Colchester, 30 June 2017
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's much-loved Avro Lancaster, PA474, is back in the air after its long layoff for major maintenance and a repaint – which features a new livery and some striking nose art.
My involvement in this story began last autumn with an invitation to create one of my Flight Artworks featuring the new paint scheme.
The BBMF needed publicity materials featuring pictures of their new-look aircraft, before the aircraft themselves had been repainted. This year two of their Spitfires were also getting a makeover – but those are separate stories.
In the Lancaster's case, the Flight's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Andy "Milli" Millikin, had decided the aircraft would have not one but two new identities.
Its port side would represent 460 (RAAF) Squadron Lancaster W5005 when it was coded AR-L and named "Leader". On starboard it would be VN-T of 50 Squadron, which Milli's grandfather, F/O Douglas Millikin, flew on most of his first tour of operations in WWII.
My brief however was to depict W5005 in 1943 – which had nose art of a red kangaroo in Wellington boots playing some bagpipes, supposedly indicating the origins of one of its crews: Australian, Welsh and Scottish.
I subsequently learnt that the 460 Squadron Veterans and Friends Group had been sounded out on possible aircraft as long ago as January 2016. They were delighted that their squadron was going to be honoured in this way.
Over the winter I found myself in an ad hoc project team that included the BBMF's indefatigable historian and publications editor, Sqdn Ldr Clive Rowley MBE (ret'd); the equally tireless Richard Munro of the 460 Veterans and Friends; and Flt Sgt Daryll Fell of the newly reformed 460 Squadron, now a Royal Australian Air Force intelligence unit.
Clive had determined already through his researches that the Lancaster described in various sources as being the one that had carried this nose art, JB607, could not have done so. The tally of bombs painted alongside the kangaroo in various surviving photographs showed its aircraft had completed at least 30 operations – and JB607 had been shot down after only nine.
The 30 ops did match W5005's record – sort of. Painstaking reading through 460 Squadron's operational records books had thrown up a problem, however, until Clive realised how the three rows of yellow bomb symbols must have been painted: middle row first, then the third row (with ice cream cones signifying trips to Italy), then the partially completed top row, with red bombs denoting attacks on Berlin.
One thing I was keen to know from the outset was who had painted the original nose art, which is of a good quality as these things go. As it turned out, this would prove to be a key piece of the jigsaw in identifying which crew had been flying W5005 when the kangaroo was painted – and, therefore, had probably 'commissioned' it.
Zooming in on a picture in the Australian War Memorial (AWM) archive suggested that, unusually, the work had been initialled: it looked to me like "F.W." but it was not clear on the low-resolution version available at the time. Rummaging around in aircrew and groundcrew records was not turning up any name that would definitely fit that.
Richard Munro had mentioned a newsletter article he had written in June 2009 about a 460 Squadron veteran who had made nose art and painted the bomb symbols recording aircraft operations. This was Fl Lt Thomas Victor ("Vic") Watts DFC & Bar. Richard contacted his daughter on the off-chance that he might have left a portfolio of some sort.
We agreed the initials might perhaps be "T.W." (Thomas Watts). Searching for that name in the AWM image collection I found a photo of Watts himself at work on another Lancaster.
Then the penny dropped. What if those indistinct initials were "V.W." ("Vic" Watts)? This picture on the left, which was not signed, showed Watts at work, according to the caption in the AWM archive. I reckoned the same artist might well have painted the nose art on the right – which was signed.
The clincher came from Vic Watts's daughter, Robyn Jackson. Based on my idea that the same artist had painted several aircraft, Richard contacted her and she sent him a scan of a photo – previously unpublished – of her father working on the kangaroo nose art. Richard thought it showed Watts doing a touchup job on the artwork, which might have been made earlier by someone else.
I immediately realised this was Watts actually making the original painting. The reason I was so certain was that it was unfinished: the final version has musical notes floating up from the bagpipes - and they were not yet there in this photo. On a closer look, the bag on the pipes also lacked detail at this stage.
All we had to do was count the bomb symbols alongside the picture and we would have a date. Unfortunately, real life is rarely that neat. As you can see, Vic Watts's arm gets in the way, as does one of the propeller blades of the aircraft's Number 2 engine.
Nevertheless the picture was 'gold dust', and Richard made a six-hour round trip to her farm to collect the original, in order to make a high-resolution scan.
It was apparent that it showed certainly 12 operations, and because they were in rows of 12 there might be (out of sight) as many as 18. Either way that placed the likely commissioning crew as that of a Scotsman, Sergeant J D Ogilvie – unusually, a British pilot on an Australian squadron.
Ogilvie's regular crew included three more Brits: wireless operator Sgt P W Moore, mid-upper gunner Sgt S F Hare, flight engineer Sgt John (Jack) "Mad Mac" Mckenzie, who came from Wales but had a Scottish father and a Welsh mother. The other three crew members were all Australians: navigator Sgt R J Garrett, bomb aimer F/O H G D Dedman and rear gunner Sgt J E Atherton.
Incidentally, although Vic Watts sang well and played several instruments, it seems he did not know much about the bagpipes. The Scots version he was presumably depicting usually has five pipes: the one you blow into, the "chanter" that you play the tune on, and three drones, as they are called, which sound constant notes – one much longer than the other two. His kangaroo has four drones the same length. Artistic licence.
There remained one glaring issue that our photographs could not help with: what colours he had used. An educated guess could be made on the kangaroo, given the orangey red hues of the real animal and the sort of paints Watts would have had available.
Wellington boots in those days were any colour you wanted, as long as it was black. I have never been convinced from interpreting the greyscale of the original photos that he had painted them black, but in the absence of any evidence, I went with the obvious solution.
But then, crikey, the tartan on the bagpipes' bag cover. I ended up with some educated guesses based on various Ogilvie tartans, and experimented with converting these to greyscale images to see which most closely matched the originals – although anyone who has researched wartime images knows that interpreting colours is made tricky by variations in film, lens filters, processing techniques and developer filters.
I gave it my best shot. As PA474 was unveiled in the restoration hangar at Duxford, I was pleased to see that the 'official' version looked remarkably similar. Job done.
The wider search for information about the aircraft and its crews threw up errors in various official records and – to my surprise – logbooks in which the aircrew had written down incorrect serial numbers for aircraft they had been in, sometimes more than once.
We also discovered why W5005's pilot at the date depicted in the bomb tally on PA474 (September 1943), 21-year-old William Edward Maxwell Bateman, was known by all as Jerry – and with that something of the troubled history of the pearl fishing industry in his home town, Broome in Western Australia.
It had been a fascinating exercise that reminded us yet again of the enormous sacrifices made by these young men.
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