KNOWN FOR ITS UNIVERSITY AND SOARING GOTHIC MASTERPIECES, Cambridge, England, has much to offer visitors seeking antiquity and spectacle. Established in 1209, the campus occupies the center of town, where a maze of narrow streets winds its way through centuries of history. Humble in comparison to King’s College Chapel—a Gothic tour de force built in phases from 1446 to 1515—is Saint Bene’t’s Church, whose simple rectangular Anglo-Saxon tower dates back to the eleventh century. In its shadow is The Eagle, a pub originally opened in 1667. Its mismatched chairs, burnished wood, aged brass, and worn ale pull-handles radiate an appealing warmth. I navigate to a small back room to begin my exploration of more recent history: American servicemen and women who passed through Cambridgeshire during World War II.
At the height of the war, the local countryside contained, on average, an airfield every eight miles. The Eagle’s back room, known as the RAF Bar, is a tribute to the World War II British and American airmen who, looking for fun, mischief, alcohol—or a combination of all three—migrated in from surrounding airfields.
Memorabilia crowd the pub’s walls: service caps, flying goggles, photographs, and dozens of squadron insignia. The most unique artifact, however, is the mottled amber ceiling, completely covered with graffiti. It is believed a British airman, Flight Sergeant P. E. Turner, was the first to ascend a table and burn his squadron’s number into the plaster. He soon was followed by scores more airmen who, using lighters, candles, and, in one case, a girlfriend’s lipstick, immortalized their squadron, plane, or initials onto the ceiling.
Grabbing a pint, I crane my neck and box the room. At capacity, the dimly lit pub is noisy and, though you are likely to be surrounded by debating academics, it is easy to imagine the room filled with clouds of cigarette smoke and boisterous airmen. With the help of research displayed on a nearby wall—gathered by local World War II Royal Air Force veteran James Chainey, who, in the early nineties, identified references to more than 60 RAF squadrons and 37 units of the U.S. Army Air Forces—I discover a few of the stories encoded in soot.
A prominent mark near the bar reading “THE WILD HARE” was most likely burned into the ceiling by the Zippo of an American airman stationed at Bassingbourn. A B-17G, The Wild Hare, went down over Altenbeken, Germany, in November 1944, killing six of the crew. The surviving crewmen spent the rest of the war as POWs.
In the corner is “PRESSURE BOYS,” no doubt emblazed by a member of the 448th Bombardment Group, which had gained a reputation for accurate high-altitude bombing while fighting both the Luftwaffe and sub-zero temperatures in arduous flying conditions.
Leaving the pub, I make the eight-minute walk to Drummer Street where, during the war, canvas-covered “Liberty” cargo trucks from nearby Duxford airfield picked up American airmen before curfew. I follow their route south.
Constructed in 1917, Duxford became an RAF fighter base in 1925. During the Battle of Britain, several Duxford-based Hawker Hurricane fighter squadrons were often routed to support the combat taking place further south. In March 1943, with the arrival of the U.S. 78th Fighter Group, RAF colors gave way to an American flag.
The sight of P-47 Thunderbolts, painted with the unit’s distinct black-and-white checkerboard nose design, became common as the 78th’s three squadrons soared out of Duxford to conduct bomber escorts, fighter sweeps, and ground-attack missions. In late 1944, P-51s replaced the P-47s; the pilots protested the unwanted change by posing for photos while being dragged away from their beloved “Jugs.” In December 1945, the airfield was returned to the RAF. And on August 1, 1961, the last military aircraft took off from Duxford.
Now a branch of the Imperial War Museum, Duxford is Britain’s largest aviation museum. I walk down the flight line to the original control tower. Little has changed since the 1940s when crash vehicles were parked at its base, ready with medics and firefighting equipment. In July 1944, a B-17 buzzed the squat tower; the pilot failed to pull up in time and most of its port wing was sheared off, sending the Fortress into the ground, killing all 14 onboard, including extra crew and one man on the ground.
Three of the airfield’s original four immense hangars are still present. The 78th assigned three hangars to its squadrons and turned the fourth into a grand theater where Bob Hope, Frances Langford, and Bing Crosby performed during USO tours. Despite a Luftwaffe attack in 1940, all four hangars survived—until 1968, when United Artists blew one up while filming a bombing sequence for The Battle of Britain. The remaining hangars now house the museum’s extensive aircraft collection.
In so sprawling a complex it is easy to feel you are overlooking something. I ask a docent, “Is there anything I missed?” He escorts me to a small building. “The course of the war changed in there,” he says.
It was here British test pilot Ronald Harker convinced the Air Ministry to install a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine into a P-51 Mustang. In 1941, the RAF had received several Mustangs, but its Allison engine underperformed above 15,000 feet, limiting the plane’s utility to ground attacks and tactical reconnaissance. The Merlin’s superior horsepower and two-speed supercharger raised the Mustang’s service ceiling to 42,000 feet. The U.S. Assistant Air Attaché in London, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hitchcock Jr., championed Harker’s conversions. Soon, American production lines were placing Merlins into the Mustang, giving the USAAF the fighter escort it desperately needed to mitigate the unsustainable losses of daylight bomber crews.
Just past the hangars, a conspicuously modern building houses the museum’s collection of 19 American-flown aircraft, ranging from a World War I SPAD XIII biplane to the more modern A-10 Thunderbolt II. Aviation enthusiasts will enjoy the breadth of U.S. military aviation history on display, including a B-17, B-24, B-25, and a C-47 that dropped troops in all three of the ETO’s airborne operations: Overlord, Market Garden, and Varsity.
Ten miles north of the museum is a tribute of a different type: the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. Dating back to 1943, the burial grounds would become the final resting place for many Americans who died in the Battle of the Atlantic, the air campaigns over northwest Europe, in accidents, or in the invasion of France.
I stand by the large flagpole, where the ground slopes down toward the English countryside, making all 3,812 headstones visible. The grounds are immaculate, and each white marble cross or Star of David headstone gleams in the afternoon sun.
Fifty feet away, near the cemetery’s southern edge, is a reflecting pool. It runs parallel to a 400-foot wall engraved with 5,127 names of missing servicemen and women. Among the names are most of the sailors of the USS Reuben James, the first American warship sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic; John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., who died in August 1944 when his bomber exploded; and musician Alton Miller—better known as Glenn Miller—whose plane disappeared over the Channel that December.
I step down to explore the headstones. At ground level they surround me and the sadness of the place presses in. Here is 25-year-old Captain Wilbur P. Wofford, a Texan who, along with most of his platoon, was killed in a glider crash during training. Not far from him lies Sergeant George B. Tullidge, an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper who was wounded yet refused to leave his machine-gun position on a road outside Sainte-Mère-Église. He
died at age 20. There’s Emily Harper Rae, a 32-year-old Red Cross volunteer killed in
a B-17 crash just 19 days before the end of the war. And here lies Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock, the man instrumental to the P-51’s success. The decorated World War I pilot died in 1944 during a test flight gone wrong.
There are thousands of other stories to be discovered—a humbling reminder that there are no clichés when it comes to the cost of freedom. In this small corner of the English countryside, I’m thankful for the opportunity to pay my respects to those who gave up their lives to stop the Third Reich. ✯
Fifty miles north of London, Cambridge is an easy 90-minute drive by car or an hour by train. Visiting during the summer has the dual advantage of school being out and reliable weather. Narrow streets provide limited parking, so be patient. Admission to the Duxford Museum is $20. If possible, visit one of its amazing airshows (iwm.org.uk/events/iwm-duxford/airshows).
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Lodging choices in Cambridge range from boutique hot spots such as the Hotel du Vin (hotelduvin.com) to the economical Gonville Hotel (gonvillehotel.co.uk), with free parking and wi-fi. Charming B&Bs are also available. For dining, The Eagle offers traditional English fare, including steak-and-ale pie and fish and chips (eagle-cambridge.co.uk). For lighter cuisine, seek out The Three Horseshoes, a converted thatched-roof inn with outdoor seating, minutes from the American Cemetery, in Madingley (threehorseshoesmadingley.co.uk).
WHAT ELSE TO SEE
In addition to aircraft, Imperial War Museum Duxford has many hidden gems that can easily take more than a day to explore. Behind the main hangars is the 1940 Operations Room, where RAF fighters were scrambled during the Battle of Britain. In the back of the AirSpace building is the Airborne Assault Museum, honoring British parachute units from World War II to the present. Check out the memorial behind the American wing; “Counting the Cost” is a series of 52 glass panels etched with the silhouette of every American aircraft that took off from England and never returned—all 7,062 of them.
This column was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.