Archive photos reveal the human story of Duxford during the Battle of Britain

By Richard Moss | 31 August 2010
a black and white photo of a dashing young pilot officer standing next to his fighter plane
Squadron Leader Brian Lane led No 19 Squadron at Duxford when the Battle of Britain reached its climax in September 1940© Imperial War Museum
Exhibition: Duxford in the Battle of Britain at Imperial War Museum Duxford until December 31 2010

Squadron Leader Brian Lane leans against his Spitfire. His chiselled face looks into the distance and he exudes the poise and confidence we have come to expect of our Battle of Britain heroes.

Fast forward just a few weeks and the exhausted face of Lane stares into the heart of the camera. His hair is askew and the face reveals the effects of tiredness, the stresses of battle and the pressures of leading the frontline 309 Squadron during the Battle of Britain.

If anything could bring home the myths and the realities of the Battle these two photographs, snapped by photojournalist Stanley Devon at the height of the combat in September 1940, are it.

They form part of an absorbing exhibition marking the Battle’s 70th anniversary at Imperial War Museum Duxford.

A photo of three pilots, the centre pilot stares at the camera with tired eyes
Squadron Leader Brian Lane shows the visible effects of leading a Squadron at the height of the Battle of Britain © Imperial War Museum
The modest display – and visitors arriving for the coming weekend’s Battle of Britain air show at the historic airfield might be forgiven for missing it – is tucked away in a corner of Airspace, the Museum’s cavernous hangar which houses everything from a Lancaster Bomber to Concorde.

But those taking a few minutes to seek out these historic images will be richly rewarded. Aside from the photographs taken by Stanley Devon – dispatched to Duxford to “record activities on a typical fighter station” – the candid collection includes Imperial War Museum archive images of officers eating in the mess, scramble scenes and early colour pictures of airborne fighters.

There are some familiar faces too – the resolute figure of Douglas Bader can be seen with his hands thrust into his trouser pockets, pipe clenched between his teeth.

a photograph of a man in flying gear sat on the wing of an aeroplane with an alsation dog
Grumpy Unwin (and pet dog) on the wing of his Spitfire © Imperial War Museum
Another character, Grumpy Unwin, was the wing man for Bader. He got his nick-name after complaining at the noise Bader was making while filing a new set of tin legs in the middle of the night.

Pictured on the wing of his Spitfire with his dog Flash, Unwin was the son of a Yorkshire farmer who defied the popular image of the RAF "toff" to become one of the most successful pilots of the Battle and a Wing Commander.

Together these images capture the characters of a unique moment in time during the summer of 1940. But it is the photos of Lane, who was to die in 1941, that provide the crucial insight into the stresses of battle. An "ace" with six enemy kills he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in combat. The price of those kills is stamped clearly across his face.

Keep up to speed with the latest news about the Battle of Britain 70th anniversary at www.culture24.org.uk/battle-of-britain
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