History comes to life at GCSE

Today, our GCSE History students enjoyed the opportunity of joining their History teacher and Director of Studies, Peter, and their Head of GCSE, Chris, in attending the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, just a small drive down the M11 from Cambridge. This educational visit had two purposes: to attend a workshop, the goal of which was creating and filming a short documentary, each student on their own, as well as exploring the museum, its exhibits and their respective historical contexts in light of the historic timeframes studied this year.

Planes In Hanger 1

The GCSE History specification looks at British history from 1066, as well as global history in the lead up to World War I and onwards. The students had been preparing for the visit for a number of weeks in their lessons, learning and discussing the developments that took place in Germany between 1890 and 1945, from Kaiser Wilhelm II via the Weimar Republic to the rise of Hitler. The visit to the museum is made even more relevant, as it also prepares the students for next term. In Spring Term, students will investigate and gain an insight into the Cold War, how it began and subsequently the ensuing conflict between East and West from 1945 to 1972.

The MPW group arrived at Duxford, excited and ready to start the documentary process with Chan on camera, Chris ready to direct and the budding presenters eager to get in front of the camera themselves. All were well and truly ready for action.

3 Boys 1All were warmly greeted by our instructor for the day, Michelle, IWM Duxford’s Education Officer, who briefed the group on the 45-minute documentary task in which they were assuming the roles of reporters for “Smash TV“. She told them they would receive a FaceTime briefing from Smash TV’s editor, commissioning them to produce the 3-minute mini documentary. The activity was a great way for the students to get ‘stuck in’, enjoy the subject and practise their presentation skills.

The three documentary makers chose very diverse subjects. The first one was the cutting-edge 1950’s technology that is the SR71 “Blackbird”, the most advanced spy plane in the world. This plane was also known as the transport vehicle of Marvel’s “X-men” Superheroes. The second topic was a human-centred story of the women protesters from Greenham Common and, finally, there was the very detailed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic account of an American prisoner of war of the Pacific Theatre. These three elements came together to form the short piece to camera documentary that will be viewable after post-production editing. This gave the students an insight into the demands of documentary filmmaking as well as bringing home the stark realities of war from the points of view of individuals and their roles during this time.

The group commented on the educational value of the visit, mostly that it brought what they had learnt on their GCSE History course to life. The exhibits matched perfectly with the curriculum they are studying this academic year. Sean said; “The most amazing thing with the paratroopers that I saw in the Land Warfare Hall was the incredible leap in technology, even from the year 2000 to today. Everything including the design of the helmets has improved. The weaponry has moved to carbines and full auto guns. I would like more time to look at the planes there was almost too much to take in on one visit. It gives a whole new perspective to history and makes it more personal - like going back in time.

Their History teacher Peter comments: “I was really impressed with the way the students rose to the challenge in producing the mini documentary in 45 minutes. They had to choose an exhibit that connected with them then come up with a short 1-minute script which put the exhibit in context, then plan how they are going to frame and shoot the piece using the iPhone camera they were provided with by Smash TV. They found this a challenge but one that they rose to and which brought them closer to the history they are passionate about in class. They demonstrated how much knowledge they have collectively accumulated over their course and how this has been enhanced by the visit.” The footage was then edited together by the Museum, the final piece being amazing to watch. The students were incredibly impressed by how much they had achieved in such a short period of focussed time during the workshop, with satisfied faces all round.

Chris, Head of GCSE, commented: “I was very proud of the way the students worked as a team on the documentary and how much background knowledge they showed throughout the visit. I am sure the experience will reinforce the new things they encountered today and fuel their passion for the subject.”

Chris 1

The group then spent the second part of the visit exploring the numerous hangers at Duxford. These ranged from The AirSpace hanger which celebrates British innovation and excellence in the history of flight via The Flying Aircraft Hanger which houses the historic air worthy exhibits, The Battle of Britain Hanger, The Air and Sea hanger, The Conservation in Action Hanger where historic aircraft are being restored before your eyes and the famous American Air Museum which houses key American military aircraft of the 20th century to The Land Warfare Hall which houses tanks, military land vehicles and weapons form all major global conflicts of the 20th century. Having spent time in the various hangars, Chan said, “I would love to do this type of trip again, as it would take many visits to see and appreciate everything”.

To understand why we chose Duxford as a venue, it may be interesting to know the rich history of Duxford, so close to Cambridge and the college. The aerodrome at Duxford was built during the First World War and was one of the earliest Royal Air Force stations. During 1917 the Royal Flying Corps expanded, and Duxford was one of many new airfields established to train RFC aircrew. After the war ended, unlike many similar airfields in a slimmed-down RAF, it was kept open: first as a training school and then, from 1924, a fighter station, a role it was to carry out with distinction for 37 years.

By 1938 the reputation of RAF Duxford’s No.19 Squadron was such that it became the first RAF squadron to re-equip with the new Supermarine Spitfire, and the first Spitfire was flown into RAF Duxford in August 1938.

In June 1940 Belgium, Holland and France fell to German forces and the conquest of Britain was Germany’s next objective. RAF Duxford was placed in a high state of readiness. 

The period of intense air fighting that followed has become known as the Battle of Britain, and the station went on to play a role in Britain’s air defence. On 15 September 1940, ‘Battle of Britain Day’, its squadrons twice took to the air to repulse Luftwaffe attacks aimed at London. Test and trial units then flew from the station, providing the RAF with vital insights into how its new aircraft would perform in combat, before it was handed over to the United States Army Air Forces.

In April 1943, RAF Duxford (soon to be officially designated ‘Station 357’ by the Americans) became home of the 78th Fighter Group, whose primary job was to escort the vast fleets of US Eighth Air Force bombers on their perilous and costly daylight raids against Germany. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the long-awaited beginning of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, every available 78th Fighter Group Thunderbolt supported the invasion by attacking targets behind the beachheads of Normandy.

Following the end of the Second World War, and once again an RAF station, Duxford entered its last operational phase. Now equipped with jet fighters such as the Gloster Meteor, Hawker Hunter and Gloster Javelin, its pilots stood ready to combat Soviet bombers should the Cold War turn ‘hot’.

However Duxford was nearing the end of its life in operation under the RAF as the defence needs which had called RAF Duxford into being as a fighter station no longer applied; it was too far south and too far inland, and the costly improvements required for supersonic fighters could not be justified. In July 1961 the last operational flight was made from RAF Duxford, and for some 15 years the future of the airfield remained in the balance.

IWM had been looking for a suitable site for the storage, restoration and eventual display of exhibits too large for its headquarters in London and obtained permission to use the airfield for this purpose. Cambridgeshire County Council joined with IWM and the Duxford Aviation Society, giving the near-abandoned aerodrome a new lease of life.

Today IWM Duxford is established as the European Centre of Aviation History. The historic site, outstanding collections of exhibits and regular, world-renowned Air Shows combine to create a unique museum where history really is in the air. 

The trip really added value to the students’ studies and brought a real-world understand of the ingenuity, bravery and human centred events that have shaped the present day. 

Field trips such as this one add value to the varied curriculum and create a real buzz before and after the event. All in all, it was a great trip with museum staff that made the group feel welcome and informed and one that the students, as well as Peter and Chris, thoroughly enjoyed. A visit that will inspire the one or other student to visit Duxford again, in their own time, to explore further the historic tales and treasures it holds in store.

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