Travel

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.


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).

Head in the clouds


 Ah, the magic of flight

One of the most important keywords in my catalogue of working pictures is "cloudscape". Searching on that term produces hundreds of images. 

Most - though not all (as we shall see) - are taken from on board aircraft. Yes fellow passengers, I am that sad soul who craves a window seat, preferably in front of the blurring hot exhaust from the engines, and spends much of the journey clicking the shutter button, pathetically trying to shade the lens against the reflections from the double windows. 

You might think I was mildly deranged; you probably would not think that I was working. But for me each flight is a photo opportunity and really there is no such thing as a bad view - in fact ironically, good weather can be the least rewarding.

I am talking about the backdrops for my aviation artworks. The air is the element in which I operate. The more altitudes and angles I have available, the better. Anywhere that passes for southern England, France or Germany is at a premium.

On the rare occasions that an airliner tilts to the side to any appreciable degree, revealing the landscape tableau below, I am in a frenzy. That said, it can mean a long stint in Photoshop getting rid of polytunnels, bright yellow rape fields, motorways and white vans in farmyards - I think I have complained about this before. 

It's all about the light

When I first began making the pictures I was severely constrained by the available canvases and had to confine myself to subjects that fitted what I had in store. Increasingly though it is the other way round.

If I need (say) largely clear air at 20,000ft over the Franco-German border, chances are I have it. I have a growing range of cloudforms and weather moods and it is not too much of a twist to layer these where necessary - combining and blending to build up the sky.

As always the light is the key. If it is supposed to be midday then long shadows are out; flatly lit white clouds at day's end just look wrong. While some tweaking is possible, it is a very uphill struggle to repaint an entire sky so it has to be more-or-less right to begin with. 

Situations now arise where I come back with a haul of skies and cannot wait to get stuck in. A recent trip to Edinburgh (for the Fringe) was a classic example - see video above. Such riches, there and back! I can become almost paralysed for fear I might waste a splendid slab of upper air on an inferior composition. 

Happily, it often works the other way round and an available cloudscape prompts a picture. And it does not have to have been taken up above. My latest creation uses a sky that I shot when squally rain was about to stop play at a 'bagels and baseball' knockabout in the park with some American friends. 

I have used it in a day-for-night way. I'll leave you with ... Bomber's Moon: 

Lancasters-at-night-FB

From elsewhere: Discussion of rules regarding photos on commercial flights