Nose Art

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:

08May-Canberra 026

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.[1]

“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: cd file 164

Here’s a Disney character: cd file 150

And where else could these pilots be from but Australia?cd file 291

cd file 181

(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.

Witness JO-J Jumpin’ Jive, showing a man playing a file 073

Or JO-N Nick the Nazi Neutralizer, with a grinning devil. Vol XI Pt1 137

Piratical Pete, below a skull and crossbones motif, was JO-P. cd file 120

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.


[1] Available at:

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

B for Baker in print

About five years ago now, I commissioned aviation artist and friend of mine Steve Leadenham to paint me a picture of B for Baker sitting at its dispersal as its crew arrived for an operation. I’d just moved to Melbourne when it was completed and I remember driving all the way to Sydney and back one weekend to pick it up.

As well as the original oil painting (which is hanging on my living room wall as I type), this imagined image of B for Baker and her crew graces several walls around the world in the form of high-quality archival prints. It’s also available in the form of 21x15cm greeting cards. Both the prints and the cards are produced by Steve in-house.

I liked the cards so much that I ordered a small supply of them and they have been winging their way to people who have helped my research all over Australia and the world ever since. But with the number of new people I’ve met recently, I was starting to run out, so I asked Steve to send me some more. He did – and told me a nice little story to go along with them.

About a year ago he was at the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre in Castle Hill in Sydney’s north-west, exhibiting some of his work during one of the centre’s open days. Also exhibiting there were representatives from the Australian Aviation Museum at Bankstown Airport. They evidently liked Steve’s work, because they suggested putting some of his prints and cards into their shop. They preferred his historical scenes (like this one, this one and this one), and that, of course, included B for Baker.

Steve says it took a while to actually happen, but the long and the short of it is that cards and prints featuring my painting of B for Baker can now be purchased in the shop at the Australian Aviation Museum. Sales, Steve says, have been steady (though not in particularly large numbers) ever since.

Apart from the basic reason that I didn’t (and still don’t) have a confirmed photo of B for Baker, I originally commissioned the painting to act, if you like, as my own little memorial and tribute to my great uncle Jack and his Lancaster crew. So I made sure when Steve first proposed putting the image onto prints and cards that we included some information about the crew and the aircraft below the image or, in the case of the card, inside the top flap. So anyone who likes the cards or prints enough to buy one from the museum will have at least the very basic details of who the men were and what happened to them.  Who knows, maybe they’ll even search online and find this little blog.

Getting the story out there.

Ensuring that those seven men – and all the rest who served with Bomber Command – are never, ever forgotten.

That’s why we do it.


These prints and cards are also available direct from the artist. Contact Steve through his website

© 2015 Adam Purcell


The Crew of B for Baker

lancaster_7-little1 copy

The crew of LM475 B for Baker, an Avro Lancaster Mk III of 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, arrive on dispersal at RAF Waddington on the evening of 11 April 1944. Their target is Aachen in Germany.

The crew is made up of seven men: Pilot S/L DPS Smith, Navigator W/O RW Purcell, Flight Engineer Sgt KH Tabor, Bomb Aimer Sgt J Parker, Wireless Operator F/Sgt AD Johnston, Mid-Upper Gunner Sgt ER Hill and Rear Gunner F/Sgt GF Pate. One month after the Aachen raid, B for Baker failed to return from an operation to Lille, France. Of these seven men, only the pilot would survive.

This painting, by aviation artist Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator. It serves as a tribute to these seven men – but also to the 125,000 who also served in Bomber Command during WWII. The story of how this project developed can be read in the archives of SomethingVeryBig. Click here.

High-quality 80x40cm archival reproductions of this painting are now available for purchase direct from the artist at the rate of AUD45.00, plus postage to anywhere in the world.

For details on how you can obtain your own copy of this very special image, contact Steve directly through his website:

mg_8215_1 copy

See more of Steve’s work at

Painting Complete!

Here is the completed painting, now framed and hanging on my wall. I reckon it looks pretty damn fine:

painting-007 copy

Avro Lancaster LM475 PO-B for Baker, of 467 Sqn RAAF, sits on its dispersal at RAF Waddington on 11 April 1944. Its crew has just arrived for a bombing raid on the German city of Aachen.

This painting serves as a tribute to the crew of this aircraft:

S/L DPS Smith

W/O RW Purcell

Sgt KH Tabor

Sgt J Parker

F/Sgt AD Johnston

Sgt ER Hill

F/Sgt GF Pate

These men were shot down in this aircraft on an operation to Lille, France, on 10 May 1944. Only the pilot, Phil Smith, survived.

The painting, by Steve Leadenham, was specially commissioned by Adam Purcell, the great nephew of the navigator.

Steve advises that prints of this painting will be available in the future – details on how to get one will be posted here in due course.


Another update from Steve:

lancaster_7 copy

The crew are gaining some definition. There is even the hint of a ‘flare chute’ inside the door to the Lancaster. The saucepan shape of the dispersal pan is beginning to take shape. And you’ll see that the bicycle has arrived, leaning against some oil drums.

The bike is an important part of the story. I have documentary evidence that at least Phil Smith and Gil Pate had bicycles that they acquired during their time at training units. The RAF bicycle was ubiquitous around airfields – used to get around the sprawling sites, where accommodation could be a couple of miles from the mess, the briefing room and of course the dispersals. A great pile of bicycles outside a pub in the nearby village was a sure sign that aircrew would be inside.

There’s a personal connection as well – a bicycle has been my primary mode of transport around Sydney for the last five or six years, and my bike has come to define me almost as much as my flying does. So I thought a bicycle would be a nice personal touch to make the painting ‘mine’.

It is now very close to completion – hopefully I’ll be able to pick up the finished painting when I drive to Sydney next weekend.


”For me it is a strange emotional feeling to hold this knife considering where it has been and also the fact that it was a prized possession of my father when he was just 21 years old.”

-Clive Rattray, son of Lieutenant Kenneth Rattray, a Rat of Tobruk, on being handed his father’s wartime knife. From a story in the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2010 (link:

The knife in question had been lost for nearly 70 years. Lt Rattray carried it – a simple pocket knife, engraved with his name and his service history – through the Siege of Tobruk, then through Bougainville and to Darwin in 1943, when it disappeared. It turned up in, of all places, an English cinema some years later. It then disappeared again, before being found in an old suitcase in Kent in the house of the cinema’s former usher. The family of the usher was intrigued by the inscription on the knife and set about tracing its real owner – until, finally, just a few weeks ago, the knife was returned to Lt Rattray’s son.

It’s the story of the knife – seeing action in two major theatres of WWII, then its unlikely journey to England and its equally improbable return to Australia – that makes it so special. On its own, it’s ‘just another knife’, albeit one engraved with faint letters. But knowing its intriguing history somehow gives it extra meaning. It adds a human element to an otherwise unremarkable inanimate object.

I was reminded of this story when I visited the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre in Castle Hill in north-west Sydney for one of their recent monthly Open Days. I went along and enjoyed a tour of the warehouse – an esoteric collection of fantastic and fascinating objects covering Australia’s technological history.

Among the collections in the warehouse were a number of models of biplanes. They had been built, we were told by our guide, by a young man with a keen interest in aeronautics in the 1920s. The man later followed his dreams of flight, joined the RAF and flew fighters in WWII. He was shot down and disappeared over Crete. Many years later his son found some limited information about where his father was buried. He visited the island armed with only some bare facts – but he managed to find someone who was there when his father was shot down. Someone who, in fact, had sat with his father while he took his last breaths. It was a special moment for the son when the old man led him to the gravestone under which his father lay.

A very special story, then. Knowing the story of the man who built them gives the models something extra. It raises them above the wood, wire and fabric of which they were built. Like the Tobruk knife, they are otherwise ordinary objects that become representative of something more.

Incidentally, Steve Leadenham had a small stand in the main foyer at the Powerhouse and was displaying some of his work – which offered a chance to see the Lancaster painting in the flesh, so to speak. Steve was talking to a small group of people at his stand when I arrived back from the tour. The Lancaster was there too, on his easel. Underneath the canvas there was a small palette with smears of paint and a brush – evidently he had been doing a little ‘touch-up’ work. We talked for some time about the painting, the Lancaster and the men who flew it. Steve’s wife Glenda took a photo of Steve and I with the painting:

mg_6586-copy_1 copy

Encouragingly, Steve reported some good interest in the painting from some of the people who had wandered through. Some even asked about the possibility of getting a print of it. I was happy to hear that – it means that the story of B for Baker and her crew won’t be forgotten.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Seven Crew


Here’s Steve’s latest update on the Lancaster. You’ll see our missing seventh crewman has been painted in, sitting on a kitbag. Steve says that at this stage he looks like he’s searching for something on the ground. The kitbag gives him away – it must be the navigator, who could usually be recognised by the large bag of maps and instruments he had to carry to and from the aircraft. Other changes in this update include a bit more definition in the shadows on the aircraft and some grass that has appeared in the foreground. Click on the image to enlarge:

little-lancaster_5 copy

I’m not sure how that seventh crew member got there, his bicycle isn’t evident yet… but Steve tells me it’s coming!

 This post was edited for clarity on 31 October 2010. Meanwhile, I’m now in Melbourne and, happily, I have internet access again. So, pending job commitments, posting on this blog should from now on be back to what passes for its usual schedule.

I hate moving.

I’m in the middle of moving house interstate…  so everything’s all packed up and, mostly, in Mum and Dad’s garage. This morning I took down the B707 print from my wall… and so the flat is now looking rather depressing.

To cheer myself up, here’s the next update from Steve…

I’ve made some progress and a few revisions (see attached).  I decided the vast expanse of concrete was all rather too much and have resorted to the same fudge used in so many “dispersal” paintings – mud and grass and tyre ruts leading into the picture.  Still a lot to do there but you get the idea.  The GPU is there with an attending erk but not quite at the plugging in stage – I need to suggest the lead though. 

little-lancaster_41 copy

We have propellers! We have more Lancasters! We have an erk! We have a battery cart! We have (crucially) an entrance door into the aeroplane! We have… erm… (one, two, three, four, five, six) six crew!

Perhaps the seventh airman is pedalling furiously from the ops block on his bicycle…

What Steve Did Next

Oh ok then. Here is another update from Steve’s studio:

Some more progress for you.  We probably need to start thinking about the guy working on the engine, the bike, etc.  I’m still looking to include one or two distant Lancs dispersed around the airfield.  Lots still to do, especially in the foreground.


lancaster_3-blog copyThe crew themselves are starting to appear, and the truck that brought them to the aeroplane is hanging around in the background. As for the erk working on an engine, I’m starting to think that a workstand might ‘clutter’ the scene a little too much, so I’m thinking of a few other options that will get him into the scene but not take over too much…

But looking good, no?