Picture the scene:
Just after 7pm, 11 April, 1944. The sun is about an hour and a half from setting and the light is the beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening. Lancaster B for Baker is sitting on dispersal, one of many scattered around the countryside surrounding the runways at RAF Waddington. An engine fitter stands on a scaffold, finishing off some work on the fiddly bits of one of the four Merlin engines. His bicycle leans against a main wheel beneath him. The Lancaster’s belly is open – earlier in the afternoon, armourers had hoisted 13 1,000lb medium-capacity bombs into its racks. A truck has just dropped off the Lancaster’s crew. They clamber from the tailgate and stand around, cracking bad jokes to ward off the gnawing tension that’s been there ever since they found out where they were headed tonight. Aachen.
While this is an imagined description, it is I hope not too far from what happened on that night in the spring of 1944 for Jack Purcell, Phil Smith and the rest of their crew. I don’t have a photo of Jack’s aeroplane – Lancaster LM475, PO-B for Baker – so this is my concept for a painting of it.
On my living room wall is a framed print of this picture:
The artist is a man named Steve Leadenham, and he happens to be a friend of mine. Steve did a series on VH-XBA, the first ever Qantas jet, and the story of its restoration to flight and eventual return to Australia a few years ago. I particularly liked this one so I got him to organise a print for me. Plug alert – have a look at www.leadenham.com for the rest of the series.
Steve grew up around South Yorkshire in England and as a youngster used to explore some of the old bomber bases that are scattered around that part of the world. As he said when I asked him to do a painting of Jack’s aeroplane for me, “it’s inevitable I will get round to a Lancaster sooner or later!” We’re at the stage now of throwing ideas around to see what we can come up with.
The general concept, as described above, is fairly simple – but what details to include or otherwise are more difficult to determine. I don’t, for example, know what if any nose art the aeroplane carried. This we can get around by positioning the aeroplane so that the port nose section – where any nose art would be found – is not facing the viewer, to keep alive the possibility of it being there should we discover a photograph some time in the future. Should the starboard aircraft and squadron code letters – either side of the fuselage roundel – be PO-B, or should they be B-PO? Should the code letters be outlined in yellow (which appears a 5 Group standard)? Should the nose carry a small “PO” by the bomb aimer’s blister (which appears on photos of many but, infuriatingly, not all, Waddington Lancasters)? Should the flaps be up or down? Should the bomb doors be open or closed? What sort of propellers did the aeroplane have – ‘needle’ or ‘paddle’? Did it carry the H2S blister under the fuselage?
These are difficult questions to pin down with any certainty. I’ve used as many photos as I can find of Waddington aircraft – the Waddington Collection from Phil Bonner is invaluable here – and I’ve asked a few ‘experts’, on the Lancaster Archive Forum and in other places, about aircraft configuration. So I can make a few educated guesses: I’ve asked Steve to paint the aeroplane with the bomb doors open (because they were hydraulically operated so would be left open prior to bombing up, and closed following engine start), with the yellow outlined codes and the smaller PO on the nose (basis the fuselage of ‘Old Fred’ in the IWM in London – which was on squadron at the same time – and numerous Waddington Collection photos), and with H2S blister and needle props (basis a photo of LM550, which came off the same production line). This is all based on educated guesses and may be incorrect but at this stage it’s as close as I can get.
In an effort to be as ‘plausible’ as I can, the Aachen operation of 11 April 1944 is one on which the crew actually flew, in LM475. The bomb load was indeed 13 thousand-pounders. The bicycle represents those that I know were owned by Phil Smith and Gil Pate. The idea of the “beautiful golden colour of a mid-Spring evening” is not entirely made up either. On 14 April 1944 – a few days after this raid – Gil Pate wrote to his mother:
“Weather here now beautiful sunny days + long hours of daylight, which we make the most of.”
On the Aachen raid they took off at 2016. According to the Australian Geoscience website calculator, sunset at Waddington was at 1850 GMT, which would be 2050 local given the Double British Summer Time in use throughout the war – or about half an hour after the aircraft took off. So the crew would have arrived at the aircraft an hour and a half or so before sunset, and based on Gil’s letter it’s a good bet that weather conditions were pleasant at the time.
The whole idea is to have something that makes a fitting memorial to the crew. It might not be ‘spot on’ accurate but hopefully it will be based at least partly on plausible facts. Rest assured I’ll keep you updated as Steve progresses.
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell