Previous month:
July 2016
Next month:
September 2016

August 2016

Strong by night: battling Short Stirling LK386

Short-Stirling-LK386-battling-through-Gary-Eason-sm

Colchester, 3 August 2016

They were known in WW2 RAF parlance as "gardening" operations: using heavy bombers at low level to drop mines in the sea lanes of Germany and the occupied territories.

It would be a mistake to think they were a picnic, as you will gather from my picture.

This depicts a Short Stirling Mk III that was coned by searchlights and hit by flak while minelaying at Brest on the Brittany Coast on the night of 23/24 June 1944.

The aircraft is LK386, OJ-O of 149 Squadron whose motto was Fortis nocte ("Strong by night").

Four years earlier in his wartime RAF career the pilot, Pilot Officer Sidney Edward Lucas RAFVR, had flown Hurricane fighters in the Battle of Britain.

The Short Stirling, ungainly on the ground and relatively slow flying, was however remarkably manoeuvrable in the air. Usually this was a redundant, even undesirable quality in a heavy bomber but on this occasion – coupled no doubt with Lucas's previous experience – it probably helped them to escape. He dived the big airframe almost to sea level to shake off the Germans' attention, then headed back to England.

My picture was commissioned by the son of the flight engineer that night, who was Sgt Ronald Vivian French RAFVR. He and the bomb aimer had been wounded by shrapnel but the rest of the crew did not realise how badly Sgt French had been hurt until he collapsed when he tried to return to his instrument panel.

Shot down

After regaining the south coast of England they made for RAF Hartford Bridge (now Blackbushe aerodrome) in Hampshire. On touchdown at 0357 the hydraulic brake pressure was insufficient to prevent the Stirling from running off the end of the runway: the tall undercarriage collapsed and the wreckage caught fire.

Sgt French was too badly injured to make his escape with the other six. The Wireless Operator, Flt Sgt Donald Houssemayne Du Boulay of the Royal Australian Air Force, dragged him through the fuselage and passed him out through the rear door, and he survived.

Du Boulay was awarded the British Empire Medal (Military Division) for this action,  Sgt French the Distinguished Flying Medal and Pilot Officer Lucas the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In my research I could not be absolutely sure from the given co-ordinates which German gun batteries were involved so I had to use some artistic licence in the depiction. But this was a very heavily fortified coast.

There were two batteries just to the west on the Crozon peninsula to protect the approaches to the major naval base at Brest. As well as these, mobile searchlight and anti-aircraft units were deployed.

OJ-O was one of four 149 Squadron Stirlings that were sent on the operation. According to 149 Squadron historian Alan Fraser, it followed a bombing raid on the Brest harbour area, so the flak gunners had had plenty of time to "get their eye in". 

The Stirlings were led in by OJ-C, which had a clear run according to the wireless operator in OJ-B, which went in next, Sgt Ted Sweet. In his book, Enemy Below! (Square One Publications, 1991), he described their approach height of 3,000ft as "suicidal".

He wrote: "The sky suddenly lit up brilliantly with a score of searchlights, which could not fail to lock onto us accurately. All around us erupted into Flack bursts. Dull red flashes were followed by black smoke."

Sweet witnessed Stirling EF188, OJ-M, streaming flames and going down. According to French observers, it lit up the church steeple as it flew low over the village of Ploumoguer, west of Brest, before crashing into the first floor of a farmhouse nearby.

The bomber's fuel tanks erupted in a fireball. The seven crew were all killed as were three small children and a young farmhand. The farmer, Jean-Francois Bleas, was badly burned and died the next night. 

Footnotes:

While researching this work I came across a terrific, characterful portrait of Du Boulay by Wayne Dowsent. According to him the wireless operator survived the war but died of cancer aged just 35. 

The Mildenhall Register is the 15, 90, 149, 218 & 622 Bomber Squadrons’ Association website.

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.


The shooting down of Whisky Hotel 799

Suez-Canberra-PR7-Gary-Eason-sm

Colchester, 2 August 2016

When was the last time that an RAF aircraft was confirmed as being shot down by an enemy in an air-to-air engagement?  

It was during the Suez crisis in 1956.

I call it an engagement rather than aerial combat because the casualty was an unarmed photo reconnaissance 'plane: a 58 Squadron English Electric Canberra PR 7, WH799.

Two of the crew ejected safely; the third – the navigator, 26-year-old Flying Officer Roy Urquhart-Pullen – was killed.

The Canberra was crippled in its starboard engine by cannon fire from a Syrian Air Force Gloster Meteor F8. The British-built fighter was one of two small batches that had been sold to the Syrians by Britain in the early 1950s.

I was unaware of any of this until I was asked to make a picture to mark the 60th anniversary of the encounter this November.

Stripes

The Canberra was a superlative aircraft, conceived in the 1940s as a jet successor to the equally brilliant De Havilland Mosquito.

In continuous service with the RAF for more than half a century, Canberras were also licensed to Australia and to the United States of America (as the B-57) and subsequently used by almost a dozen other countries.

Through a succession of improvements the PR 7 had evolved from the B 6 bomber version.

Suez – an embarrassment in British history – is not a conflict that brings any cause for celebration, aside from the fact that the RAF pilots did their job efficiently and bravely as usual.

The photo reconnaissance Canberras were stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Like all the allied aircraft in the region they were given a hasty, D-Day type treatment of high contrast fuselage and wing bands, in this case yellow and black - although a shortage of the correct paint meant the ones in Cyprus wore more sandy coloured 'yellow' stripes.

Observer corps

The Syrians were not directly involved in the conflict but were very closely allied with Egypt – their pilots trained there – and British commanders were very keen to know what was happening in the Syrian airfields amid reports of Russian MiG fighters being delivered.

An earlier overflight on 6 November had been thwarted by cloud cover but it had also been intercepted by the Syrians. It had been fired on – unsuccessfully, at extreme range, but you might think it surprising that a repeat mission was ordered in another unarmed and unescorted Canberra.

Syria had limited air defence resources but had devised a basic system involving ground observers telephoning in aircraft sightings. Centrally-controlled fighters could then be scrambled to intercept the intruders. Sound familiar?

So it was that as WH799 did the rounds of target airfields – and because the Syrians were already alert it was caught, in the vicinity of Homs, in a break in the cloud cover that had cloaked its mission.

In a diving stern attack one of the Meteors set fire to the Canberra's right engine.

Ejected

The normal crew on the photo reconnaissance aircraft was two. In this case the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bernie Hunter, who was sitting in an ejector seat. His navigator-cum-photographer, Flying Officer Urquhart-Pullen, lay in the transparent blister in the aircraft's nose, but also had an ejector seat in a compartment behind the pilot.

On this occasion however there was a third man aboard: Flight Lieutenant Sam Small. The PR Canberras at Akrotiri had received a field modification that had installed a periscope in the nav station so its occupant could look backwards to watch for attackers. You can just make this out in my picture. Sam Small was in the nav seat to do this.

Realising the aircraft was doomed the pilot ordered Small to eject, which he did. Hunter said he did not know what became of Urquhart-Pullen – possibly he tried to bail out through the normal forward entrance hatch. His body was found with the wreckage, which came down just inside Syria, and now lies in the Anglo-American Cemetery in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Hunter and Small landed on their parachutes just on the Lebanese side of the border. They were taken to a Syrian border post but after a tense few days they were repatriated.

At midnight on the day they had been shot down, Britain declared a ceasefire.

Details

Making the picture presented a number of challenges, as always. Checking the details of the aircraft proved tricky and I had to make a number of educated guesses. 

For example, I went with the widely accepted version that a lack of yellow paint for the detachments on Cyprus resulted in a more sandy mix for the identification stripes. 

And on many of the Canberra bombers the stripes around the fuselage were centred on the RAF roundel. However on another of the PR aircraft at Akrotiri I know they were painted further back, so I went with that as being the more likely. 

The trickiest thing to depict was the metallic sheen of the aluminium paint scheme. I settled on a mix of brightness and dark areas, with a partial overlay of reflected sky blue and clouds, as looking most effective to my eye.

As so often, it's all about the light.

---------------------------

To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

I do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on on Instagram @flight.artworks.