It’s quite uncommon to get artwork on aeroplanes these days. ‘Nose art’ usually conjures up visions of pin-ups, bomber jackets and B-17s. Ahh yes, the old Memphis Belle effect: clearly Hollywood has a lot to answer for.
But of course, painting (usually) scantily-clad women onto aeroplanes is not the sole preserve of the USAAF or Hollywood’s interpretation of it. I once flew a light aeroplane that had some rather alarming airbrushed artwork on the tail:
VH-RWK was a somewhat older Cessna 182Q, with a great big two-bladed propeller which gave it a distinctive sound in the air. It had sheepskin seat covers and was a very comfortable aeroplane to fly. But then, one night in September 2009, for reasons that were never determined, the aeroplane caught alight and burnt to the ground. All that was left? That tail with the scary witch!
Poor old RWK was an exception though. It’s far more common to find nose art on military aircraft, and particularly vintage military aircraft. And it turns out that there’s a fair bit of interest in the phenomenon. I even found an academic paper about it: Caitlin McWilliams (2010), Camaraderie, Morale and Material Culture: Reflections on the Nose Art of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force, Canadian Military History: Vol. 19: Iss. 4, Article 3.
“Airmen were notoriously superstitious, and nose art became part a distinct “bomber culture” of good luck charms and rituals, the emblazoned designs linking the entire crew with their aircraft,” McWilliams writes. This link, she says, extended to the groundcrew assigned to each aircraft – and it was frequently the ground staff who actually got up on a ladder and did the painting. Indeed, some squadrons might have been blessed with a particularly talented artist among their ground staff who henceforth did all the nose art. 61 Squadron pilot John Boland, in an interview in the Australians at War Film Archive, described the man who painted his aircraft: a “little short artist” named Webb who created a classic nude-reclining-with-bomb in such detail that the CO “made him put a towel over her”!
“Nose art showcasing pin-up girls and other risqué subjects are most prominent, followed by designs which feature Walt Disney characters”, McWilliams writes. “More interestingly,” she continues, “many of the designs signal ties to Canada, sometimes through national symbols but also in more subtle ways.”
Not surprisingly similar patterns can be seen coming out of the nominally Australian units. The following images are all from The Waddington Collection, a series of photo albums which trace the ‘official’ history of RAF Waddington at war. There’s the pin-up girl:
(I think my favourite part of this one is the beer mugs used to denote completed ops)
In many cases the characters used in nose art were inspired in some way by the code letters assigned to the aircraft.
All of which raises a question.
What, if any, nose art was on B for Baker?
Nose art being what it is, it is necessarily temporary. “By its nature, nose art is adaptable and accommodating, there when airmen need it but gone as soon as the conflict is finished,” says McWilliams. Many of the Lancasters depicted here were lost during the war, in action or accident. And even those that survived the conflict didn’t survive their subsequent encounters with the scrap man. And so out of all the artwork in the photos in this post, nothing – not a single bit – survives in its original form. All we have are those photographs. And, as you’ll have heard me whining about for quite some time now, of B for Baker there isn’t even one of those.
In short, there’s a reason that my painting of the aircraft shows its starboard side. Any nose art, should any have existed, would traditionally appear on the port side (under the pilot’s side window). By orienting the aircraft the way we did, we leave open the possibility that should a photograph float out of a dusty box somewhere and prove one way or the other that B for Baker did or didn’t have nose art, my painting won’t be wrong.
But it’s probably likely that, even if I do find that magical photograph one day in the future, it will show an unadorned space below the pilot’s window. Phil Smith wrote a letter to his mother in July 1942 from the Operational Training Unit in Honeybourne, Worcestershire, where he was an instructor between his operational tours. When he was second pilot during the first part of his tour on Wellingtons, he wrote, the captain, a man named Taffy Jones, had a boomerang painted on the side of the aeroplane. But…
“I never went in for emblems however, always feeling superstitious about them”
And as it would appear that it was the captain’s call about what, if anything, was painted on their aeroplanes, there’s a good chance that Phil’s superstitions carried through to his second tour and B for Baker did not have nose art.
(c) 2015 Adam Purcell