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July 2017

WW2 aircrew: heroism at such a young age

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Colchester, 27 July 2017

Listening to and reading about events in the air in World War 2, I never cease to be amazed by the youth of most of those involved. There is an example in one of my latest commissions, Lancaster KB799 Under Fire (above).

Usually, when people ask me to make a picture for them, we discuss some ideas and I start with a rough 'sketch' of a proposed composition.

In this case however, the sketch was provided by the client – because it had been made by the man whose aircraft I was being asked to depict, 419 Squadron's VR-W – known as "The Moose".

That's a spoiler, then: you now know that bomb aimer Norman V. "Norm" Hoas obviously survived his wartime service as a Flying Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron and the loss of his Lancaster in January 1945, after which he was interned as a prisoner of war in Stalag XIII-B and in Stalag VII-A, Germany's largest prisoner-of-war camp, ironically near the town of Moosburg in southern Bavaria.

Here's his sketch, entitled Final Run (used with kind permission of the family):

Final Run by Norm Hoas courtesy of his familyHe also made a handwritten book about the events with maps and photographs – including scowling "mugshots" of himself taken by his German captors, on which he wrote: "My 'record' filched from the files at Moosburg" after the camp was liberated when a US tank drove through the gates. 

The Moose, an Avro Lancaster B.X, was the one-hundredth airframe of a batch of 300 built by Victory Aircraft at their plant in Malton, Ontario, and as a result became a bit of a media star as it was rolled out of the factory doors, with its Merlin 38 engines and paddle-bladed airscrews.

It was flown across the Atlantic, entering 419 Squadron's use in 1944 at RAF Middleton St George in the North East of England – now Durham Tees Valley Airport.

The Lancaster was formally named by Marguerite Ross, wife of Air Commodore Arthur Dwight Ross. It had distinctive nose art of a moose's head on either side of the fuselage below the cockpit. 

DETAILS

Norm had drawn it with a long pitot static mount, the only thing in his sketch I had good reason to doubt because a photograph of the aircraft showed it with the more compact, later style.

Usefully, from my point of view – because it was not in the photo – he also depicted the Standard Beam Approach aerial on the rear port fuselage. If you are not familiar with this, it was a development of the pre-war German Lorenz system, designed to guide aircraft safely to a runway in the dark and/or in poor weather.

Norm had the late-war, more bulbous nose blister to look through while lining up his bombsight. It had Z-gear fitted (the "spectacles" in the perspex, part of the IFF system).

There was an FN-50 mid-upper gun turret and not the Martin turret you might expect on a B.X Lancaster; and an FN20 rear turret with its four .303 Browning machine guns.

CONCENTRATED FLAK

Norm was part of a crew skippered by Norman Roger Vatne from Vancouver, British Columbia (who had been born in Minnesota USA). With their training completed at No. 22 Operational Training Unit and No. 1664 Conversion Unit, the crew were posted to 419, arriving in North Yorkshire in mid-1944. 

Let's jump forward to the operation I was concerned with. At 6.47pm on the evening of 14 January 1945 they set off, with 12 other aircraft from their squadron, to bomb the German synthetic oil factories at Merseberg, 60 miles south-east of Berlin, near Leipzig.

Over the target they were hit by concentrated anti-aircraft "flak". One burst punctured the starboard wing fuel tanks and fuel lines and started a fire.

Flying Officer Vatne put his aircraft into a series of dives to try to extinguish the spreading flames, and headed for the relative safety of Allied lines to the west. This is the point I have depicted.

DITCHING HATCH

The effort proved futile, however, and Vatne ordered his crew to bail out. At this point, the Lancaster was still at about 12,000ft (3,660m).

As he worked to hold the burning bomber steady the pilot had jettisoned the top hatch, above his head, ready to go himself.

As an aside, RAF training held that the Lancaster's three top hatches – of which this was the most forward – were intended to be used only if the aircraft were "ditched" into water. They explicitly were not supposed to be used as parachute exits.

For one thing they were too small. The considerable difficulty of trying to get out of them while wearing a parachute pack is illustrated in another picture of mine, showing Wireless Operator Bill Viollet's struggle to escape Lancaster LL743 after the attack on Mailly-le-Camp.

KB799's crew, descending under their parachutes, saw their Lancaster blow up in mid-air.

They discovered a couple of weeks later, after becoming prisoners of war, that their skipper had still been in it. 

KB799 was one of two Lancasters from this unit that failed to return from this operation. Noting its loss, 419 Squadron's operations record book says, "This was F/O Vatne's 31st sortie and would normally have been the last trip of his tour." He was 21. 

You might raise an eyebrow at that, because a normal tour for British and Commonwealth bomber crews was 30 'ops'. 

Norm Hoas, in his recollections, wrote: "Incidentally, we had completed our 'tour of operations' (30 trips). The 31st was only because there was a shortage of experienced crews." 

Compiled with information provided by the Hoas family. Further reading can be found on the 419 Squadron website.

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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 Instagram @flight.artworks.


The search for the Lancaster bagpipes kangaroo artist

PA474 photo and W5005 artwork
Left: PA474 this week (Photo: Clive Rowley). Right: detail from my depiction of W5005 in September 1943.

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.

BOMB TALLY

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.

CLINCHER 

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. 

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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.  Vic Watts painting kangaroo courtesy Robyn Jackson 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.

TARTAN

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.

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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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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 Instagram @flight.artworks.