civilian ARP (Air Raid Precaution) wardens who would ensure that no buildings allowed the slightest chink or glow of light. Offenders were liable to stringent legal penalties.


Many vehicles were converted for use as ambulances during WW2.

The American Nash Ambassador car shown on the left was converted in 1939 by Thomas Bata for use at his shoe factory in Tilbury, London.

Next to it is an Austin K2 National Fire Service truck. The K2 was a pre-war commercially designed vehicle and this 1942 example was built for war service.

It carried twelve firefighters and towed a water pump.


The Anderson Shelter was designed in 1938 by William Paterson and Oscar Carl (Karl) Kerrison in response to a request from the Home Office. It was named after Sir John Anderson, then Lord Privy Seal with special responsibility for preparing air-raid precautions immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II, and it was he who then initiated the development of the shelter.

Anderson shelters were designed to accommodate up to six people. The main principle of protection was based on curved and straight galvanised corrugated steel panels. The shelters were 6 ft high, 4 ft 6 in wide, and 6 ft 6 in long and were buried 4 ft deep in the soil and then covered with a minimum of 15 in (0.4 m) of soil above the roof. They were generally situated in the garden close to the house.


A Messerschmitt Bf-109E which was flown during the Battle of Britain until forced down in Sussex due to engine failure.

The plane below was flown during the Battle of Britain until forced down in Sussex due to engine failure.

     A Hurricane fighter plane returns safely after aerial combat
     with its elated pilot................

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