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April 2016

Downed in the Channel: Kanalkrankheit played out

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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. 


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? 


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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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.


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 bridge
Tower Bridge in 1968. Photo courtesy of Aletha Huston

In 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.


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Work in progress screenshots

An 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 _DSC7329
Modern view (2016)

The 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 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:

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).