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August 2017

Remembering those who never made it into battle

Fairey Battle enclosed Gary Eason _DSC7884

Colchester, 23 August 2017

Two stories in one this time related to my latest picture (above), Fairey Battle Mk I K9472, WT-N of 35 Squadron - and in fact two pictures.

The most obvious story involves the aircraft itself, depicted in flight near RAF Carew Cheriton in Pembrokeshire.

I have shown the crew in a happier moment, but K9472 was departing for some air firing practice on 29 October 1939 when the engine failed shortly after take-off.

The handwritten notes on the Air Ministry accident report card say the young pilot, Geoffrey Arthur Cyril Rhind, turned downwind towards the aerodrome, lost height and flew into a "cliff face".

"Should have landed straight ahead - not attempt to turn back on failing engine," it adds.

The Battle crashed and caught fire near to the tidal mill on the bank of Carew River, by Carew Castle.

All three on board were killed: Rhind, the pilot, plus his two crew: Bernard Connor and Ewart Wynne Looker. My picture was commissioned by Ewart Looker's brother, who has generously donated a print to the museum at Carew Cheriton Control Tower: look out for it if you are visiting.

The version of this picture that I made for him depicts the rear cockpit open and his brother manning the .303 Vickers K machine gun, which swivelled up into position from its stowed space in the fuselage.

OBSOLETE

It was interesting to research the aircraft. I had paid barely a passing glance to the restored one in the RAF Museum in London – which, I know now, had been recovered from a crash site in Iceland.

Fairey Aviation Company's design probably seemed like a good one when it was drawn up in the mid-1930s, with two little bomb bays in each wing, a .303 machine gun (just one) in the starboard wing and provision for a gunner with a similar size weapon at the back. The RAF ordered more than 2,400 of them, with I believe some 2,100 being delivered.

The heat and rapid pace of war however showed the Battle to be vulnerable: overloaded, underpowered and lacking defensive armament.

This has tended to make it a prime candidate for lists of "worst aircraft of WWII", but I think there is merit in the argument that its use as a light bomber in daylight and often unescorted doomed it to fail: no aircraft would have fared better.

During the Battle of France in 1940 Battles were deployed on low-level attacks against German troops and were shot to bits by ground fire and by Messerschmitt Bf 109s – much as the Germans' apparently successful blitzkreig dive bomber, the Ju-87 Stuka, was by the RAF's fighters when it crossed the English Channel.

So arguably it was not the aircraft that was wrong but the tactics.

UNRELIABLE

It is worth remembering that thousands of aircrew died during WWII not as a direct result of enemy action but in bad weather or in training or other non-operational flying like this.

The obvious perils of inexperience were compounded by the pressing need to get aircraft and aircrew into service as rapidly as possible, once the threat of war turned to actual conflict.

According to the RAF Museum, courses were shortened and capacity increased at flying training schools – except that equipment was in short supply, as were qualified flying instructors.

It was not until 1943 that the RAF really caught up with itself in terms of training enough aircrew.

Our pilot in this case had done his basic training in Perth then at No.10 Flying Training School at Ternhill, Shropshire, and had held his 'wings' for five months. The Air Ministry Form 1180 reporting the accident records that he had flown 204 hours solo, 37 on this type of aircraft.

Whatever its shortcomings as a fighting machine the Battle reportedly was straightforward to fly; a good training platform. This particular one, K9472, had been in service for nine months.

It also used the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, a Merlin II in this case. Merlin variants would become legendary in Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters and Mosquitos, but the early ones had reliability problems, as our three young men on the training flight found to their cost.

Had they not been killed that October and had gone on to operational squadrons in Bomber Command, losses there were so high they would have had about a one-in-two chance of surviving the war.

MARKINGS

When it came to making my picture, I had to plump for one of at least four possible camouflage schemes, if I understand it correctly.

Fairey Battle camo schemes
A scheme (left) and B scheme

The Battles carried what was known as the temperate land scheme of dark earth and dark green, so that much is certain. And this was drawn to a pattern – but the pattern had two versions, A and B, which mirrored each other (right).

In addition, each of those could have the colours swapped. So that's the basic four possibilities. But from the photos I have seen, there seemed also to be variants within those patterns.

In the absence of actual photographs of the specific aircraft it boiled down to artistic licence.

I spent a good while studying the various markings that were applied to Battles in terms of wing and fuselage roundels, fin flash (or at this time, the absence of one), serial number (K9472) in black, most probably duplicated on fuselage and rudder, and squadron code letters in grey – WT-N in this case, but following the practice of having the individual letter towards the front and the squadron pair of letters (WT) aft of the roundel, so N-WT in my port side composition.

Not only did policy on all of these evolve as the RAF approached and went into actual combat, practice varied from squadron to squadron and, on any given squadron, between aircraft depending on newness, state of repair and repainting and so on.

I have not seen a single photograph of any 35 Squadron aircraft of this type, so I just gave it my best shot. If anyone has any photos, by the way, I would be delighted to get sight of them.

Whatever else you might say about the Fairey Battle's performance I think it looked good from any angle and makes for a fine portrait of an early WWII RAF fighting machine.

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