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Duxford: Machine Gun Range and Shelter Sheds

A Grade II Listed Building in Thriplow, Cambridgeshire

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Coordinates

Latitude: 52.0935 / 52°5'36"N

Longitude: 0.126 / 0°7'33"E

OS Eastings: 545739

OS Northings: 246041

OS Grid: TL457460

Mapcode National: GBR L8N.NPL

Mapcode Global: VHHKP.4MGZ

Entry Name: Duxford: Machine Gun Range and Shelter Sheds

Listing Date: 18 January 2019

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1461306

Location: Duxford, South Cambridgeshire, Cambridgeshire, CB22

County: Cambridgeshire

District: South Cambridgeshire

Civil Parish: Thriplow

Built-Up Area: Duxford Airfield

Traditional County: Cambridgeshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cambridgeshire

Summary


Machine Gun Range and Shelter Sheds to the north constructed in 1918 as part of the initial phase of the Training Depot Station (TDS), Duxford.

Description

Machine Gun Range (MGR) and Shelter Sheds to the north, constructed in 1918 as part of the initial phase of the Training Depot Station (TDS), Duxford.

MATERIALS: of brick construction with a tiled roof covering to the Shelter Sheds.

PLAN: The MGR is irregular in plan but the Shelter Sheds, a separate structure around 27.5m to the north of the MGR, have a rectangular plan.

EXTERIOR: the MGR comprises a buttressed brick wall, around 50cm thick, 37m long and standing to a height of approximately three metres. It tapers to the top and is capped in tile. The western two thirds has been raised by approximately 0.75m and extending from this section at right angles are two, stepped, buttressed walls, approximately 20m apart. Between these two walls is an earthwork mound sloping to the south, retained by a low brick wall of five courses surmounted by metal railings. The wall and railings appear to be a late C20 addition, possibly built at the time the Gibraltar Gun was installed. A plan and section of the existing MGR show a subterranean trench with concrete retaining walls at the base of the earthwork and running the length of the wall. This is labelled as a ‘Target Trench’ and has another earthwork mounded against the southern edge, again sloping to the south. Although the concrete retaining walls and trench may survive beneath the ground they are no longer visible on the surface neither is the southernmost earthwork.

At the western end of the MGR wall two brick-built compartments, one to the north and one to the south, form part of the MGR and appear to correspond to a Target Store (southern compartment) and a Stop Butt (northern compartment) as shown on a plan of the MGR dated to November 1935. Stains on the brickwork show the former roof line of the Target Store.

Attached to the rear of the MGR wall is a modern workshop and garage built of corrugated metal sheeting, which is not of historic or architectural interest.

The shelter sheds on the north side of the MGR are built in brick with a sloping and overhanging tile roof with iron brackets supporting the eaves. The shed is open fronted with regularly spaced brick piers dividing compartments. Some sections, towards the eastern end, have been infilled and provided with doors to create enclosed storage and workshops but the original fabric appears little changed. The shelters are clearly visible on aerial photographs dated to 1921 and show doors to the rear of the sheds, presumably enabling movement in and out without the need to manoeuvre around the MGR when in active use. These doors survive in the example here.

History

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. This continued into the winter of 1940 and finally resulted in the removal of Sir Hugh Dowding from his position as Commander in Chief, Fighter Command, and the replacement of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park as Air Officer Commanding 11 Group by his rival Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory of 12 Group. 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, 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. After their visit in January 1941 to inspect the base and present medals, the King and Queen returned to Duxford to welcome the Americans in May. 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.

The Machine Gun Range (MGR) and the Shelter Sheds to the north were constructed as part of the initial phase of the Training Depot Station (TDS) in 1918. The majority of World War airfields were equipped with gun butts, used for the testing and alignment of aircraft guns, and for airmen to test shooting skills. However, many have since been lost and although examples such as that at Wendover Airfield in Shropshire are known to survive, they often date from the Second World War.

At Duxford the MGR is evident as a single wall which would have originally served two MGR’s one to the north and one to the south, both supported by Shelter Sheds on the northern and southern boundaries. Creation of a work yard on the northern side has seen the removal of earthworks and some associated structures and the construction of a modern corrugated shed against the northern side of the MGR wall. However, the shelter sheds on the northern side survive virtually intact, although modified slightly to create storage and workshops. To the south of the MGR wall some earthworks and the shelter sheds have been removed, probably when the Gibraltar Gun was installed in the late C20.

Reasons for Listing

The First World War Machine Gun Range and Shelter Sheds to the north, Duxford are listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as a rare example of a First World War Machine Gun Range with Shelter Sheds which survive within their original context;

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 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.

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