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

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 20.47.36

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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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.


EXCLUSIVE: Two new paint schemes for BBMF Lancaster

Avro Lancaster PA474 Gary Eason _DSC2837

Colchester, 23 October 2016

EXCLUSIVE: 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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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

The-chase-Gary-Eason-_DSC9326-sm

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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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. 

Footnote:

* 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. 

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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.


Downed in the Channel: Kanalkrankheit played out

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.36.46

Colchester, 12 April 2016

The English Channel can make for some delightful sailing on a balmy summer's day, as it was when I shot the background for this latest headline image: Bf109 down in the Channel. I'm not sure I would want to swim far in it though. 

As so often the picture is one I have had in my mind's eye for some time, and in fact I began it ages ago and have been playing around with variations on the theme. 

Finally I had a little time between commissions to complete it. I lit and posed the 109 specifically for this scenario, while the Hurricane overhead is an adaptation of a photo that I had on file but had not used before: the lighting on it was just right already. 

As you can see this is one of my 'generic' images: the aircraft are not identified and I have not in this case researched a specific operation, but they stand for those that saw daily combat during the summer of 1940. 

TO PARACHUTE OR NOT

It prompted me to revisit things I had read about the horrors of the Channel for Luftwaffe fighter pilots in particular, obliged to operate at the limits of their fuel range when attacking Britain.

The Germans called it Kanalkrankheit: Channel sickness, a condition that could spawn a range of reasons for returning to base rather than having to cross the miles of water between France and England with the ever-present risk that you would not make it back. 

Come the following year of course the tables began to be reversed, driving the widespread adoption of long-range drop tanks by Allied air forces to extend their fighters' reach onto the Continent. 

I vacillated for a time on the inclusion of the parachute: has the German pilot escaped certain doom or not? In the end I have shown him having bailed out, but now descending for a swim.

Later advice to such pilots from the veteran fighter leader Adolf Galland was to stay in the aircraft and ditch it if necessary, because you would then have an inflatable life raft for some protection from the elements – but obviously that works only if the aircraft is still capable of a controlled splashdown. In this case, with the hydraulics shot up and one of the undercarriage legs deployed, it would not be an option. 

So the pilot had to jettison the canopy, unstrap himself and jump out. Incidentally, I keep seeing references online to aircrew "ejecting" from WW2 aircraft. Maybe it is just sloppy use of English. Do some people really think they had ejector seats? 

CONTROVERSY

What might happen next opens up a host of other possibilities. Assuming the pilot is not too badly hurt he might last in the water for a time. Would he be picked up? If so, by which side? 

The Germans, certainly in 1940, had a far more organised air-sea rescue operation or Seenotdienst. In comparison the British response was lamentable: to begin with there was no organised rescue service. 

As an aside, British standing orders (Air Ministry Bulletin 1254) were that all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed on sight. The Germans protested this was a violation of the Geneva Convention on recognising military field ambulances and ships. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill later justified the policy on the basis that rescued pilots might come back and bomb British civilians again. 

Even in the height of summer the temperature of the water makes survival highly time dependent. Even if a pilot were picked up he might succumb to 'secondary drowning': collapsing later. 

All sobering thoughts for a sailor like myself, and one of the reasons yacht crews practise "man overboard" drills so everyone knows immediately what to do in an emergency. That was something I was grateful for when I went over the bow 35 miles south of the Irish coast on a crossing from the Scilly Isles. But that's another story. 

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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.


Seven seconds: the Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter incident

Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge Gary Eason sm

Colchester, 5 April 2016

Just after midday on 5 April 1968 RAF pilot Alan Pollock, senior operational flight commander on No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron, flew Hawker Hunter FGA.9 jet XF442 through the span of Tower Bridge in London. The unauthorised action - which cost him his air force career - was part of a personal protest against the RAF's decision not to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a flypast over the capital.

While en route from RAF Tangmere in West Sussex to his squadron's home airfield at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk, Flt Lt Pollock flew into central London, circled the Houses of Parliament three times – carefully avoiding the 387 feet tall (118 metre) Millbank Tower – then headed down the River Thames at very low level.

Tower bridge Hawker Hunter BW detail Gary EasonHe said afterwards that it was only as the "matronly structure" of the world's most famous bridge loomed ahead that the irresistible idea of going straight through the middle of it occurred to him.

As he approached he could see that the crossing traffic included a double decker bus. He kept as close as he dared to the upper walkways – which were not open to the public in those days – and for a heart-stopping moment thought the Hunter's tail fin was going to collide. Happily it did not, and he continued downriver and back to base.

When he landed he was arrested, and was retired from the RAF a few months later on medical grounds: denied a court martial at which he could have presented his case.

I liaised with Alan Pollock while making the picture. Initially I had placed his Hunter in the centre of the gap. He insisted however that it was much closer to the top.

He estimated his airspeed at 350 knots (403 mph, 591 feet per second, 180 m/sec), and got out a map of central London to calculate that it would have taken just seven seconds for the jet to travel through Tower Bridge from when the thought of doing it first struck him, as he approached London Bridge further upstream.

I imagine that if it happened tomorrow any number of smartphone videos would be online within minutes and some people would even manage 'selfies'. Then, however, if anybody did capture his escapade on any sort of film it has not emerged that I am aware of. I could not resist making a Flight Artworks version, showing the Hunter in scale with the bridge (and the bus), as if photographed at 1/4000 sec on a high resolution digital camera.

RE-MAKING HISTORY

The most complex aspect of making the picture was reconstructing Tower Bridge as it was in 1968. For one thing, its metalwork did not acquire its now-familiar red, white and blue colours until the Queen's Silver Jubilee in the 1970s. Various online sources, including the official Tower Bridge website, say that before then it was chocolate brown.

Aletha Huston 1521 tower bridgeIn fact on the outside it was grey. That is apparent from archive photographs – including this one supplied by an American relative of mine that was taken in 1968 – and was confirmed to me by historical paint consultant Patrick Baty, who worked on the most recent complete analysis and restoration of the paintwork.

Structurally the biggest difference by far is to the upper walkways. When the bridge was built in the 1890s these were intended for pedestrians to use when the bascules were raised as they were frequently then. But they were essentially a metal lattice open to the elements, rarely saw any legitimate use, and were closed off in 1910.

They stayed that way until 1982, when the visitor exhibit inside Tower Bridge was opened. They were then opened again to pedestrians, having had roofing, glazing and ornamental parapets added. I have rebuilt them as they appeared before the remodelling, when they also did not have the big crests that adorn their outward faces.

POLLUTION

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.53.16An unpleasant environmental fact of early 20th Century architecture in London is that it was absolutely filthy – so black with pollution that I struggled to make the present pristine structure look revolting enough. In an odd contrast the pointed tops of the two towers, which are now clean stone, were painted white at the time and I have tried to portray that.

The finials were a later addition so I have removed them. And numerous other details have changed, such as the signal posts for river traffic.

Winding back the clock on The Photographer's Ephemeris gave me the direction and inclination of the sun at noon on the day in question. The Thames of course is noticeably tidal: I consulted the Port of London Authority on the state of the river at the time. The very helpful Port Hydrographer, John Pinder, hindcasted for me that there was an average low water at 1240 that day of 1.3m; at noon the tide was still ebbing, with a height of 1.5m.

Tower Bridge now Gary Eason _DSC7329The weather was described by Pollock himself as "one of those rare perfect, 8/8 Gordon's, crystal, gin clear days when all the colours shout out brightly", with not a breath of wind and no clouds: call it artistic licence but I left in the little puffs of cloud that were around when I made my background photograph because they gave a sense of depth to the sky, and in fact the Met Office's archive suggests there was some scattered low cloud over west London.

I felt it needed this once all the City skyscrapers that now form the bridge's backdrop had been painted out. From the low angle viewpoint across the river there really would have been nothing much visible beyond the bridge apart from the Tower of London.

Finally the London Transport Museum customer services assistant Katy Green kindly unearthed the bus timetables for that day. The red double-decker Pollock saw heading south over the bridge as he flashed above it would have been either a 78 or a 42, and probably a Routemaster. I opted for the 78, as a tribute to "the bus that jumped the bridge" in the previous decade. But that's another story.

So there you have it: the Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter incident.

Prints are available in various formats via the Jet Age gallery on the Flight Artworks website at www.flightartworks.com. Licensing enquiries are welcome. 

You can hear the whole story from Alan Pollock himself in a lengthy interview in the Imperial War Museum's collection: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80027439

Some statistics:

  • Tower Bridge is 800 ft (240 m) long overall with two towers 213 ft (65 m) high. The central span is 200 ft (61 m) between the towers, with a height from the road deck to the upper walkways of 141 ft (43 m). The width of the towers is 60 ft (18.3 m).
  • The Hawker Hunter FGA.9 was 45 ft 11 in (14 m) long with a wingspan of 33 ft 8 in (10.3 m): one sixth the width of the gap between the towers.
  • A London Transport Routemaster was 14 ft 4 in high (4.4 m).