Royal Air Force centenary: Cold War ground engineer shares his Duxford memories
PUBLISHED: 18:01 24 May 2018
A former Duxford ground engineer has reflected on his experiences to commemorate the centenary of the Royal Air Force – ahead of a host of celebratory air displays organised by the Imperial War Museum, now based at the site.
Duxford played a huge role in the history of the RAF, from acting as one of the first training bases and being the home of the first Spitfire squadron to playing a key role in the Battle of Britain.
Part of that extensive history is the evolution of the jet age, with top of the range, post-war fighter aircrafts being based at Duxford until its closure in 1961.
As a ground engineer at Duxford from 1958, Stan Dell witnessed these magnificent machines first-hand.
He told the Crow: “The RAF up until that point had equipped all fighter squadrons with the first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor.
“When I arrived at Duxford they had already switched over to Javelins and Hunters a few months before.
“I was a young man who had seen both of these aircraft in air displays as a boy, and I was very impressed and excited by this modern array of aircraft.”
Born in the London borough of Islington, he arrived at Duxford at the age of 18 for his first air force posting – which he described as a “revelation”.
Working on the Hawker Hunter’s of 65 squadron, his role was to get the fighters fully operational, fully armed and ready for combat if required.
Stan admitted that, as a young man, he felt a weight of expectation.
He said: “There were about 400 people based at Duxford and whatever there role was or reason for being there, it was ultimately to get the aircraft in the air.
“It was an integrated jigsaw and something we were completely involved in.
“Also, all my station commanders were decorated wartime fighter pilots and, because of this, we were all very conscious of being in an air force still run by heroes.”
Although Stan was based at Duxford during peace time, the threat of the former Soviet Union and the Cold War loomed large during his stay in Cambridgeshire.
If conflict began, the Royal Air Force was expected to be ready to fight. As part of this, the station operated different excercises throughout the year.
Stan recalled these in vivid detail, saying: “Sometimes we were on stand-by, with two fully-armed aircraft at the end of the runway, with pilots sat in them ready to scramble.
“They often did get scrambled, as they do today, but it was mostly as it is today, with an aircraft drifting into air space. But, you never knew when they were going up there to fight.
“We also had these huge exercises where European aircraft came in and attacked us and we had to defend ourselves. We had to get every single aircraft we could on the runway and ready to go.
“It was a tense time and it gave an edge to your work.”
Now 80, the former ground engineer can still remember the living conditions well.
“We slept 18 to 20 in a very large room with no privacy,” he said.
“The bed was an iron frame with a metal mesh. The mattress was like a biscuit, it definitely wasn’t from Dreams.
“We had three meals a day in a communal dining room. The food was good but basic – a typical meal would be chips and corned beef or chips and spam.
“We had lots of tinned food, loads of toast with butter and a big urn of tea which was always of variable temperature.
“Life was crude but comfortable – I was never hungry, I slept well and I was happy.”
Stan was also full of praise for the RAF, saying: “It prepared me for success in life that I would never have achieved without.
“I had the authority, depth of knowledge and the work ethic. The discipline you learn is essential in any aspect of life.”
IWM Duxford has partnered with RAF 100 for this year’s Battle of Britain Air Show on September 22 and 23. Before that the site hosts the Duxford Air Festival on May 26 and 27 and the Flying Legends Air Show on July 14 and 15.
Visit www.iwm.org.uk/duxford for more information about the shows.