'Crossing the Siegried Line' © by Gary Eason / Flight Artworks
High Wycombe, 31 Jan 2014
These pictures began life at an airshow.
I did not set out with the idea of making a 'Phoney War' picture, let alone two - in fact I knew little about that early period of World War Two.
What triggered the research that led to the pictures' being made was having the beautifully restored Hawker Hurricane P3351 in my camera viewfinder at the Imperial War Museum's 'Flying Legends' airshow at Duxford in July 2013.
This venerable crate has had a remarkably colourful life but is now resplendent in the black/white/bare metal undersides it began with in 1940. One could write a book about the aircraft itself - somebody probably has - but it was the camouflage scheme (if camouflage is quite the word) that piqued my interest.
I knew already - witness the logo I use on social media - that the RAF had some peculiar ideas about how to paint the undersides of its fighter aircraft at the onset of hostilities with Nazi Germany. Captivated by the black and white scheme in my pictures of the Hurricane, I started reading up on its history and that of the two RAF Hurricane squadrons attached to the Advanced Air Striking Force near the Franco-German border, No 1 and No 73.
This led to my learning about the short but remarkable fighting career of Flying Officer Edgar James 'Cobber' Kain of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Kain's squadron, No 73, was based at Rouvres-en-Woëvre, a village about 35 miles from the frontier.
'Finest fighting spirit'
This phase of the war was characterised by aerial skirmishes - which is not to minimise the deadly nature of what the pilots were engaged in. On 2 March 1940, Kain and another pilot (Donald Sewell) gave chase to seven Heinkel bombers but after a few minutes they were pounced on from behind by a pair of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.
What resulted was an action for which Kain was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). The official citation read:
"In March, 1940, while on patrol with another aircraft, Flying Officer Kain sighted seven enemy bombers about 5000 feet above him, and while giving chase well into Germany, he was attacked from behind by an enemy fighter. Showing the finest fighting spirit, this officer out-manoeuvred the enemy and although his own aircraft was badly damaged he succeeded in bringing the hostile aircraft down. Thick smoke and oil fumes had filled his cockpit and although unable to see his compass, he skillfully piloted his aircraft inside Allied lines in spite of being choked and blinded by the smoke."
I wanted to know more about what had happened. At this point let me plug a book: Cobber Kain, by Richard Stowers, a terrific read and a beautifully produced publication with plenty of photographs from the time. I e-mailed Richard in New Zealand with some detailed queries and he was as helpful as he could be in reply.
For example, I knew I needed to tweak the Hurricanes' appearance to restore them to Mk I configuration and earlier roundels. But I was wondering whether I should be rendering them with the early two-bladed props or the three-bladed ones that were being introduced. H
Richard said: "My research tells me Kain was flying L1808, which was a three-blader as Sewell stated he couldn't keep up with Kain because he was flying a two-blader (L1958)."
Cockpit filled with fumes
So back to the story: Kain did not immediately realise that Sewell, with his less powerful airscrew, was no longer keeping station behind him. Glancing back he saw an aircraft where he expected the second Hurricane to be and assumed that was him. He got a rude surprise, as Richard Stowers's book recounts:
"'The next thing I knew was 'wang' and I saw the tip of my wing disappearing into the blue.'"
It had been hit by cannon fire. Kain then realised that Sewell had already been shot down (he managed to land safely - in my picture you can just see him far below, trailing white vapour).
Kain was now in a twisting dogfight with the two 109s. Eventually he was able to fire "a longish burst from behind" into one of them, sending it down in black smoke. But the other got on his tail and blew a big hole in his Hurricane's engine - sending oil all over the windscreen and fumes into the cockpit.
He tried to chase the 109 as it flew past him but had lost engine power. He expected his foe "to come back and teach me to play the harp" - but for whatever reason, perhaps lack of ammunition, he did not.
So there was Kain, far behind enemy lines with a dead engine and a cockpit filling with smoke. He opened the canopy to jump out - but realised his parachute harness had come off his shoulder.
So he got back in and, incredibly, glided some 30 miles to Metz aerodrome where he made a force landing. He clambered out of the badly damaged Hurri - and promptly collapsed, to be rescued by some French soldiers.
Quite a tale, and that is was I decided to make a picture about. Happily I had in my collection of cloudscapes a suitable background photo taken in roughly the same area and altitude.
I also had a lower level photo of the French countryside for the other picture in this sequence. This began as a sketch about events on 26 March when there was a bigger aerial combat - during which Kain, with shrapnel in his leg, did bale out of his burning aircraft:
You can see how this overlaps with the finished item at the top of the page. But in playing around with compositions I had already decided that I really liked the effect of a 'vic' cluster of the black and white Hurricanes - reminding me for all the world of a shoal of tropical fish we used to have in a tank when I was a child:
'Rising to the challenge' © by Gary Eason / Flight Artworks
So rather than carve out a dogfight I thought I would show the beginnings of the action, and that is how the second picture came to be made.
Soon Eddie Kain had notched up five aerial victories becoming the RAF's first "ace" of the war, feted in the British newspapers and interviewed on the BBC.
In May the Battle of France began. Kain rapidly achieved further combat successes and his total had risen to 17 when, exhausted, he was ordered back to England in early June.
Kain said his farewells to his squadron but as he was leaving decided to do some low-level aerobatics over the airfield. He slammed into the ground doing a third flick roll, was flung out of his exploding Hurricane and killed outright.
He was a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday.
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