Duxford: Operations Block and Blast Walls (Building 59)


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Building 59, Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Duxford, Cambridge, CB22 4QR


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Statutory Address:
Building 59, Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Duxford, Cambridge, CB22 4QR

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

South Cambridgeshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Former Operations Block built in 1928 to the design of the Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings and extended in 1938.

Reasons for Designation

The former Operations Block, built in 1928 to the design of the Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as the most complete surviving example of the 1920s design for a fighter station sector Operations Block which has direct historical associations with the operational infrastructure that ensured the RAF's survival in the Battle of Britain, one of the key events of the Second World War;

* despite the alterations that were subsequently carried out, the building survives externally very well and the internal configuration has been sufficiently retained to illustrate its crucial war time function;

Historic interest:

* as an integral component of Duxford Airfield, one of the finest and best-preserved examples of a fighter base representative of the period up to 1945 in Britain;

* for Duxford’s important association with the Battle of Britain and the American fighter support for the Eighth Air Force;

Group value:

* for its strong group value with the uniquely complete group of First World War technical buildings and technical and domestic buildings typical of both inter-war Expansion Periods of the RAF;

* for the surviving spatial and functional relationship between the building and the flying field which it served.


Duxford’s suitability as a landing field led to its use for military flying during the Military Manoeuvres of 1912. Construction of the Training Depot Station (TDS) started in October 1917, and the first units including Americans arriving in March 1918. It was one of 63 Training Depot Stations in existence in November 1918, and the group of hangars and other buildings on the technical site now constitute the best-preserved group of buildings surviving from a First World War airfield in Britain. Training Depot Stations, which comprised the main instructional flying unit for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), were built in pairs, Duxford and its sister station at nearby Fowlmere making one wing. Each TDS comprised three flying units, each having a coupled general service shed and one repair hangar (the Duxford example was demolished in 1968, leaving Old Sarum in Wiltshire and Leuchars in Scotland as the only examples which survive as part of hangar groups). Other specialist buildings, such as carpenters’ shops, dope and engine-repair shops, and technical and plane stores, characterised these sites.

Duxford was one of a core number of stations retained for the RAF after 1918, first as a flying training school and then (from 1 April 1923) as a fighter station with 19 Squadron. This was designated as a mobile (expeditionary) squadron, and they remained on the base until replacement by the Eagle Squadron of American volunteers in August 1941. 19 Squadron’s expertise resulted in the station introducing a number of aircraft into RAF service, such as the Gloster Gauntlet which it received in January 1935 and was displayed along with the prototype of the Gloster Gladiator at George V’s Silver Jubilee in July of that year. The first Spitfire to an RAF squadron was delivered to Duxford by Supermarine’s test pilot in August 1938, and 12,000 visitors caught their first sight of the Spitfire during Empire Day on 20 May 1939. With one exception, the wooden-framed barrack buildings were replaced in a rebuilding campaign that commenced in 1928. A major phase of modernisation was approved in 1931, resulting in the construction of the station headquarters and guardroom on the south camp, and the construction of domestic buildings in the north camp - the sergeants' mess being the first building ready for occupation. In an attempt to achieve parity with Germany’s increasing air strength, the British Government introduced a number of schemes for the expansion of the RAF, which followed in quick succession between 1934 and 1939. The Cabinet (National Government) passed five schemes: ‘A’, ‘C’, ‘F’, ‘L’ and ‘M’, which led to a large-scale re-building programme at existing RAF stations (including Duxford) and to the development of numerous new aerodromes.

During the Battle of Britain (10 Jul – 31 Oct 1940), Duxford was the most southerly airfield in 12 Group, responsible for the defence of the Midlands and East of England but also making it well-placed to reinforce and support 11 Group to the south, which bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe assault. Czech and Polish squadrons operated from Duxford during the battle, and on 15 September - the critical point in the battle - five Duxford squadrons led by Squadron Leader Douglas Bader claimed their highest score of 52 aircraft destroyed (plus 16 probably destroyed and 3 damaged). Bader - Commander of 242 Squadron initially based at Coltishall - was the instigator of what became known as the Duxford Wing, (a strategy whereby he led 3 and later 5 squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes into battle), which formed the focus of disagreement concerning fighter defence strategy which continued into the winter of 1940 Some of the pillboxes, air raid shelters and fighter pens installed by 1940 for the purposes of airfield defence and protection against attack have survived.

The arrival of the RAF’s Air Fighting Development Unit at Duxford, in December 1940, saw a wide variety of new aircraft for evaluation and testing, including the replacement of the Hurricane, Hawker Typhoon, Mosquito and Mustang (the most powerful fighter of the Second World War). The airfield was officially handed over to become base 357 of the United States Eighth Air Force on 1 April 1943, the first of 75 P47 Thunderbolts arriving on the same day.. The first of the new Merlin-powered P51 Mustangs, which were to play a critically important role in the European air war, arrived to replace the Thunderbolts after the completion of the steel matting runway in December 1944. The base in its fighter support role was responsible for the destruction of 338 aircraft in the air and a further 358 on the ground, with the loss of 167 aircraft and 113 pilots. Duxford’s post-war service as a jet fighter station, with Meteors, Hunters and then Javelins, was marked by the completion of a replacement runway in concrete (6000 feet long with Operational Readiness Platforms at both ends) in August 1951.

RAF Duxford was closed in 1961, and subsequently chosen as one of the locations for filming of the Battle of Britain in 1968, (when the 1918 repair section hangar was destroyed). In 1969, the Ministry of Defence declared its intention to dispose of Duxford, and the Imperial War Museum duly requested permission to use part of one of the airfield’s hangars as temporary storage. The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, and opened to the public at Crystal Palace in Sydenham Hill in 1920, before moving to the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in 1924, and finally the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark in 1936. The museum was originally intended to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its empire during the First World War. The museum's remit has since expanded to include all conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces have been involved since 1914. As of 2012, the museum aims to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and wartime experience. Duxford became the first outstation of the Imperial War Museum in 1976, and Cambridgeshire County Council joined with the Imperial War Museum and the Duxford Aviation Society to purchase the runway in 1977. The construction of the M11 along the east boundary of the site in 1977 shortened the runway by about 1,200ft (366m). The final aircraft to land at Duxford before the runway was shortened was Concorde test aircraft G-AXDN, now on display in the Airspace hangar. In October 2008, an agreement was reached between Cambridgeshire County Council and the Imperial War Museum, under which the runways and 146 acres of surrounding grassland were acquired by the museum.

Evidence assembled by the IWM suggests the Operations Block was altered twice following its initial construction date, initially prior to the Second World War with an extension of 1938 to accommodate the Searchlight Room, and again prior to the Battle of Britain. The 1927 plan by the Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings, Drawing No. 257/271927 labels the rooms, from the left, as follows: store with workshop, P.B.X. Telephones, Battery, WT Room, Signal Office, Operations Room. The 1938 plan shows that the Signal Office has been converted into a vertical row of three small chambers with a store at the top, a cupboard at the bottom, and a corridor running along the left hand side. It also shows that the party wall between the Battery and WT Room has been repositioned to create two rooms of a more equal size – the Relieving Room and Traffic Office.

In late 1938 or early 1939 the extension ceased to be used as the Searchlight Room. It was subsequently used to ‘fix and plot the position of the sector’s fighters’ from the spring of 1940 onwards, arguably the most crucial year in the history of the RAF. The Dowding System divided British defences into four regional Groups which had Sectors within each: the principal fighter airfield within the Sector would be provided with an Operations Block, as at Duxford, from which to direct fighter planes into combat. The most essential of these structures were in Fighter Command’s 11 Group at Uxbridge and Debden, which ‘bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s assault in the Battle of Britain’. Had it not been for Dowding’s crucial operational pre-war tactics in devising the hierarchical connections between Chain Home radar stations, and Observer Corps, all linked by telephone and teleprinter to Fighter Command Headquarters and then to each of the operations rooms of the individual Groups, then ‘all the ascendancy of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless’ wrote Churchill in 1949. After the Battle of Britain the Operations Room was moved off the airfield to a less vulnerable site at nearby Sawston Hall.

When the IWM took over Duxford in 1976 the interior of the Operations Room had been gutted and the layout altered. Between 1986 and 1987 it was reconstructed based on a variety of sources of evidence, including the photographs taken by Stanley Devon on 19 September 1940. At some point, the two rooms at the southern end of the building have been subdivided.


Former Operations Block built in 1928 to the design of the Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings and extended in 1938.

MATERIALS: beige brick laid in English bond and asbestos-cement diagonal slate roofing. The north extension is boarded timber framing.

PLAN: the building has a rectangular plan with a central entrance on the east side opening into a short corridor. This leads to an axial corridor on the right providing access to three small storage rooms and a cupboard, followed by the Operations Room, and the former Searchlight Room. To the left are five main rooms, two of which are subdivided, now used as office accommodation, and a small boiler room.

EXTERIOR: the single-storey building has a hipped roof with ridge tiles along the verges and exposed rafter feet at the eaves. The double-leaf, flush-panelled entrance doors are below a three-light, multi-paned overlight. The entrance is flanked by two-light steel casement windows with small panes and a transom, and concrete sills and lintels. There are four to the right and two to the left. At the far left end is the boiler house with a tall, square brick stack, and a red brick extension which houses a tank. The return (south gable end) has three windows. On the north gable end is the later extension which has a pitched roof and a brick plinth below the horizontal timber cladding. It is lit on the east side by a two-light casement window and on the north gable end by two windows. On the west elevation a door with glazed upper panes has been inserted at a later date. Beyond the extension, the main building is lit by seven two-light and two three-light casements, plus a centrally placed door, also inserted at a later date.

INTERIOR: when the IWM took over the building in 1976 the interior had been gutted, the fixtures and fittings removed, and the layout altered. This has been reinstated, with light-weight partitions between rooms, and king-post timber trusses in the Operations Room which was reconstructed between 1986 and 1987 to show how it was in 1940 when the tactical deployment of Duxford’s fighter aircraft was organised there during the Battle of Britain. None of the fixtures and fittings of the display are original, including the balustrade and steps, except for the partially glazed wall on the south side. The four-panel door also appears to be original, as do those to the small store rooms and cupboard to the south side of the Operations Room.

The rooms arranged along the left hand side of the entrance have been converted for office use and do not appear to retain any original features. The common rafter roof with side purlins is accessed from a hatch in the room to the far left. SUBSIDIARY FEATURES:

The building is enclosed and protected by an earth breast-work about 1.75m high with breaks for the front and rear entrances.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Dobinson, C S, Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume IX.1 and IX.2: Airfield Themes, (1997)
Francis, P, British Military Airfield Architecture From Airships To The Jet Age, (1996)
Freeman, Roger A, Airfields of the Eighth: Then and Now (After the Battle), (1978)
Ramsey, W G (ed), The Battle of Britain Then and Now, (1989)
Imperial War Museum, ‘History’, accessed 2 October 2018 from http://www.imperialwarmuseumduxford.colindaylinks.com/history1.html
Airfield Research Group Ltd, ‘ARG Research Note No.35: Duxford Historic Appraisal, Part 1’, March 2010
Airfield Research Group Ltd, ‘ARG Research Note No.36: Duxford Historic Appraisal, Part 2’, March 2010
Raby A: Duxford Airfield: the Story of a Famous Fighter Station
WYG and Bidwells on behalf of Imperial War Museums, ‘Significance Assessment: IWM Duxford, Cambridge – South Side’, May 2016
WYG and Bidwells on behalf of Imperial War Museums, ‘Significance Assessment: IWM Duxford, Cambridge – Volume 2: North Side’, July 2016


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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