Research Challenge

Each image on this website is a learning opportunity. By researching the people, aircraft and places they depict, and asking the right questions, students can make genuine discoveries, honing historical and critical skills as they do so.

The challenge

This challenge is based on the notion that, with a mixture of enthusiasm, determination and imagination, anyone can conduct research into the photographs on our website from their computer. Many of our records have limited information attached to them, but there will generally be enough to act as a springboard for discovery. 

The research process

The photograph in front of you is the end of a thread.

At this stage it isn’t clear whether following it will lead you to a neatly knitted sweater, or an orderly ball of wool, or a tangled mess – or if it will fray after only a couple of yards.

Consider the options:

A neatly-knitted sweater – it may be that your photograph turns out to be of something that is already well researched and known about. Perhaps someone has even published a book on the person or aircraft it depicts. In these cases, either you have a photograph which is already well-known and that there isn’t much more to say about it, other than to identify as such. Or perhaps it is a new picture of a well-worn subject, in which case you may derive considerable satisfaction from your discovery.


An orderly ball of wool – it may be that your photograph is not of something well-known, but that it fits neatly into other well-documented subjects and is therefore easy to interpret or categorise. For example, it might show activities on D-Day, in which case you can use the considerable amount of background material to knit your own sweater. This is often very satisfying because it means that, without too much hard work, you are able to associate your photograph with well-known events and weave it into the tapestry of history.


A tangled mess – this is the hardest, but probably most satisfying type. You think you have grasped an end but it turns out to be a middle, you encounter knots, you get frustrated… but then you pull at the right thread and suddenly it starts to unravel and your painstaking work checking and cross-checking sources pays off. You are looking at a photograph in a way that no-one else has; you are writing new history.

A frayed line – this happens, and there isn’t much you can do. However, be sure before abandoning hope. Lateral thought can sometime mean that you can pick up the thread a bit further down the line.

That’s enough wool for now.

How to do it

  • Start by asking students to browse the website and pick a photograph or a record which catches their imagination – this might be someone who shares their name, someone who was born in their town, or an image which just looks interesting.
  • Choose a line of enquiry based on their chosen photograph or record. Do they want to focus on the people in the picture, what they are doing, an aircraft, etc.?
  • Brainstorm possible questions to research. For example:
    • People - Who was this person? What are they doing and why? What happened to them and how did it affect their life?
    • Activities - What was the purpose of this job? Why was this job important? What skills did you need to do the job?
    • Aircraft - What type of aircraft is this? What was the purpose of this aircraft? Why has it been given a nickname? What happened to this aircraft?
    • Units - What was the function of this unit? Did they take part in any important missions or campaigns? Did anyone important or famous serve with this unit?
    • Missions - What was the point of this mission? Where were they flying to? What impact did it have?
    • Places - What happened here? How did this place change during the Second World War and Why? Does it still exist?
    • Life on Base - What was life like for an American airman? How was it different to life in the US? What sort of things could you do on an airbase?
  • Look for answers to your questions using the internet. Students can find out more about researching specific aspects of the air war with our research hints & tips.
  • Ask students to present their research to the rest of the class. Ask them to focus on explaining how they know what they know. What sources did they use? What dead ends and problems did they encounter and how did they overcome them?
  • Share the fruits of your class's research. Don't keep them to yourself! We want to know what you did. If you found out new information update the caption on a photo, edit a record, or even create a new one. Reference any websites used to find the information in the source message box. Your students are writing history.

Notes for teachers

Open-ended inquiry can be difficult to do in the classroom. This project is perhaps best run after teaching a unit on the Second World War to give students the context that they need, and it is best to conduct this challenge over several periods to give it the time it needs to be effective. The research could be completed as homework if necessary.

Part of the necessary groundwork for this kind of open-ended inquiry involves preparing students for failure. One of our teachers did this by using the thread metaphor. She brought in a series of boxes. Each one had a small hole cut into the lid with a piece of wool threaded through it. She asked the students to guess, without looking into the boxes, what might be on the other ends of the threads. Would they lead to a neatly knitted sweater, an orderly ball of wool, a tangled mess, a sheep even – or fray after only a couple of centimeters? She then asked the students to think of the photographs in front of them as the ends of a thread. Their research might yield impressive results or the trail might peter out. 

Some teachers have framed the research challenge as a plea for help from the museum (which it is!). Students responded well to the idea that they were doing ‘real history’, finding things which no-one had before, and that their work was contributing to the historical record. The website offers an alternative way of presenting findings, an alternative to write a formal essay which may appeal to some students. It also has the benefit that students' work can be used by others.

While it is not every photograph or record which will lead to a genuine discovery, getting students to reflect on their research journey has proved powerful – the dead ends that they hit, how they corroborated sources and judged between them when they did not (as is frequently the case) match. It also helped them to understand the value of lateral thought and of formulating theories and testing them.

We recommend that you sign up to the website using a class name so that you can retain oversight. The registration process is explained here.

What have students discovered?

Abby used this image to learn about Roy Loyless. She discovered that he always kept a spare pair of shoes in his aircraft. When he became a Prisoner of War, he refused to change his clothes because there were no showers!


Reece used this image of George Oelkers to learn about butterfly bombs, he discovered that they were also known as "Devil's Eggs" and that they were dropped in Groups of 6 from aircraft. Oelkers probably found more butterfly bombs nearby.