Aviation

Flight Artworks RAF Memorial Flight depictions unveiled

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Colchester, 26 April 2017

Three recent commissions of mine have now been published in full colour in the RAF Memorial Flight Official Club Yearbook: a terrific read, by the way, and well worth getting hold of even if you are not a member of the club. 

They are all available as prints in various formats, sizes and prices through the Flight Artworks website and authorised print partners. 

As you can see above I put together a loose 'finger four' of Desert Air Force Spitfire Mk IX fighters from 92 Squadron over Tunisia, which forms the top of a double-page spread. In the foreground is EN152 QJ-3 - the scheme that the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's MK356 is going to represent (even though it is a different mark). I wrote previously about the research that went into the colour scheme for that. 

NOSE ART

Another is my dive bombing scene featuring low-back, clipped-wing Supermarine Spitfire XVI TD240 when it was the aircraft of the Officer Commanding No 131 (Polish) Wing, Gp Capt Aleksander Gabszewicz in 1945. It carried his colourful boxing dog nose art. This is the scheme that the BBMF's XVI, TE311, is being repainted to represent. 

Kangaroo nose art Gary Eason after Vic WattsThere is more colourful nose art for BBMF Lancaster PA474 as it morphs into W5005, AR-L for Leader of 460 Squadron RAAF at the end of September 1943. 

This showed a kangaroo in Wellington boots playing bagpipes - a reflection of the tri-national Australian, Scottish and Welsh crew who commissioned it from squadron artist Vic Watts.

The story of how we pinned down the details of who created the original nose art, and when, and what the colours might have been (only black and white photos exist) bears telling separately in full. Look out for a future blog on the subject. 

PA474 is being repainted to depict W5005 on its port side although, following convention, it will retain its own serial number I understand. On starboard PA474 will be the 50 Squadron Lancaster LL922 / VN-T. I have now also depicted that reincarnation. 

COVER PICTURES

The latest piece out of the Flight Artworks studio is an air-to-air visualisation of the only extant Supermarine Swift F4, WK275. Its restored (but not airworthy) airframe currently resides alongside Avro Vulcan XH558, sadly no longer flying either. 

Swifts were not the most successful aircraft ever deployed by the RAF and not many were made but they had a certain style, I think you'll agree. A very different version of the picture will be appearing as a book cover later this year. 

Talking of covers, if you wondered who created the Sea Harrier artwork for the cover of the May issue of The Armourer magazine about the Falklands War - that would be me

[A version of this article, with a special discount offer, appeared in a newsletter to registered users of the Flight Artworks 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.


Westland Lysander on clandestine operation

Westland Lysander secret ops Gary Eason

Colchester 18 April 2017

On a moonlit night in July 1944, an RAF Westland Lysander IIIA comes in low over a field of lavender in the South of France, to land on the makeshift grass airstrip beyond.

On board are three passengers, who disembark down the Lysander’s fixed ladder, while three others get in for the trip back out to its forward operating base in the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

This was the second attempt at the secret operation codenamed Tamise. The first run, two nights previously, had had to be abandoned because of heavy cloud and electric storms - as well as flak and a night fighter to evade, according to the book We Landed by Moonlight (Secret Landings in France 1940-1944) by another Lysander pilot, Group Captain Hugh Verity.

There should have been two Lysanders but the other was unable to locate the landing zone, which was codenamed “Spitfire”. It went back successfully two nights later to finish the job.

Their contact on the ground was the Service d'Atterrissages and Parachutages (SAP) officer “Archiduc” - real name Camille Rayon. Among the agents brought out on the first trip was Neil Marten, later the MP for Banbury, who worked with the Resistance in France and in Norway during the war.

SEARCH FOR INFORMATION

His pilot, the subject of my depiction (right), was Flying Officer Henri “Frankie” Franklin of 148 (Special Duties) Squadron - but he knew nothing about the individuals in the back of his aircraft. Following standard protocol they were all - men and women - just “Joes” to the RAF aircrew who transported them.

Frankie Franklin detail Gary EasonThe squadron, comprising mostly Handley Page Halifax aircraft, was at this time in WWII based in Brindisi in Italy, reaching out to partisan fighters in Northern Italy, Yugoslavia and Poland. But the Lysanders of ‘C’ flight were detached to Corsica.

My picture was commissioned by one of F/O Franklin’s nieces. My researches into the details of the aircraft - such as whether it carried the squadron's identification letters, FS - led me via the Operation: Dark of the Moon website about 148 Squadron, and its associated forum, where Bill Pogson kindly passed on my request for information and I was contacted by the author Oliver Clutton-Brock. By chance he has just completed a history of 148 Squadron, which is due to be published shortly.

He had been in touch with Franklin’s daughters and had a copy of the pilot’s logbook.

"Nothing interesting, I’m afraid, Gary. Just that he took in 3 Joes and brought 3 out in Lysander IIIA '9498'. The Tamise trip, at night, took 4 hrs 35 mins," he reported.

"As to whether or not the Lysanders carried FS on their fuselage or not I can’t say for certain one way or the other, but the evidence would suggest that they didn’t."

One of Franklin's daughters very kindly provided me with photographs she had taken - one of which forms part of the background in my picture - and a map compiled by Air-Britain historian Serge Blandin, which had helped her to pinpoint the site on a recent visit.

LAVENDER FIELD

This is remote countryside. Even to this day the roads in the immediate vicinity are just dirt tracks. The grass landing field, now marked by a small information board, was approached over a field of lavender.

The board commemorates an action a month later on the same field when a much bigger, twin-engined RAF Dakota aircraft from 267 Squadron dropped key French personnel ahead of the Allied landings on the south coast.

It tried to bring out 31 passengers, including US airmen who had been evading the Germans and Vichy French forces after being shot down. But its undercarriage became entangled in the lavender strip that you see in my picture, which had been planted across the middle of the grass to disguise its use as a runway. Eight of the passengers had to be ordered out by “Archiduc” before the Dakota could manage the take-off from the shortened field.

The Dakota and its crew went back the following night as they had promised. But if you need an indication of just how dangerous these operations were, no-one was there to meet them and the isolated farm adjacent to the field - Le Castellet - had been burnt down, its occupants shot by the Germans.

This Dakota operation formed the basis of a fictionalised account by English author Deborah Lawrenson: it forms the starting point for The Lavender Field, the mid-section of her triptych novel The Sea Garden.

Ms Lawrenson, who lives in the south of France, also kindly passed on to me what she knew about the scene.

TOUGH JOB

The quirky-looking but rugged Lysander, with its automatic wing slats, variable incidence tailplane and solid undercarriage, and a fixed ladder on the port side for rapid access by passengers, was perfect for these clandestine operations on short, makeshift strips in occupied territory.

It had been designed in the 1930s to be an army co-operation aircraft, providing photographic reconnaissance and eyes in the sky for artillery units. It proved too slow for that, but splendidly capable for these secret ops - and for its other main niche role, air-sea rescue.

The pilots who undertook the missions behind enemy lines performed brilliant feats of navigation, alone and at night with only the most basic equipment.

Grp Capt Verity, speaking to the RAF Historical Society in the late 1980s, described how the planning process involved picking good landmarks along the way.

Pilots would then cut up 1:500,000-scale maps to cover 50 miles on each side of the  planned track and fold them like a concertina, with a larger scale section for the target area.

They memorised the key features and compass bearings. They then flew the planned headings and speeds very accurately until any error in the forecast wind showed up as they drifted off course - after which some mental geometry was used to adjust accordingly.

The final, short leg was a timed run to where the target should be "when, lo and behold, you would see the agreed Morse letter flashing up from the dark ground - and that was really quite a thrill".

Remarkable.

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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.


Desert camouflage Spitfire EN152

Spitfire EN152 over Gulf of Tunis Gary Eason

Colchester, 30 January 2017

Maybe it is the relative unfamiliarity but I think there is something undeniably cool about the desert camouflage the RAF and Allies used in their combat operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean during WWII. 

Dark earth and mid stone paintwork, scuffed by the sand and faded by the heat and dust, blends perfectly with the landscapes they were operating over. My latest picture highlights it by isolating the aircraft over water, but with complementary light on the horizon. 

The guys who had to fly, maintain and live alongside these aircraft in such inhospitable conditions might take a different view but to me, the grit of their endeavours as the battle ebbed and flowed across North Africa only adds to the drama.

You might have seen my picture on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Official) page on Facebook.

My commission was to recreate a particular Spitfire: a Mk IXc, EN152 - QJ-3 as it was coded with No 92 (East India) Squadron in the Desert Air Force. This is the scheme that their IXe, MK356, is going to be repainted to represent - while retaining its very different broad chord rudder and cannon configuration. 

As so often I was working with a fuzzy, black-and-white photograph as the basis for my artwork. But it did mean I knew for sure what the aircraft looked like. Anyone familiar with the tropicalised "lantern jaw" Mk V Spitfires, with the hulking great Vokes dust filters under their chins, might be surprised to find that these Mk IX variants had nothing like that, just the short carburettor air intake tucked under the fuselage.

Their impact on the air warfare was inspirational though. Whereas the Allied pilots had found their mounts completely outclassed by the latest German Me 109 and Fw 190 fighters, they were now right back in the game. 

Having a photograph also meant educated deductions could be made about colours - but a red herring (or should I say, yellow one) had to be dealt with too. 

YELLOW

From what I can glean, 92 Squadron used either red or a sort of blue-grey colour for its identifying letters, QJ, depending on the flight of aircraft. In the photo they were obviously dark, so much so they are all but illegible. Probably red, then. The '3' on the other hand was clearly white.

In Tunisia in the spring of 1943 you might expect the airscrew spinner to have been red. But it very obviously is much darker than the grey shade of the known reds: those in the red, white and blue (and yellow) fuselage roundel and fin flash in the photograph. Almost certainly it was black - or more likely 'night'.

The only caveat was that the photo had no date but there is another photo of another 92 Squadron aircraft,  EN458 (QJ-10) captioned Bou Goubrine, Tunisia, spring 1943, which has the same colouration. 

The yellow herring: the standard C1-type RAF roundel these aircraft wore at this time had a yellow outer circle. The trouble was that in our fuzzy photo there was no sign of it. Had it been omitted for some reason?

In the end I reckoned a more likely explanation was the nature of the film and/or the filtering used in the camera or processing, making the yellow invisible. I soon found other photos of 92 Squadron aircraft in which the same thing had happened - including two photos of one particular aircraft, Squadron Leader Jefferson Wedgewood's Mk V, BR476, both taken in Libya in late 1942. In one of these there is almost no discernible yellow and in the other it is plain as day (albeit in monochrome obviously).

CAMOUFLAGE PATTERN

The overall desert camouflage scheme itself was not something I have had dealings with before. Having looked into the subject, it throws up the old familiar can of worms you get with almost anything about WWII aircraft. A reasonable assumption would be that EN152 had had its desert colours applied at the factory, in what was known as the A fighter scheme.

Yet that very obviously did not fit with what I could see in the photo, and it soon became apparent that various desert schemes were in use: not just the A scheme but with its colours reversed (that is, swapped over - not mirrored, as in the defunct B scheme). The key, as so often, was to have a photo of the aircraft in question. I had one, so I went with what I could see.

For now I am offering a solo portrait of EN152 as QJ-3, depicted over the Gulf of Tunis. It is available in the WWII Fighters gallery on my website, and through authorised print outlets. A bigger picture will follow in due course. 

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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.


Polish 'boxing bulldog' Spitfire TD240

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Artwork © Gary Eason 2017 / Flight Artworks

Colchester, 4 January 2017

Let's get the new year off to a flying start with this new depiction of what is going to be the new paint scheme for the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire TE311.

When eventually their Mk XVI emerges from its repaint it will be sporting the colours of TD240 when it was the aircraft usually flown by the Officer Commanding No 131 (Polish) Wing, Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz VM KW DSO DFC, during the last weeks of the Second World War and into the summer of 1945.

It was common practice among RAF officers of his rank to have their own initials on 'their' aircraft, but his was coded SZ-G as if it were still part of his old unit, 316 Squadron.

It did have his group captain's pennant on the side of the cockpit, and the red and white Polish checkerboard emblem (szachownica lotnicza), with the word POLAND beneath it, on the nose.

But far and away its most striking feature was the colourful boxing bulldog artwork alongside these, the last and largest of similar artworks he had on his various aircraft.

DISNEY

I had been under the impression until I researched this that the "boxing bulldog" - wearing Polish national team colours and a flying helmet - had been created by a member of Gabszewicz's ground crew who was an accomplished boxer.

But the story has been muddied by the existence of another, celebrated and very similar artwork by none other than Walt Disney, of the legendary cartoon studios.

It seems Disney created a boxing bulldog in an almost identical pose, and set up a team that made numerous other insignias, as a contribution to the US war effort - in this case as the emblem for the 62nd Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, as this Luke Air Force Base article shows.

Gabszewicz flew with the 56th on secondment in late 1943/early 1944 when it was suffering from a shortage of pilots.

I cannot say at this stage who first came up with the design. I am sure the BBMF will have the full story in due course.

But another version of the nose art was adopted by No. 135 (Fighter) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force as its emblem.

PREVIOUSLY

I believe TD240 was next flown by Squadron Leader Boleslaw Kaczmarek with of RAF No. 302 (Polish) Squadron, until August 1945, whereupon it was re-coded as WX-V.

Those with longer memories might recall having seen a version of the scheme before on another Spitfire, MH434 operated by the Old Flying Machine Company. It carried a smaller artwork and SZ-G codes for just over a year between 1997 and 1998.

Now the full size, final iteration will be appearing on the same type of airframe as Gabszewicz's original: the Memorial Flight's clipped wing LF Mk XVIe (MH434 is an elliptical wing Mk IX).

I am portraying TD240 as it was in 1945 in this air-to-air depiction; in keeping with their usual practice, I believe TE311 will continue to bear its own serial number. I am sure many other images will follow once the real thing is unveiled later in 2017.

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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 Halifax, the night fighter ace, and the crew that got away

Halifax III above clouds Gary Eason

Colchester, 3 December 2016

My latest picture features a Handley Page Halifax III of 158 Squadron. On the night of 12 May 1944 it headed for a target in Belgium – and did not come back.

But the crew all did, eventually.

The story was not one I knew about when I started making the picture, which is the opposite of how things normally go.

More often than not I am either working on a scene that I have had on my lengthy 'to do' list for a while, or I have been commissioned by a relative or an editor to make a picture focusing on a particular event.

In this case there was a peg of sorts - just a suggestion from someone whose parents were both in 158 Squadron during the Second World War. As she put it, "my dad was with the 'u bend em we mend' group, and mom was a cook in the sergeants' mess".  

In that sense they were not affiliated with any particular aircraft. As I was minded to make a Halifax III anyway I set about browsing my books and the internet for a likely candidate.

By and by I stumbled across HX334, based at RAF Lissett in Yorkshire, which carried the NP-C codes of 158 Squadron.

It was shot down by a Luftwaffe night fighter over Belgium early on 13 May 1944 after bombing the railway yards at Hasselt - one of some 15 attacks on the same target in less than two months, as the Allies attempted to degrade the transport infrastructure in German-occupied Europe ahead of the planned invasion a few weeks later (D-Day, 6 June).

This was not the most successful operation as much of the ordnance apparently landed in adjacent fields and only a few bombs hit the marshalling yards.

Halifaxes formed the majority of the 111 aircraft taking part, and of the losses. Unopposed on the way to and over the target area, the bombers were however harried on the way out.

HX334, piloted by Fl/Sgt John Haydn Evans, was one of three shot down by a Messerschmitt 110, the others being LK883 of 426 Squadron and LV919 of 466 Squadron. Their attacker was not just any night fighter, but that of Oblt Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, recently appointed Gruppenkommandeur IV./NJG 1: the Evans Halifax was I believe his 63rd victim.

Schnaufer would go on to nearly double that number of 'kills' by the end of hostilities in 1945. As an aside, he became a wine merchant after the war until he was seriously injured in France a few years later when his car was hit by a lorry which spilled its cargo of metal gas cylinders. He died from a fractured skull two days later.

On the Hasselt operation the crew of HX334 all took to their parachutes. They were gathered, fed and sheltered by members of the Belgian resistance - a number of whom were subsequently arrested by the Gestapo.

The gunners, both Australians, were picked up by the Germans and became prisoners of war.

The other five, four Brits and a Canadian, all continued to evade capture until the advancing Allied forces swept over them.*

So there you go. It started out as 'just' a portrait of a Halifax. But as we know, every picture tells a story.

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*If you want to know more about the pilot's story there is a book by Greg Lewis called Airman Missing: The True Story of WWII Bomber Pilot John Evans' 114 Days Behind Enemy Lines. Newman Books (April 2008). ISBN: 978-0955869907. Out of print but available secondhand. 

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.


Two new paint schemes for BBMF Lancaster

Avro Lancaster PA474 Gary Eason _DSC2837

Colchester, 23 October 2016

I gather that the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster, PA474, will have not one but two new paint schemes following its winter service.

The left-hand side will be painted as 460 (RAAF) Squadron Lancaster W5005, coded AR-L "Leader", which had nose art of a kangaroo playing bagpipes, indicating the Australian and Scottish backgrounds of one of its crews. (Some sources say this was on JB607 AR-N, but I am reliably informed this is a case of mistaken identity).

The right side will carry the 50 Squadron code letters VN-T, representing the Lancaster flown by FO Douglas Millikin DFC – grandfather of the BBMF's current Officer Commanding, Squadron Leader Andy "Milli" Millikin, on 27 of his first tour of 30 operations.

PA474, the only Lancaster currently still flying on this side of the Atlantic, recently moved from its base at RAF Coningsby to the Aircraft Restoration Company's magnificent newly-opened Stephenson Hangar at Imperial War Museum, Duxford, for a major service, following which the repaint will also be carried out.

The decision on the new colours was confirmed this week and announced at the flight's end-of-season guest dinner by Sqn Ldr Millikin. His grandfather's crew's wireless operator, John Tait, was at the dinner. 

LONG SERVICE

The original Lancaster W5005 completed at least 44 operations while it was with 460 Squadron at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, including four to Italy and four to Berlin, between 1943 and 1944. 

It was then transferred to 550 Squadron, where it kept its nose art but was recoded BQ-N.  It made another 50 trips and was well on its way to becoming one of the rare 'centurions' (more than 100 operations) when it was ditched in the Humber Estuary as it was returning to RAF North Killingholme from an attack on Kiel in August 1944. No-one was injured but the aircraft was lost. 

The Australian War Memorial's collection has a photo of its nose art as it was in August 1943. The chap in the pilot's seat is Flight Lieutenant Alexander Stuart MacWilliam DFC, who was the squadron's gunnery officer: he had no direct connection with the aircraft. 

Australian War Memorial collection PD image UK0396


 

 

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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 on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Spitfire and Heinkel in Battle of Britain running fight

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Colchester, 7 September 2016

It was a day of huge engagements involving hundreds of aircraft, but time and again it broke down into deadly individual aerial combat encounters.

During the Battle of Britain, RAF Fighter Command's ideal was to knock down the German bombers before they got anywhere near their targets. But the next best thing was to knock them down on the way back, so that the aircraft and their crews could not return.

On 15 September 1940 – subsequently known as Battle of Britain Day – the Luftwaffe mounted two massed raids against London's docklands.

The second, and largest, came in the afternoon and was engaged by more than two dozen squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, in charge of No. 11 Group RAF, responsible for the fighter defence of London and southeast England, had thrown everything into the action.

By chance, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill was watching that day in the operations room at RAF Uxbridge. Famously the PM broke his silence to ask: "What other reserves have we?"

"There are none," Park replied.

Despite this onslaught more than 100 German bombers got through to their target areas, to Park's intense annoyance, but the almost complete blanket of cumulus and strato-cumulus clouds meant they could not find them, and bombs were scattered over a wide area of London.

The Heinkels and Dorniers then turned for home. Inevitably some aircraft became separated from their units and began cloud hopping as they made their way back over Kent in an effort to escape attention. They were harried all the way by a succession of RAF squadrons. 

One of the extraordinary features of this kind of fighting was that the Luftwaffe aircraft returned across the Channel sometimes riddled with holes from the .303 rifle calibre ammunition used by the British fighters. But they were not always so lucky.

Repeated attacks

My picture shows one of these running fights. Heinkel He 111 H-1, A1+An of 5./KG 53 based at Lille in France.

Piloted by Fw Kurt Behrendt EKI, it was attacked by numerous Hurricane and Spitfire fighters. The one I have shown is a 66 Squadron Spitfire, X4322, LZ-R, flown as Green 2 in 'B' flight by Flt Lt Robert Oxspring.

In his combat report Oxspring said he made a stern attack, opening fire at 250 yards and closing to 50 yards. He broke right  and carried out a quarter attack following to stern attack on the starboard engine, which started to smoke immediately – the action shown in my picture.

He crossed over again and shot up the other engine, passing through some cloud in the process, and finally running out of ammunition. He watched the Heinkel glide down – left engine eventually stopping, the other trailing smoke – and land at RAF West Malling aerodrome in Kent still under attack by other fighters, some of which also landed there.

The Heinkel slithered to a standstill in a cloud of dust and smoke with two of the five crew dead and two wounded.

Pink bars

You might wonder about the pink bars I have shown on the Heinkel's rudder and wings. Some, but not all, Luftwaffe bombers displayed similar markings in the later part of the Battle of Britain – coinciding with these massed raids, which has prompted the general assumption that they were formation markings of some sort although the subject has exercised historians, who are unsure as to their purpose.

One, two or three white or very often pink bars are described in RAF intelligence reports. The crash report on this Heinkel mentions three vertical pink bars on the rudders but oddly makes no reference to the wings, possibly because they were fire damaged? I say oddly because Oxspring, in his account, referred to the enemy aircraft's camouflage as being "olive green with black crosses, and two square painted panels on top surface of the wings, of a pink colour."

I have had to interpret this in light of other photographic and documentary evidence, and bearing in mind that his report was almost certainly dictated to and typed by someone else so it has that "proceeding in a westerly direction", stilted tone familiar from police witness statements. I have depicted rectangles rather than actual squares, because Heinkels are known to have had these.

One thing that is clear from contemporary photographs is that the markings appear often – though again, not always – to have been hastily applied, with sometimes a lot of overspray around the bands.

Even then, did Oxspring mean two squares on each wing, one on each wing, or two on one wing (and if so, which?). This is a classic case where the destruction of Luftwaffe records at the end of the war leaves us with a mystery. If you know of a German account that explains these markings definitively, I would not be the only one that would very much like to see it.

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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 on Instagram @flight.artworks.


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.

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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 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.

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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 on Instagram @flight.artworks.


Halifax on low-level secret supply drop

Halifax-9U-K-SOE-Norway-Gary-Eason-sm

Colchester, 18 July 2016

All my commissions prove to be interesting one way or another, that is the nature of the subject matter.

I usually learn something along the way, to a greater or lesser extent. Greater, in the case of my most recently finished piece, which depicts a 644 Squadron RAF Halifax Mk III banking left after making a SOE supply drop in Norway on the night of 25 February 1945.

The aircraft, ME967 carrying the squadron codes 9U-K, returned safely to England after a round trip of 10 hours 50 minutes. It was this long journey time that caught my eye when I was asked if I could make a picture by the son of the flight engineer, who was Sgt James McBurney from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.

I reviewed the operations he had been involved with during his time on 644: a mixture of bombing, glider towing and SOE drops. The sheer length of this trip across the North Sea to Norway stuck out, and the mission was rather less than ordinary. So that became the subject. 

SOE was the Special Operations Executive, a secret branch of the British military in WW2 that was tasked with running agents, sabotage and helping resistance movements in enemy-occupied territories. SOE had an uneasy relationship, to put it mildly, with the established armed forces.

The RAF initially objected to having any of its precious aircraft diverted to non-core objectives, especially when they were regarded as disreputably underhand – which of course was the whole point of SOE's work.

Crew's detailed report

Nevertheless by 1945, when this operation took place, co-operation was routine. The operations record book for 644 Squadron, based at RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, noted:

"Nineteen aircraft from Tarrant Rushton took part in SOE operations to Norway, nine aircraft from No. 298 Squadron and ten aircraft from No. 644 Squadron. Of these, 15 aircraft successfully completed their mission and two were unsuccessful owing to no reception in the DZ area."

For information about the DZ - drop zone - I had the benefit of one of the appendices to the squadron records in the National Archives, the crew's "parachute raid report".

In it they recorded having taken off at 1711 (just after 5pm). DZ 60,26,00N  11,07,30E  was identified by "ground reception, as briefed". Unfortunately there is no record of what that was: it might have been lights or even radio communication with the ground.

That location is in a remote wooded area in SE Norway, to the north east of Oslo: on the west shore of Tisjoen lake. The topography is largely low lying. As an aside, I have never been to Norway but from photographs that part of the country is uncannily similar to an area I do know in Minnesota in the USA, where about a third of the population is descended from Nordic immigrants, including about 17% from Norway.

The Halifax dropped 13 containers and 3 packages that night and was over the drop zone from 2143 to 2159 hrs. The approach was made at just 500ft AGL (above ground level) on a course of 330M (330˚ magnetic) at an indicated airspeed of 140mph.

There was no cloud and visibility was excellent. I looked up the Moon's position and it was waxing gibbous at 97.2% - all but full - on a bearing of 162˚ and an elevation of 44˚.

"No hang ups, all chutes opened", the report reads. They returned to base at 0417.

This makes it all sound very straightforward, but in the "Observations" section we see just how dangerous this sort of trip was: the crew watched on their way back as one heavy aircraft was shot down by intense heavy flak over the coast, burning on the sea for two minutes.

The aircraft was a Mk III Halifax with a crew of six: pilot, air bomber, air gunner, navigator, wireless operator and flight engineer. I took this as confirmation that it was one of the Mk III variants that had no mid-upper gun turret.

It is the first time I have completed a Halifax picture and found it a very attractive, purposeful airframe. I intend to reversion this as a more straightforward 'portrait'-type, air-to-air scene, and I am sure other scenarios will follow. As well as learning about the aircraft, its various types and roles, I also read up on SOE and on the development of supply containers and parachutes. 

Next on my plate however is something utterly different. Watch this space.

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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 on Instagram @flight.artworks.