The destination for history

The RAF and Imperial War Museums


As the centenary of the First World War comes to an end in 2018, it is also the centenary of the RAF. Founded in 1918, the Royal Air Force has a remarkable place within the collections and history of Imperial War Museums (IWM).

IWM Duxford, formerly RAF Duxford, was an early RAF station and went on to have an illustrious history, perhaps most famously during the Battle of Britain. Whilst working on the diary of Guy Mayfield, who was chaplain at Duxford during the Battle of Britain, it became clear to me just how much the pilots of the RAF went through during that fateful summer of 1940. As Station Chaplain, Guy Mayfield was privy to many of the inner thoughts and feelings of these young men who were risking their lives every day and the enormous stress that they were under. His diary entries are an extraordinary record of that period and bring vividly to life a short but crucially important part of RAF Duxford’s history. But perhaps the most fitting tribute to those men from the RAF at Duxford this year will be the ever-popular air show displays, with the September Air Show featuring many displays by the RAF alongside the historic Spitfires and Hurricanes that now reside at this famous airfield. As with all those who flew before them, the pilots of today will thrill the crowds with their skill and flying ability this summer.

The collections at IWM also run deep with items related to the RAF. Late last year I was sitting in a darkened room in the IWM Film Archive spooling through six canisters of film. On the film was the test flight footage of 617 squadron testing the ‘bouncing’ bombs of Barnes Wallis. Watching each Lancaster approach the beach at Reculver and slowing the film down really brought the technological development home to me, as many of the test runs ended in failure. But over the course of viewing the various film reels, you could feel that gradually the scientists were understanding how this ingenious weapon worked and the RAF crews were learning how to deliver this bomb. As those crews were to then go on the famous Dam Busters Raid in 1943, the film reels felt like they were a fitting epitaph to those RAF crews and the sacrifice they made during the raid.

2018 will be a significant year, with many people contemplating the end of the First World War and the birth of a Royal Air Force, a service which has played such a vital role in the history of modern Britain. This history will be available for all to see in the skies at IWM Duxford, and through the extensive national collections of Imperial War Museums.

By Kieran Whitworth

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